Catalonia Is Losing the High Ground

Tensions rising.

Photographer: David Ramos

The people of Catalonia are frustrated at the way the Spanish government has routinely dismissed their aspirations for greater autonomy. But that frustration doesn't justify what the Catalan parliament did on Monday. The lawmakers should step back before tensions rise any higher.

QuickTake Catalonian Independence

The parliament voted to draw up legislation for a separate Catalan tax and social security system within 30 days. Its resolution on "disconnecting" from Spain also declared that rulings by Spain's constitutional court should no longer apply to Catalonia, and that independence should be achieved within 18 months.

The vote seems meant to force a harsh response from Madrid, radicalizing the debate so there can be no compromise short of independence. Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy must ignore the bait and instead make his case directly to the Catalans, especially those who do not want separation but have been angered by his government's highhanded attitude.

While Catalans have reasons to be frustrated with Madrid, their parliament's resolution is a flawed exercise in democracy, stemming as it does from the lawmakers' exaggerated interpretation of regional parliamentary elections in September. Because Catalonia had been blocked from holding the kind of referendum that Britain recently permitted for Scotland, its pro-independence parties declared that the parliamentary election would serve as a substitute. They won a majority of seats, but only 48 percent of the popular vote.

This hardly demonstrated beyond a reasonable doubt that the pro-independence parties would have won a real referendum. But Catalan President Artur Mas nevertheless claims that the parliament has "legitimacy" to build a Catalan republic.

Rajoy has submitted the Catalan resolution to Spain's constitutional court for review. He and his ruling Popular Party face a general election on Dec. 20 and can hope to win votes by campaigning for an uncompromising approach to the secessionists. That could mean suspending Catalonia's autonomy, cutting off funds, or asking the Spanish courts to penalize individual political leaders, including Mas.

Carrying out such Draconian measures would require the use of force, and that would only further radicalize Catalonia's independence debate. When Mas appeared in court last month on a different charge -- misusing public resources to organize an unsanctioned, consultative independence referendum in 2014 -- he turned the occasion into a flag-waving independence rally.

Moderate voices could yet prevail. Catalan business leaders who until now have supported Mas are expressing concern at this week's turn of events, and rightly so. Catalonia is Spain's largest regional economy, and the instability caused by any unilateral move toward independence would be terrible for investment.

Catalonia's government should leave this week's parliamentary resolution unenforced. And Rajoy should show equal restraint during his election campaign. With a new government in Madrid after December's election, there may be a chance to start over. The next prime minister could see the wisdom in restarting negotiations on Catalonia's autonomy. Better yet, the next government should offer Catalans a path to a real referendum, so that the arguments for and against independence can be properly aired. That's an opportunity worth waiting for.

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