Editorial Board

The Catalan Crisis Is (Even Now) an Avoidable Disaster

If Madrid chooses to settle this argument by any means necessary, Spain will lose in the end.

In no mood to compromise.

Photographer: Pau Barrena/AFP/Getty Images

The latest escalation of the crisis in Catalonia is a grave threat to Spain and a serious test for the European Union. The immediate priority should be moving back from the brink of violent confrontation, and the EU can help by urging restraint on Madrid.

This was an avoidable breakdown. The Catalan leadership is chiefly to blame -- first, for holding an unlawful referendum, rendered null by one side's refusal to take part; and now for acting on that meaningless vote and formally declaring independence. But Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy made things worse with a needlessly aggressive (and notably unsuccessful) attempt to shut the referendum down. He'd be making a similar mistake now by moving to quash Catalonia's existing powers of self-government.

What Madrid should have done was condemn the referendum itself and ignore its result -- and it should take the same tack with the declaration of independence. The government should have offered talks without preconditions, and it still can. Crucially, the argument against secession is one Madrid can still win: Before this crisis began, remember, a majority of Catalans opposed independence.

What's more, offering open-ended talks would also be smart tactically, putting the onus on Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont and his allies to explain and implement their plan for secession.

Suspending Catalan autonomy, which the Spanish Senate voted to do on Friday, could now oblige Madrid to take action in the face of protests, strikes and civil disobedience. Rajoy has already dismissed Puigdemont and called new elections. Enforcing those edicts might quickly put the government, as before, in the role of aggressor -- and leave it outmaneuvered, as before, by the secessionists. Avoiding that slide into violent conflict should now be the top priority. Efforts to impose control over Catalonia should be paused. It isn't too late to step back.

If Madrid chooses to settle this argument by any means necessary, Spain will lose in the end, because its reputation will suffer and secessionist sentiment will not be quelled. And the EU, which up to now has refrained from interfering in the dispute, will also lose, because it will have stood by while a member government ended by force a dispute that could have been settled by peaceful democratic means.

The EU should leave no doubt about whose side it's on in this quarrel. It stands for the rule of law, and against an unlawful secessionist campaign. It cannot be a neutral mediator in this matter. However, that shouldn't stop EU leaders from urging the Spanish government to show more wisdom and restraint in this dispute. That is very much in Europe's interests, too.

    --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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