First, Scotland. Now, Catalonia

Spain’s wrong way of dealing with an independence movement
Illustration by Bloomberg View

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 continued union.

Catalonia’s local government scheduled a Nov. 9 referendum, but on Sept. 30, Spain’s Constitutional Court suspended it. This is the same court that issued a ruling four years ago—in a case brought, like this one, by Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s Popular Party—that gutted a 2006 law granting Catalonia more autonomy.

The Catalans were bitter about the court’s actions, but the Popular Party has made the situation worse by stonewalling their demands and engaging in other provocations. Support for independence in Catalonia has grown to more than 50 percent, according to recent polls, from as little as 15 percent in 2007—and it’s unlikely to fall after the latest ruling.

To avoid a potential spiral into civil disobedience or even violence, Rajoy should go to Catalonia and acknowledge, in person, the mistakes his party has made. For his 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 revenue. 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. Spain wouldn’t necessarily have to offer the 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 Catalonia to abandon its referendum for now, provided its people believe a legal route to vote on independence will 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 country’s population and 19 percent of the economy (double Scotland’s share of the U.K. on both counts). Spain’s finances are already precarious; both it and Catalonia would be punished in the bond markets for any breakup.

Given the chance, Catalans might well conclude that independence isn’t worth the pain. To make Catalans confident in this conclusion, however, they need a robust debate. Up to now, Rajoy has refused to even discuss the possibility of independence. Now is the moment for him to make the case for union.

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