Catalonia: time to step back from the brink

Democratic politicians must rise above the temptation to use this crisis to increase their own support

Protesters hold Spanish flags during a demonstration called by “Societat Civil Catalana” (Catalan Civil Society) to support the unity of Spain on Sunday in Barcelona. Photograph: Jorge Guerrro/AFP/Getty Images

Protesters hold Spanish flags during a demonstration called by “Societat Civil Catalana” (Catalan Civil Society) to support the unity of Spain on Sunday in Barcelona. Photograph: Jorge Guerrro/AFP/Getty Images

 

Josep Borrell, a veteran leader of the Catalan section of the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE), last weekend showed the kind of democratic leadership that has been all too rare in the current Spanish crisis.

He was addressing last Sunday’s massive rally of those Catalans who oppose independence. Some of the crowd had begun to chant that Carles Puigdemont, the Catalan first minister and leading independence advocate, should be jailed. “Don’t shout like the mobs at a Roman circus,” he remonstrated, reminding them that only judges can decide who goes to prison.

It is a great pity that so few leaders have shown similar courage, and silenced the shrillest voices among their followers. The widespread slogan “Let’s talk” epitomises the desire of most citizens to see their leaders engage with each other, rather than doggedly holding rigid positions.

The extraordinary scenes of the last two Sundays in Barcelona have shown that Catalonia is deeply split between two loyalties. One large part of the population passionately wants the right to decide whether the region remains part of Spain.

Another very significant sector is equally adamant that its core identity is Spanish as well as Catalan. This is a fiendishly wicked problem to solve, but it is the obligation of democratic politicians to rise above the temptation to use such crises to increase their own support, as both the Spanish and Catalan governments have done too often.

The next 24 hours will tell us whether the leaders on each side can at last find the wisdom to prevent this divided society from sliding irreversibly into conflict. Puigdemont must decide whether or not to make a unilateral declaration of independence at today’s session of the Catalan parliament. He is under great pressure from radical sectors of his own movement to do so.

The economic and political cost of such a declaration is all too evident. Financial and industrial corporations are already beginning to move their headquarters out of Catalonia; French and German leaders have made it very clear that the EU will give no welcome to a secessionist state.

But Puigdemont should give prime consideration to whether making such a declaration would advance or destroy civic harmony among all the people of Catalonia, whom he claims to represent. The answer is obvious.

The conservative Spanish prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, whose combination of inertia and inflexibility has contributed so culpably to the crisis, must also resist the advice of right-wingers in his own party. They are calling on him to suspend Catalonia’s 40-year-old self-governing parliament, to pre-empt Puigdemont’s decision.

Either move risks the unthinkable outcome of bloodshed on the streets of Catalonia. Both men have time, though very limited, to show real leadership by stepping back from the brink.

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