The Brief: On Catalonia, time to de-escalate

Catalonia caught Europe’s attention like never before this week. The arrest of regional government officials involved in organising the 1 October referendum was published on front-pages across Europe and sparked a torrent of questions from the international press in Brussels.

For the government led by Carles Puigdemont, this step represented “de facto” the suspension of Catalonia’s regional autonomy and the imposition of a “state of emergency”.

Mariano Rajoy’s executive in Madrid had only one option: to enforce the Constitutional Court ruling declaring the referendum illegal.

What else would the judges say of a region that wants to cut ties unilaterally with the rest of the country, when the national constitution, like almost all the fundamental laws in the world – and the EU treaties – enshrine territorial integrity?

In the Commission’s press room the arguments of each side were heard. While some reporters asked about the rights of Catalans being breached, the Commission repeated that the basic principle in this debate is the “fullest respect of the Spanish constitutional order”.

But this response, given in Madrid and echoed in Brussels, leaves the obvious political problem between the two sides unaddressed.

It is almost impossible to summarise in 400 words such a long and tumultuous relationship, in which history, emotions, economy and mistakes made by each side have culminated in an avoidable clash between the country’s political capital and its economic powerhouse.

Coming from the smallest region of Spain, this reporter feels like Frodo jumping into the final battle between mighty forces. But even in the darkest corners of Mordor (or Brussels) reality must shine through.

For the backers, the driving force behind the referendum is “let the Catalans express their will”. But at the last regional elections two years ago, a majority of voters (52%) supported non-independence parties. Still, the electoral law handed the pro-independence bloc a four-seat majority.

Even under these circumstances, a president that rules for all and not only for his power base would have sought a minimum of consensus before starting a legal and political battle with such immense, far-reaching consequences.

But no impartial observer could possibly believe that the referendum bill or its approval in parliament met those minimum standards (a threshold of voters, a thorough democratic debate).

Still, pointing to a few facts will not make the significant group of Catalans that do not feel part of Spain disappear. And you cannot convince someone to fall in love with you using the letter of the law.

So what now? Basically, what politicians are paid for: reaching compromises for the common good. If Barcelona drops its referendum, Madrid is willing to talk about giving more money to the Generalitat, the Catalans’ longstanding demand.

Arguably, Rajoy would have disarmed the process had he shown the same openness years ago.

Now it is Puigdemont’s turn not to make the same mistake. A majority of Catalans want more competences without independence. If he really listens to his fellow citizens, this is the most critical moment for him to prove it.

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Views are the author’s