The escalating tension between Spain’s central government and its counterpart (Govern) in Catalonia has followed the expected script.
The regional executive declined to confirm whether it had declared independence, as requested by Madrid. Mariano Rajoy’s government then called a meeting for Saturday to decide what measures would be taken to restore legal order under the unpopular article 155 of the Constitution.
Unfortunately for Rajoy, the script of this showdown was drafted in Barcelona.
Over the last few days, Catalonia’s independence bid has found little public support in the EU and has triggered a flight of companies from the region. Some warning voices said the region could become a pariah state once out of Spain: outside the EU and the eurozone.
This was a hard pill to swallow, even for senior leaders of the political rebellion. Puigdemont’s predecessor, Artur Mas, who still plays a major role in the government’s strategy, said independence would make no sense without the infrastructure and external recognition. He revealed the preferred solution for many in the pro-independence camp: snap elections.
Separatists believe they would get massive support this time and the legitimacy they failed to obtain in the 2015 regional elections could thus be within reach. A coup de grâce for Madrid.
Against this backdrop, Puigdemont’s letter on Thursday said the regional parliament could vote on the formal declaration of independence “if the repression continues”.
Here was finally something the central government could interpret: Catalonia never did declare independence on 10 October. But the reply falls short of expectations among those in Madrid who want to suffocate the rebellious Govern once and for all.
For some of those, the solution is to temporarily centralise competences such as fiscal authority or the regional police. But that would inevitably result in Puigdemont’s demise and snap elections, amid massive protests.
A risky step, given the tension on the streets of Catalonia, recently rekindled by the arrest of two pro-independence activists.
Rajoy needs to decide whether he wants to flex his muscles or restore normality for all, in Catalonia and Spain alike. As the crisis continues to worsen, with an economic cost that could reach €12bn and a social fracture that could take years to heal, it is high time for Rajoy to start writing his own script.
He needs to avoid the cat-and-mouse game around Article 155 with Puigdemont and focus on a constitutional reform.
Instead of assessing what powers to withdraw, exploring further recognition of the regional identity, new competences and more money would prove to the Catalans that, even if they are not in love with Spain, the marriage still makes sense. Calm should return to the streets.
The negotiations between all the political parties in the Spanish parliament, including the pro-independence forces, would represent a direct response to Puigdemont’s call for dialogue.
The Catalan parties could make their case for including an agreed referendum as part of the review of the Constitution, should they so wish.
If Puigdemont were to continue ignoring this alternative, he would no longer represent the interests of all his citizens as he claims he does now.
In Brussels for the EU Summit on 19-20 October, Rajoy enjoyed a show of support from fellow European leaders, although he may not like the fact that Catalonia – an internal Spanish matter – was mentioned at all.
“This summit will be marked by a message of unity: unity among the member states in the face of the crises they may meet. Unity with Spain,” French President Emmanuel Macron said upon arriving at the Council.
Angela Merkel said Germany “supports the Spanish government” in finding a solution that will “have the Spanish constitution as its foundation.”
And Luxembourg Prime Minister Xavier Bettel said Spanish law must be obeyed – a nod to the Spanish government’s insistence that Catalonia’s attempt to secede is illegal.
Rajoy has a long record of missteps and mistakes in the Catalan crisis. The stakes are higher this time – not only in Spain but also in Europe.
The decision he takes in the coming days could facilitate a last-minute political solution or bring about a social calamity for years to come.
The Inside Track
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Austria at the crossroads. Austria’s political “whizz-kid” Sebastian Kurz is on course to become Europe’s youngest leader at just 31, likely in coalition with the far-right, after his conservative party won in parliamentary elections.
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Dinner time. British Prime Minister Theresa May came to Brussels on short notice for a working dinner with European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker in a bid to allay fears Brexit talks could end without an agreement. Juncker said results would be seen at the “autopsy”.
Pulse of Europe. A clear majority of EU citizens now believe that EU membership is good for their country, according to a recent survey.
German coalition quest. Chancellor Angela Merkel entered talks this week to forge a government out of an awkward group of allies bent on nailing down a coalition deal so tight it could limiting her wiggle room if crisis strikes again.
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Varoufakis backs Macron. Former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis supports Emmanuel Macron’s federalist proposals on the euro single currency but believes only a real threat could make Germany budge on the issue.
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Dreaming of common defense. Finland’s President Sauli Niinistö does not rule out a common foreign policy, which would make the European Union a global player.
Czechs are not Eurosceptics. They just succumbed to the language of politicians, argues Vice-President of the European Parliament, Pavel Telička in an interview with EURACTIV Czech Republic.
Erdogan in Warsaw. Polish President Andrzej Duda backed Turkey’s aspirations for joining the European Union while Erdoğan, who was paying a visit to Warsaw, called for Brussels to make clear declarations whether or not the EU wants Turkey to join the community.
Arrivals surge. Despite the EU-Turkey deal to stem the arrival of refugees from Turkish territory, migrants are still coming to Greek islands, AFP reports.
Checking up on the neighbours. Poland is particularly interested in this week’s Czech elections and what they might mean for Warsaw-Prague relations.
The cost of inaction. Climate change is set to destroy 3.5% of Greece’s land and 2% of its GDP, yet still the country refuses to take serious action to curb carbon emissions.
On the right track. Serbia’s prime minister announced major pay rises for public sector workers and a hand-out for pensioners as she delivered a glowing assessment of her government’s first 100 days.
Views are the author’s