Editorial Board

Bring Catalonia Back From the Brink

Leaders on both sides of this dangerous dispute need to stop and think.

Not the way to win hearts and minds.

Photographer: Pau Barrena/AFP/Getty Images

In his battle with Madrid, Catalan President Carles Puigdemont is squarely in the wrong. Declaring independence from Spain, which he and the region's other leaders are threatening to do, would be an act of utter recklessness, not to mention against the law.

Nonetheless, if that declaration is made, Spain's government needs to be smarter and more restrained in its response than it has been up to now. An effort by Madrid to defeat secession by force, before every alternative has been exhausted, cannot be right -- and in the end is likely to fail.

QuickTake Catalonia

In moving ahead unilaterally, Catalonia's leaders would be failing in their obligations -- to the law, to their constituents, and to their fellow citizens in other regions of Spain. Before it's too late, they should think again.

Madrid's handling of this crisis, meanwhile, is making matters worse. Polls suggested that voters, had the referendum been allowed to go ahead legally, would have rejected independence. It would have been easy to make that outcome more likely by engaging the Catalans in new talks about devolved government and the balance of fiscal flows to and from the region. Short of that, Madrid could have let the referendum go ahead and simply declared it void.

Instead, it tried to stop the vote by arresting officials and using force against ordinary Catalans. Not only did this effort fail, but images of police in paramilitary equipment beating peaceful voters don't win hearts and minds. This clumsy response almost certainly moved Catalan opinion in the wrong direction. Now Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy seems intent on compounding the error, meeting the strengthened secessionist challenge with threats to cancel the autonomy already granted to Catalonia.

If Catalan separatism turns violent, it must be met with measured force. But Spain should prefer persuasion and accommodation until it no longer has any choice. This isn't just a matter of avoiding violence in the short term, desirable as that may be. It's also essential for cementing the long-term integrity of the Spanish state. A free country does not demand the loyalty of its citizens at gunpoint.

The case that Madrid can and should put to Catalonia for remaining part of Spain is strong. An independent Catalonia would be thrust into the kind of dysfunction and uncertainty that now clouds Britain's prospects after the Brexit vote -- only much more so, because Catalans would be making enemies of their former compatriots as well as leaving both Spain and the European Union. It would be hard to imagine a greater shock to the economy or its citizens' prospects.

Reckless illegality and economic delusion on one side, and imprudent severity on the other, have brought Spain and Catalonia to a very dangerous point. There is a way out: Puigdemont should withdraw his threat to declare independence, and Rajoy should make persuasion not punishment his first resort. It isn't too late for wiser heads to prevail.

    --Editors: Clive Crook, Michael Newman.

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

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