The next steps for Catalonia
FT's chief foreign affairs commentator Gideon Rachman and Europe editor Tony Barber discuss events in the Spanish region and their implications for political stability.
Produced by Alessia Giustiniano. Filmed by Rod Fitzgerald.
Welcome. I'm Gideon Rachman, the chief foreign affairs commentator of the Financial Times, and with me is Tony Barber, our Europe editor. And we're talking Catalonia after dramatic events this weekend, where the Catalans attempted to stage a kind of unofficial independence referendum and were greeted with a very fierce reaction from the central government in Madrid involving police action, which leaves open the question of how are these two sides going to reconcile? How is this issue going to be resolved? Do you think that the Catalonian issue, Tony, has gone a bit critical now because of these clashes in the streets?
It's particularly difficult to solve, because one can't really talk about one united single force, on the one hand, representing the region of Catalonia, and on the other hand, one single united force representing the authorities in Madrid. Within Catalonia, society's probably roughly split half and half on the issue of independence.
And from the point of view of the political classes in Madrid, the Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy leads a minority government. Some of his opponents might see a way of using this crisis to bring him down. So it isn't easy to see negotiations beginning in a really serious way for the move.
Britain did take a deep breath and allow Scotland an independence referendum. The Spanish have taken a much harder line, say it's illegal, unconstitutional, et cetera. Why are they being quite this hard line?
The plain fact is, of course, that the United Kingdom doesn't have a written constitution spelling out the terms on which any one part of the country can secede. This is decided at the political level. The difference in Spain is that it does have a written constitution, the 1978 constitution, which was approved, by the way, by all people in Spain, including about 9 in 10 people in Catalonia.
And that constitution states that the nation is indissoluble. Its unity is indissoluble. In most countries that have written constitutions, the barriers are set high for secession, precisely because otherwise you'd see countries breaking up once every generation or two.
Yeah, but what about the emotional and political situation? Because obviously the risk of what Madrid did over the weekend is that it radicalises Catalonia. And you said that opinion polls show Catalan's about 50/50 on the independence question. Do you think there's a risk now that positions on both sides harden?
It's certainly possible. I think it's a little bit early to judge yet. I mean, don't forget also that positions might harden in the rest of Spanish society, watching what's going on in Catalonia.
In a sense, the Catalan separatists got part of what they wanted, at least by, in their view, being able to spread images around the world of a very heavy-handed Spanish state insensitive to their demands. At the same time, the Spanish government was able to disrupt the referendum. However, I do think that the temperature has risen rather seriously. And it's going to take a while for that to cool down.
Last thing on the role of the EU, the Catalan government is now calling for the EU to mediate between Spain and Catalonia. Does the EU-- which, after all, is meant to be the guarantor of peace and democracy in Europe-- does it have any role in trying to calm the situation down?
The Commission, I don't think, does want to get involved. It doesn't have real teeth to act in a situation like this. It simply doesn't have the legal or political authority to be a true mediator. As for the national governments-- be it Germany, France, Italy, Poland, and so on-- they've been pretty clear, and they do not want to see one of their fellow states break up. The balance of opinion among other European governments is very much on the side of Madrid.
Tony Barber, thank you very much indeed. We'll leave it here for now.