As if Europe weren’t struggling with enough problems, from Brexit to rising nationalism to a seemingly endless flow of migrants fleeing tumult and war in the Middle East and Africa, Spain now finds itself mired in its worst political crisis since the death of dictator Gen. Francisco Franco and the creation of a democratic Spanish state in 1978. The crisis stems from a growing desire in Catalonia — the semiautonomous northeastern region anchored by Barcelona — to secede and form an independent nation.
Polling has been inconclusive on how deep the support for secession runs among Catalans. A controversial and illegal plebiscite Oct. 1 drew a turnout of only 43%, but the vote — conducted despite violent and questionable tactics by the federal government to stop it — was overwhelmingly for secession. And now the country’s top prosecutor, Atty. Gen. Jose Manuel Maza, is calling for the leaders of the peaceful secession movement to be tried on sedition and other related charges.
This would be a good time for a cooling off period. In the run-up to the referendum, the attorney general threatened to arrest mayors who allowed the balloting to take place in public buildings, as well as people who printed or distributed ballot papers. The government also warned postal workers not to handle referendum-related mailings and threatened to cut off electric power to polling places. Granted, Catalan leaders should have observed a federal court order barring the referendum, but the Franco-style response by the national government made the situation worse.
After Catalan lawmakers declared independence last week (an action that was boycotted by dozens of their colleagues), Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy led the federal parliament in a vote to dissolve the Catalan parliament and fire top Catalan officials involved in the movement, two sanctions that are allowed under Spain’s Constitution. Central government caretakers are in charge in the Catalan capital, Barcelona, until a new government can be elected Dec. 21. If the pro-secession forces win at the polls — this time without police interference — then Rajoy’s government must figure out a way to respond to the serious level of discontent in Catalonia without taking punitive measures that might worsen the tensions. If the secession forces lose, then the steam behind the movement is bound to dissipate, and while the desire for independence will not go away, it will lose momentum.
Until that vote, efforts by the national government to criminalize peaceful behavior and imprison those pursuing a nonviolent political dream will exacerbate the crisis at a time when passions and rhetoric need to settle down. If the central government wants Catalans to vote in a new pro-unity slate, it should stop ham-handed attempts at intimidation.
Is there a mediation role for the European Union? Perhaps. This is at heart an internal issue for Spain and the Catalans to sort out, but Catalonia’s leaders say that with independence they would seek admission to the EU. That makes this more than an internal issue. A pro-secession vote could also reverberate in other corners of the continent. Most proximately, Basque separatists who waged a four-decade armed struggle for self-determination in the region to the west of Catalonia renounced violence only six years ago, and didn’t disarm until earlier this year. It’s unclear whether Catalans pushing secession along another part of Spain’s northern tier might reignite that crisis.
Europe has struggled with these issues before, and sometimes disastrously so. Regional independence movements led to the violent collapse of Yugoslavia a quarter century ago amid ethnic cleansing campaigns that had disturbing echoes of the continent’s violent 20th century. Scotland, propelled by dissatisfaction with its representation in the British Parliament, held its own referendum three years ago, with voters ultimately deciding to remain within the United Kingdom.
But Catalonia is in a different space from Scotland. Catalans speak their own language and have enjoyed significant autonomy for far longer, beginning before the civil war that brought Franco to power. Whether they win the next step in the political process will be significant, and we won’t presume from this distance to tell the Catalans how they should vote. But it is in the interests of greater peace that this confrontation be resolved through negotiation, not force, and that the decisions be based on the realities of modern Spain and Europe, not a romanticized notion of national identity.