The images of police breaking into voting centres in Catalonia to stop its unilateral referendum of independence, leaving more than 800 people injured, provoked precisely the opposite effect of what the central government had hoped to achieve.
Even before the Catalan government announced the results, the domestic legal issue had become a political bombshell, with some leaders from across Europe eager to interfere.
“The European Union can no longer continue looking the other way,” the Catalan President Carles Puigdemont said after Sunday’s vote.
But still, the upper echelons of the EU in Paris and Berlin remained tight-lipped.
The European Commission stuck to its previous line; it did not condemn the use of force despite grilling from journalists, and ruled out any role for its mediation, as it backed Mariano Rajoy’s “leadership” to resolve the crisis.
But in contrast with previous occasions, the executive called on both sides to reopen dialogue.
It may be easy to lose sight of the absence of legal basis and the legitimacy of the referendum if you only look at wounded voters and grandmas fighting with fully armoured policemen. But the mismanagement of the situation yesterday does not justify how we got there.
It’s not only that the referendum was illegal. Its legitimacy was also questionable as a majority of Catalans had expressed their opposition to a unilateral independence vote in the regional elections framed as a plebiscite in 2015.
Still, you cannot send riot police to clear a pyjama party. That is simply unjustifiable. This was the culmination of Rajoy’s mishandling of Catalonia for more than ten years.
It was Rajoy who took the Estatut (the regional fundamental law), approved by parliaments and supported by Catalans, to the Constitutional Court in 2006. He refused to speak with the Catalan government about a new fiscal pact in 2012. And now he hid behind judges and prosecutors to defuse the bomb he had party built.
True, it was the judges who declared unconstitutional key articles of the Estatut. President Artur Mas asked for money just weeks after Spain requested a bailout. And the intervention of the police would have been certainly less brutal if the Mossos (regional police) had done its job clearing the voting centres over the weekend.
But against the sum of past missteps and mistakes, it is hard to believe that Rajoy could be the right person to lead talks with Catalonia or to re-unify a country he had helped sink into its most serious political crisis in recent years.
Still, Rajoy is not the only one who should reflect on his future. The Catalan government led by Puigdemont not only triggered an open war with Madrid but also on the streets of Barcelona. Now he intends to pursue a unilateral declaration of independence, though fewer than 40% of Catalan registered voters were yesterday in favour of independence.
While Catalan Foreign Affairs Councillors spoke about grandeur in Brussels to solve the dispute days before the vote, Puigdemont keeps governing for a minority of its population.
It is not too late to show that we can climb out of a hole we had dug ourselves. It won’t be easy to find a model in which everybody, from Cadiz to Bilbao, from Vigo to Barcelona, is comfortable given that identity and money, the two most toxic issues in politics, will be at stake. But it is certainly possible if our leaders stop creating problems and begin to offer solutions.
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Views are the author’s