The crisis in Catalonia is accelerating so fast that it is going to be very hard to avoid a collision that could be perilous for both Spanish and Catalan democracy. The conservative Spanish government and the pro-independence alliance in Catalonia both bear a heavy responsibility for failing to find a new accommodation. Spain's Partido Popular (PP) prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, has been stubbornly determined to play the part of an immovable object. Meanwhile, the coalition led by Catalan first minister Carles Puigdemont has been equally adamant in the role of an irresistible force.
The present debacle can be traced back to the intransigence of the PP in 2006. An improved statute of autonomy for Catalonia recognised the region’s status as a “nation”, a matter of great symbolic importance to many Catalans. This statute was not only decisively endorsed by the Catalan parliament; it was also supported by a majority in the Madrid parliament, then presided over by the reformist Socialist Party (PSOE) administration of José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero.
But the PP, whose version of Spanish nationalism verges on the authoritarian, insisted on challenging the statute in the constitutional court, which eventually ruled against “nation” status for Catalonia. This was the moment that radicalised mainstream Catalan nationalism. It shifted its sights from autonomy towards independence, sparking a popular campaign for a referendum, now declared illegal, but that the nationalists insist will still take place next Sunday.
Polls suggest that a majority of Catalans want the respect inherent in the right to decide their own future. But under 50 per cent embrace independence. A pragmatic central administration would have found a way to allow Catalans express their wishes on this issue. Rajoy’s dogmatic refusal to countenance such an exercise has understandably infuriated many Catalans. But in recent months, the pro-independence campaigners have also demonstrated scant support for democratic norms. Instead, Puigdemont has forced referendum legislation through the Catalan parliament without regard for opposition views. He has insisted that he will declare independence if a majority of voters support it, knowing well that most ‘No’ voters will not participate in what they regard as an illegal poll.
So the scene was set for Rajoy’s heavy-handed response over recent days, involving police raids and arrests on Catalan government premises. Madrid’s actions have conveniently fed Puigdemont’s narrative of an oppressed nation, and proposed moves to arrest him could prove a tipping point. As one Spanish commentator put it, “moderation is now the most radical option”. Happily, the relatively muted response on the streets, so far at least, suggests that ordinary Catalans and Spaniards are more moderate than their leaders.