The Wrong Way to Leave Spain

Still part of Spain.

Photographer: LLUIS GENE/AFP/Getty Images

Catalonia's pro-independence parties say that if they win a majority in this weekend's regional elections, they'll treat it as a victory for their cause. As understandable as their frustration may be, this is no way to secede from a country.

Yes, the conservative Spanish government in Madrid has badly mishandled the Catalonia question, with its decision to appeal a 2006 agreement that gave the region more autonomy and its refusal even to discuss letting Catalans decide their future by referendum. But that's not a reason to treat a local election as a decision to secede. Voters choose parties for many reasons, no matter what party leaders may say an election is about.

Catalonia

Besides, the proportion of Catalans who think their region should be an independent state has fallen in recent months, even as the pro-independence bloc of political parties is polling at about 47 percent -- enough for a majority in parliament. Attempting secession on such a flawed basis would invite conflict and economic turmoil when Spain can least afford it.

Both the Spanish government and Catalonia's separatists can learn a useful lesson from last year's independence campaign in Scotland: Follow the election -- no matter what the result -- with good-faith negotiations and patience.

U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron offered Scotland greater autonomy only when he feared the "Yes" vote for independence might win. Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy shouldn't make the same mistake. No matter what happens Sunday, he and his government should volunteer to reopen the issue of autonomy for Catalonia. He might even advocate it as an alternative to independence -- which, after all, would carry a heavy economic cost. But to make that argument he would need to acknowledge that Catalans have a choice to make.

Catalonia's separatists, meanwhile, need to understand that waiting for a clear referendum, and even losing it, is preferable to winning one whose mandate is uncertain. The Scottish National Party failed in last year's vote, but it remains popular and its campaign for independence is far from dead. In the meantime, it has won substantial new powers from the central government in London.

One other cause for patience: Spain's upcoming national elections are unlikely to produce another majority for Rajoy's People's Party. With a coalition government running Spain, constitutional reform may again become a possibility -- and that's a better venue for a debate over Catalonia's status.

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