With less than four months to go until November 9th, the scheduled date for a referendum on independence in Catalonia, those advocating for a negotiated solution – the so-called “third way” – seem to have lost the battle.
In an attempt to secure a compromise that could hold the State together, representatives of influential interest groups in Catalonia, many of them with economic ties to the Spanish public sector, had been pleading with the powers that be in Madrid to make an offer of a better financial arrangement and a larger measure of self-government for Catalans. Respected international voices have also been urging a change of attitude from Spain along the lines followed by the British government regarding Scotland – allowing a referendum in Catalonia and then forcefully campaigning for a “no” vote.
Spanish President Rajoy appeared to be listening to those voices when he finally agreed to a meeting with Catalan President Mas. Thus far he had been approaching the matter as a game of who blinks first, taking it for granted that his Catalan counterpart would give in and announce that he was calling off the referendum. But this is not about leaders or personalities. Mr. Mas will come to Madrid representing not only his party or his government, but also a wide parliamentary majority, hundreds of civil-society organizations and over three-quarters of the Catalan population, all of them backing the idea of a referendum – including some who might end up voting “no”. His deal with the Catalan people includes putting to a vote any agreement that may be reached with the Spanish government. He has, then, a clear mandate to officially convey to Mr. Rajoy what everyone already knows: that a huge majority of the Catalan people want a chance to exercise what they consider an inalienable right and vote on the shape of their collective future.
For the Spanish political establishment – on that point the ruling party is supported by most opposition groups – this is a deal breaker, and Mr. Rajoy has since rushed to cool down everyone’s expectations. Just in case, two self-appointed opinion groups have immediately stepped forward: those from the left to reiterate a vague proposal of constitutional reform in which some Catalan positions might be taken into consideration; over on the right, the hardliners of Spanish nationalism have sternly warned Mr. Rajoy against any gesture that could be interpreted as a willingness to start a dialogue with Catalonia.
One of those groups is at least going through the motions of offering to talk, while the other doesn’t even bother to hint at a way out. But, much as their respective styles differ, the two currents representing the majority opinion in Spanish society agree on the essential point: it is up to them to set the limits of what Catalans can expect from Spain. Consequently, they both reject the possibility of a vote. Catalonia’s future, their argument goes, is a matter for all Spanish citizens to decide. The deception is flagrant: since Catalans are a minority in Spain, this would mean that they are and will be forever outvoted and in someone else’s power. Unsurprisingly, it’s a principle that Catalans will not accept.
There are no signs that in the short weeks until November 9th the positions will change in any meaningful way. Catalans are determined to stand their ground. Their peaceful and thoroughly democratic stance is hard to counter and can’t be ignored. And the Spanish establishment is turning the obvious solution – the simple act of voting, the defining principle of democracy – into a problem.
And yet, short of declaring martial law and sending in the special forces – a course of action that would definitely destroy Spain – the State’s institutions don’t have the power to stop what has become an irreversible tide in favor of a profound change. Even if President Mas could be persuaded to backtrack on his pledge to let the Catalan people speak on the issue, or – if worse comes to worst – somehow forced out of office, the extent of popular discontent with Spain is such that the drive towards independence would only grow stronger.
In a recent interview with The Wall Street Journal, Spanish Finance Minister Cristobal Montoro dismissed out of hand any chance of a compromise, saying that Spain wasn’t prepared to reinvent itself in order to meet the Catalans’ demands. He’s totally missing the point. Regardless of what Catalans eventually decide about themselves, Spain does need to reinvent itself if it wants to avoid sinking deeper into economic and political irrelevance. The Catalan issue is only one among several that it will have to face sooner or later. Paradoxically, it could be the perfect starting point on a long-delayed road to change. By letting the Catalan people vote – and perhaps set off on their own – Spain has a good opportunity to build a political future on more rational grounds, not simply for the benefit of Catalans but for its own sake.