December 15, 2013 9:28 pm
Last week, parties representing nearly two-thirds of Catalonia’s parliament called a referendum on independence, tilting Spain towards full-blooded constitutional conflict – just as the Spanish economy shows signs of starting to emerge from its crisis. It did not have to be this way. Politicians from both sides of this widening abyss need to become statesmen to prevent what is at root a political issue becoming a problem that threatens the very state.
Artur Mas, the mainstream nationalist Catalan president, has caught the government of Mariano Rajoy, the Spanish prime minister, off-balance by forging an alliance with separatists and elements of the Catalan left. They have set a date for a plebiscite next November, which will ask Catalans two questions: do they want Catalonia to be a state and, if so, do they want that state to be independent from Spain. In this palpable fudge lie the ingredients for a solution.
Spain was rightly acclaimed for its transition from Franco’s dictatorship to a decentralised democracy. But it has still not fashioned a plurinational home comfortable enough for its culturally distinct peoples. This foments reductive nationalism, in Castilian Spain and among Catalans and Basques.
There was enough flexibility in Spain’s quasi-federal system to accommodate the Catalans, until Mr Rajoy’s Partido Popular sabotaged it in 2010, by persuading its nominees in the Constitutional Court to strike down sensitive bits of the reformed statute of autonomy of Catalonia. Identical articles were left unmolested in the statutes of Valencia and the Balearic Islands, then under PP rule. That unleashed Catalan separatism, until then a fringe movement. The right issue on which to have a crisis is the politicisation of the judiciary – just one of Spain’s rickety institutions in need of reform.
Rather than leading his people, Mr Mas is being led by them and Mr Rajoy has backed him into a corner by insisting the post-Franco constitution – which consecrates the indissoluble unity of Spain – is immutable. Polls say Catalans would prefer more home rule – including a degree of fiscal autonomy – but will go their own way if the only alternative is a status quo, which Mr Rajoy’s government is chipping away at.
This is a political problem that requires a negotiated solution – more federalism within Spain’s crying need for institutional renewal. It is not just the Catalans but Spain’s leading parties, Mr Rajoy’s PP and the Socialists, that need to rise to the occasion.
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