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Never underestimate the resilience of the western European state system. Never underestimate, either, the deeply ingrained European traditions of political compromise and horse-trading that follow an inconclusive election result.
Such are two pertinent lessons to be drawn from Sunday’s election in the restive northern Spanish region of Catalonia. This was the most important test so far, in Europe’s debt crisis and recession, of the readiness of a politically mature but economically hard-pressed electorate to embrace a project as radical as separatism.
Right up to election day, opinion polls indicated strong support across Catalonia for a referendum on independence, an idea flatly ruled out by the central government in Madrid. However, with Catalonia’s economy hit no less hard than other regions by the bursting of Spain’s property and construction bubble, banking sector crisis and emergency austerity measures, it was clear that the economic climate would weigh just as heavily as secession on voters’ minds.
In the end, the election delivered an outcome that keeps alive the possibility of a referendum – but without making it a certainty, or in any way increasing the likelihood of Spain’s break-up. Parties that favour a referendum won 87 of the Catalan legislature’s 135 seats, but to depict the result in this way is to obscure two important points.
In the first place, the centre-right government in Madrid regards a referendum on independence as illegal under Spain’s 1978 constitution. Sunday’s election result did not endorse Catalan separation from Spain explicitly enough to force Mariano Rajoy, prime minister, into revising his determination not to yield ground on the constitutional principle at stake.
In the second place, the Catalan parties that back a referendum are far from united among themselves, especially on fiscal and economic policy. Some are pro-business conservatives, others are anti-austerity leftists. It is doubtful that the independence issue will glue them together solidly enough over time to make their other differences irrelevant.
In short, it is difficult to interpret the result as anything other than a setback to Convergència i Unió (CiU), Catalonia’s ruling centre-right party, and to Artur Mas, its leader. To call a snap election, and then to see his party’s representation in the 135-member legislature fall to 50 seats from 62, is a defeat that calls into question the political judgment of the Catalan president.
Now the second biggest party in the regional parliament is Esquerra Republicana, a leftist party which doubled its representation to 21 seats. ER is anything but a natural bedfellow of CiU. On independence it is a distinctly more militant party. On economic policy it takes a populist, anti-capitalist line that places it miles apart from the sober-minded CiU.
Yet Mr Mas can hardly seek to govern Catalonia with the support of the Partido Popular, the centre-right party that holds power at national level and took 19 seats in the regional election. On economic policy the CiU and PP share similar views. But on the referendum issue they have absolutely nothing in common.
Mr Mas has no choice but to go in search of compromises – both to give Catalonia stable government over the forthcoming four-year legislature, and to forge a secure relationship with Madrid. One should bear in mind that Mr Mas, for most of his political career, has not been a full-blooded separatist. He did not jump on the bandwagon of Catalan independence until a few months ago.
Even now one has the impression that he would gratefully settle for a deal under which Madrid extended more fiscal autonomy to Catalonia, in an arrangement already enjoyed by the Basque Country and Navarre. If he so chose, Mr Mas could surely defuse the referendum issue by holding a non-binding consultation that endorsed a call for more self-government along these lines.
This would, of course, require the tacit co-operation of Mr Rajoy, who would have to give Mr Mas private assurances that he had no intention of hanging the Catalan leader out to dry. Right now it must be tempting for Mr Rajoy just to sit back and await developments in Catalonia. After all, the election has not given his opponents a mandate for the aggressive pursuit of Catalan secession.
Equally important, Catalonia’s economic challenges remain as formidable today as they were before the election: the region has no access to international bond markets, has the highest debt level of all Spain’s regions, and needed to turn to Madrid earlier this year for a €5bn financial lifeline.
All these vulnerabilities play in Mr Rajoy’s favour. But the wiser, more statesman-like course would be to set to work immediately on a settlement of Catalonia’s grievances that keeps the region inside Spain but removes the rancour surrounding its status.
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