Editorial Board

Madrid Should Give Persuasion One More Try

Crushing Catalan separatism isn't the answer. There's a better way.

Talk to them without conditions.

Photographer: David Ramos

In his standoff with Catalonia's separatist leaders, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has set a deadline of Oct. 19 for the other side to back down, threatening that Madrid will otherwise suspend the region's autonomy and impose direct rule. He has Spain's constitution, its highest court, opposition parties, other regional leaders and European allies all on his side.

If this were no more than a contest of strength, then, Rajoy couldn't lose -- but it isn't that simple. He should be aiming to win the argument, not crush a rebellion. Victory by force won't reconcile Catalonia to remaining part of Spain. Rajoy should drop the deadline and propose talks without preconditions.

To be sure, the separatists have acted recklessly and lawlessly. Their leader, Carles Puigdemont, cannot legitimately claim a right to declare independence on the basis of a referendum that was contested by only one side. But that doesn't alter the fact that many Catalans desire independence, or at least greater autonomy within Spain. Moving to stamp out that sentiment will only inflame it.

If Puigdemont doesn't give in, Rajoy is ready to impose control, possibly jail separatist leaders for sedition (two were detained this week, sparking mass protests) and then call new elections. But what if angry Catalans just elect a new slate of separatists? Separatists have been rallying public support for rebellions, generally by staging votes, since 2006. The cycle has to be broken -- by persuasion.

This needn't be impossible. Before the Oct. 1 vote, polls showed support for independence at only about 35 percent. Rajoy's heavy-handed response to the vote will have added to that figure, but, even so, a majority of Catalans would be receptive to good reasons for staying. Talks would allow those reasons to be advanced. They could include, for instance, commitments to increase spending on infrastructure, improve fiscal transparency and consider options for constitutional change to provide more autonomy. Spain's Socialist Party has been urging the government in that direction.

Rajoy is an old-fashioned Spanish conservative whose political base is calling for a tough approach. In most of Spain, there's little sympathy for Catalan exceptionalism -- or for rich Catalans who want more of their taxes spent in Catalonia. So Rajoy's challenge is not just to persuade Catalans that their best future is with Spain, but to bring the rest of the country to a more accommodating resolution of the dispute.

If he can't rise to this, Spain is likely to win this struggle in the short term -- but it may have cause to regret it later.

    --Editors: Therese Raphael, Clive Crook.

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

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