Referendum in Catalonia: sleepwalking into a crisis

Mariano Rajoy appears so determined to change nothing that he may soon find major changes happening very fast

 Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy speaks about the recent unofficial Catalonian independence poll  in Madrid yesterday. Photograph:  Denis Doyle/Getty Images

Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy speaks about the recent unofficial Catalonian independence poll in Madrid yesterday. Photograph: Denis Doyle/Getty Images

 

Wise conservatives often quote The Leopard, the novel by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, in which a leading aristocratic character comments that it is sometimes advisable to change everything in order that everything may remain the same.

This wisdom does not appear to have touched Spain’s Partido Popular (PP) government, led since 2011 by Mariano Rajoy. He appears so determined to change nothing at all that he may soon find major changes happening very fast.

Rajoy survived a no-confidence motion last week in which the far-left Podemos excoriated him for failing to address the corruption scandals in which so many leading PP members are mired. But since then the Socialist Party (PSOE) has taken a sharp turn to the left, raising the prospect that the PP could be ousted by a radicalised PSOE-Podemos coalition in future elections.

Meanwhile, the autonomous government of Catalonia has set an October date for a referendum offering its citizens the option of an independent republic. This is a sharp reminder that Spain is sleepwalking towards an existential crisis that no-one could have imagined 10 years ago.

It is not too late for the Spanish conservatives to learn something from their British counterparts

The referendum flies in the face of a court judgment that a similar “consultation” three years ago was not only illegal but unconstitutional. Yet the proposal to repeat the exercise undoubtedly has widespread support in this prosperous, sophisticated and deeply pro-European region.

Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy speaks about the recent unofficial Catalonian independence poll in Madrid yesterday. Photograph: Denis Doyle/Getty Images
Spanish PM Mariano Rajoy appears so determined to change nothing at all that he may soon find major changes happening very fast. File photograph: Denis Doyle/Getty Images

It’s not at all clear that most Catalans want independence, but it is increasingly clear that most of them want a choice in the matter. Yet this is a choice that Rajoy repeatedly refuses to even consider granting them. The irony, potentially a tragic one, is that the PP’s failure to countenance changing the Spanish constitution to include a right to self-determination only seems to make the independence option more attractive to Catalan nationalists. It is not too late for the Spanish conservatives to learn something from their British counterparts. As Scotland shows, engaging with independence movements can be much more positive than simply blocking them.

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