Editorial Board

Catalonia's Vote Was a Success. Now Negotiate.

Photographer: Juanjo Perez Monclus/Bloomberg

Catalonia's independence vote on Sunday was encouraging -- not in creating momentum for the region that wants to break off from Spain, but in laying a foundation for political agreement on how best to decide the question.

Perhaps for the first time, the national government in Madrid made the smart choice, allowing the nonbinding "consultation" to go forward without interference from the police. In that same spirit, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy should now arrange for a proper referendum and a free and full debate.

Catalonia

Until now, Rajoy's approach to Catalan frustration has been inflammatory. He and the ruling People's Party have treated the region's demands -- first for greater autonomy, and later the right to vote on independence -- as merely a legal issue, using courts to shut down a constitutional debate. That policy failed when Catalonia ignored a ruling that declared even Sunday's consultation vote illegal. Rajoy then came under pressure to shut the vote down by force. That would have ensured mass protests, violence and a further surge of support for Catalonia's secession. This is why he deserves credit for stepping back.

In the same vein, Rajoy should now ignore demands that he prosecute those who enabled the vote -- including local officials who opened polling places. Rajoy's justice minister, Rafael Catala, demonstrated precisely how not to respond when he dismissed Sunday's vote -- in which more than 2 million Spanish citizens participated -- as "a sterile and useless sham" and threatened legal action.

Next, Rajoy should engage quickly in the kind of negotiations over the region's status that he has resisted until now. Opening a legal path to a referendum would put the onus on Catalonia's politicians to show similar patience, rather than hold a quick follow-up referendum to drive their case home. Then, both sides would have time to debate the advantages and disadvantages of splitting apart.

Sunday's vote result suggests that Catalans are open to hearing both sides of the argument. Yes, 81 percent voted for independence, but this was hardly decisive, given that turnout was at most 33 percent. That's far short of recent elections and a pale shadow of what one would expect in a properly organized and fought independence vote. (Eighty-five percent of eligible Scots turned out for their recent independence referendum.)

Popular views are better reflected by the regular opinion polls suggesting that about 50 percent of Catalans would vote for independence in a true referendum. And the more important poll number is the 80 percent who say they just want the right to vote: Rising anger at the Spanish government's intransigence has contributed to pro-independence sentiment. The first step to persuading Catalans to stay in Spain would be to map out a legal, constitutional route to giving them their say.

Catalonia's proposed secession would be even more fraught with risk than was Scotland's. It would carve away about 20 percent of Spain's economy, compared with 8 percent for the U.K. Investors in Catalonia's bonds certainly believe independence would be at least as bad for the region as for the rest of Spain. So in a real campaign, in which voters are confronted with the realities of assuming up to 200 billion euros ($250 billion) of Spanish debt, the case for unity should be winnable.

Unless Rajoy opens the door to compromise, however, opinions in Catalonia and Madrid will continue to harden. Then, rather than a healthy, constructive debate, Spain will face escalating confrontation. 

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.