Catalonia Back to Square One

After an election that settles nothing, both sides need to think again.

Carles Puigdemont won. Photographer: Jasper Juinen/Getty Images
Carles Puigdemont won. Photographer: Jasper Juinen/Getty Images

After Thursday's election in Catalonia, the long-simmering dispute between the region and the government of Spain is about where it was to begin with. Pro-independence parties won a slender majority in parliament, with slightly less than half the popular vote. Neither side in this quarrel can legitimately claim a mandate for anything.

Nonetheless, the vote was a setback for Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy. If he was counting on support for the separatists to subside, he has been disappointed. Meanwhile, Carles Puigdemont -- author of the region's unlawful declaration of independence, self-exiled in Brussels and facing charges in Spain -- is undiminished as the movement's champion.

No side in this dismal saga has acquitted itself well. Madrid needlessly provoked Catalonia by rescinding some of the region’s autonomy. The separatists responded with an illegal referendum, and followed that with an equally illegal declaration of independence. Madrid further antagonized the separatists by using excessive force in trying (and failing) to shut the referendum down.

Against this background, it's wrong to say Rajoy erred in calling an election. Having shuttered the region's law-breaking government, he had little choice. His mistake was in letting the impasse reach this point. The refusal to compromise -- on both sides -- is what needs to change.

The absurdity here is that a free and fair referendum on independence would probably have gone Madrid's way. And Rajoy could probably have quelled demand for a vote had he been willing to discuss restoring the autonomy that Catalonia had previously enjoyed. Madrid's position, essentially, is that this subject cannot be debated, much less voted on.

This stubbornness is doubtless popular with Rajoy's supporters, and with voters elsewhere in Spain who are tired of Catalonia's complaints. But the best outcome in this dispute -- and one well within reach -- is a settlement based on discussion. Rajoy needs to ignore the provocations of a refreshed separatist alliance and rise to that challenge. The separatists, for their part, need to curb the triumphalism and reflect on the fact that most Catalans failed to support their cause.

In getting to a deal, the European Union could do more to help. Fearful of stirring separatist sentiment elsewhere, the EU has so far kept its distance, declaring that these are purely internal matters. But the people of Catalonia are EU citizens, and the EU should be mindful of their rights.

Those rights do not include independence -- certainly not if most Catalans don't want it -- but they ought to include talks on constitutional reform that might underwrite greater regional autonomy. Gentle pressure from Europe might help Rajoy do the right thing.

Bloomberg | Editorial


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