Editorial Board

First Scotland, Now Spain

More in their hands than Spain would like.

Like the Scots, the Catalans want a referendum on independence. Unlike the British, the Spaniards aren’t inclined to let them have it. This is a mistake, and Spain's leaders need to show some unwonted statesmanship by making a vote possible -- even as they campaign for union.

Catalonia's local government has scheduled a referendum for Nov. 9, but on Tuesday Spain's Constitutional Court suspendedit. This is the same court that issued a ruling four years ago -- in a case also brought by Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy's Popular Party -- that gutted a 2006 Spanish law granting Catalonia more autonomy.

Catalonians have been bitter ever since, and the Popular Party has made the situation worse by stonewalling Catalan demands and engaging in other provocations. (An education minister once issued a call to "Hispanicize" Catalan children.) Support for independence in Catalonia has grown to more than 50 percent, according to several recent polls, from as little as 15 percent in 2007 -- and it's unlikely to fall with yesterday's ruling. The drive for independence has not been stopped.

To avoid a potential spiral of civil disobedience or even violence, Rajoy should go to Catalonia and acknowledge, in person, the mistakes his party has made. For the next steps, he need only look across the sea to the north. He should offer a fresh start to negotiations on greater autonomy for Catalonia and more control of its tax revenues. As U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron might tell him, Rajoy will probably have to make these concessions anyway to keep his country together.

Rajoy should also be open to constitutional reform that would decentralize powers and include a procedure to allow Spain's regions to vote on secession. This wouldn't necessarily have to be on the extraordinarily generous terms that Cameron agreed to for Scotland, but it would have to create a potential route for Catalans to conduct at least a nonbinding referendum on their status. Even engaging in such negotiations may lead Catalonians to abandon their referendum for now, if they believe a legal route to vote on independence will eventually become available.

In the meantime, Rajoy and other officials in the central government should begin a campaign to show Catalans (as well as Basques and Galicians) why they are better off in Spain. One of the benefits of Scotland's two-year referendum campaign was that both sides had the chance to push and test their arguments.

Catalonia's secession would be more traumatic for Spain than Scotland's would have been for the U.K.; the region accounts for 16 percent of the Spanish population and 19 percent of the economy (double Scotland's share of the U.K. on both counts). Spain's financial position is already precarious, and both it and Catalonia would be punished severely in the bond markets for any breakup.

Given the chance, Catalans might well conclude, as Scots did, that independence is not worth the risk and pain. To make Catalans confident in this conclusion, however, they need a robust debate. Up to now, Rajoy and Spain's government have refused even to discuss the possibility of independence. Now is the moment for them to make the case for union.

--Editors: Marc Champion, Michael Newman.

To contact the editor on this story:
David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net