Catalonia: a dangerous confrontation

Rajoy has opportunity to promote new consensus most Catalans desperately want

 

On Tuesday night, the first minister of Catalonia, Carles Puigdemont, kicked up a cloud of confusion that may take a long time to disperse. He told the region’s parliament that the recent referendum, declared illegal by Spain, mandates Catalonia to become an independent republic. And then immediately he suspended his de facto declaration of independence, and appealed for international mediation and dialogue with Madrid.

Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy yesterday “required” Puigdemont to say plainly whether or not he had declared independence. Rajoy indicated that, if Puigdemont replies affirmatively, or does not reply, Spain will take the unprecedented step of removing the powers of self-government that Catalonia has enjoyed since 1980. The scene is now set for a dangerous confrontation to which all the main players have contributed.

Rajoy’s rigidity in blocking the reasonable demands of a majority of Catalans for enhanced self-government within Spain, more than a decade ago, disastrously inflamed a sense of grievance and alienation among Catalan nationalists. His brand of Spanish nationalism seems incapable of grasping the intensity and legitimacy of the Catalan sense of national identity.

However, none of this justifies the flagrant disregard that the Catalan nationalists have shown for the rule of law, and even for simple democratic mathematics. Neither parliamentary elections, nor the referendum, show they have majority support. They might have won over the middle ground by campaigning for a more inclusive, healthier, more prosperous Catalonia. Instead, they created a narrow, exclusive and occasionally xenophobic movement.

Catalan president Carles Puigdemont is applauded after addressing the region’s parliament in Barcelona. Photograph: Quique Garcia/EPA
Catalan president Carles Puigdemont is applauded after addressing the region’s parliament in Barcelona. Photograph: Quique Garcia/EPA

Puigdemont’s blundering leadership gives Rajoy an opportunity to demonstrate a new style, and to promote the new consensus that most Catalans desperately want. But if he now uses his constitutional powers in the same heavy-handed way his police attempted to repress referendum voters 10 days ago, he may still go down in history as the man who allowed Spain to fall apart.

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