Italy Knows How to Solve Catalonia's Problem

A South Tyrolean-style arrangement should resolve two of the Catalan separatists' biggest grievances.

Beyond secession.

Photographer: Buyenlarge/Getty Images

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy showed on Wednesday that he doesn't merely hold a better poker hand than Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont; he's also the better player. Unfortunately, the Catalan separatism problem won't be resolved by this particular game. At some point, Spain will need to offer Catalans an arrangement with which they can live.

QuickTake Catalonia

An example of a potentially acceptable arrangement can be found in Italy: The deal that South Tyrol, the majority German-speaking province, has with Rome. 

After Puigdemont and his allies signed a document they called an independence declaration, and another one suspending it so negotiations can be held with the Spanish government, Rajoy called their bluff, demanding a clarification: Had they really declared independence from Spain? The sequence of events to which each of the possible answers will lead is much more transparent than Puigdemont's intentions. If the answer is "yes," Rajoy intends to take over the government of Catalonia, making it likely that secessionist leaders will be arrested and tried for sedition. If the answer is "no," or a fudge like Puigdemont's speech on Tuesday, Rajoy won't need to do it because the radicals in Catalonia's government coalition will then withdraw their backing from the first minister, likely leading to a new election. 

Rajoy felt confident doing this because the law, brute force, the support of European partners and big Catalonia-based businesses are aligned against Catalonia's secession. The separatists cannot even claim the support of the majority of Catalans, since no one recognizes the outcome of the highly irregular referendum they held on Oct. 1 and since a rally in Barcelona on Sunday attracted at least 350,000 Spanish unity supporters. Puigdemont doesn't have a leg to stand on, and he's likely on his way out.

While he's still first minister, there's no reason for Rajoy to negotiate: He's not prepared to discuss secession, and Puigdemont is on record that that's his goal. But once that issue is off the table, Madrid will have to sit down to talk with Catalan representatives. It's unavoidable: Whether or not there's a pro-independence majority, too many Catalans are not happy with the current arrangement. Socialist leader Pedro Sanchez has already indicated that the main Spanish parties have agreed to discuss changes to the constitutional status of Catalonia and Spain's other regions.

Rajoy has never offered a coherent alternative to Catalans. It exists, however, to the northeast.  

At the end of World War I, Italy acquired South Tyrol from Austria in accordance with the 1919 Treaty of St. Germain. The Italian fascists tried to assimilate the population of Alto Adige, as it is known in Italian, then Hitler agreed with Mussolini to resettle those who wanted to live in the German Reich. Most remained but kept their identity. After the war, the allies decided Italy was to retain South Tyrol, and Austria and Italy worked out the terms, including the equal status of German and Italian languages in public life, teaching in German in local schools, the retention of German family names that had been Italianized, an autonomous parliament and government, and other special rights for the South Tyrolese.

The autonomy has since evolved into an elaborate arrangement with a clear separation of parliamentary powers. South Tyrol's laws take precedence in agriculture, tourism, public health, welfare, the environment and a number of other areas. The lineup of the province's government and various public services, except police forces and the military, must reflect its ethnic proportions. Courts hold bilingual proceedings. South Tyrol keeps 90 percent of locally collected taxes, including income tax, and 70 percent of the value-added tax (the rough equivalent of U.S. sales tax) paid in its territory. Moreover, the Italian government has long subsidized the province. 

This generous deal has been held up as a possible example for Eastern Ukraine, now held by pro-Russian forces, once Ukraine reestablishes control over it. But while the conflict there is difficult to resolve because of Russian involvement and the thousands of lives lost during three years of war, the one in Catalonia can still be resolved before it goes too far. A South Tyrolean-style arrangement should resolve two of the Catalan separatists' biggest grievances: the perceived lack of respect for their language and culture and the complaint that Madrid is vacuuming up Catalan taxes to fund poorer regions of Spain. Currently, for example, Catalonia only keeps 50 percent of the income tax and value-added tax it collects. Going directly to the much higher shares South Tyrol gets to keep would probably be untenable for the Spanish government, but serious concessions on the balance will be necessary to prevent further instability, which could be costlier in the long run.

South Tyrol, like Catalonia, has seen its share of grave injustice, but it's peaceful now, despite the existence of a secessionist movement that claims Italy's lackluster economic performance is dragging the region down. Both the Catalans and the government in Madrid should take a closer look at its experience and perhaps try something similar before discussing a decisive break.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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