Spain's political heavyweights have locked themselves into a secession face-off that could tear apart the country.
Today sees a new installment of the Catalan sovereignty shadow play as Spain's Congress debates whether it should grant a request from Catalonia's parliament to organize a referendum in the region, a power that the Catalan administration does not yet have. The answer will be no. Catalonia's premier, Artur Mas, has opted not to attend the debate. In any case, Mas and his nationalist allies have already fixed Nov. 9, 2014, as the day Catalans will be asked whether they want to live in an independent state. The Catalan parliament is working on its own draft consultations law, which would confer on the region the power to hold polls and which is aimed at giving the referendum some legal cover. But this legislation will, in turn, be shot down by Spain's Constitutional Court if it is passed.
So the impasse widens and the clock ticks down toward the day Mas and his nationalist allies have sworn that Catalans will have their say. Since a Constitutional Court ruling in 2010 eliminated chunks of Catalonia's autonomy statute, which had been approved in a regional referendum, support for independence has swollen to a degree unprecedented since Spain's return to democracy in the late 1970s. From Madrid's point of view, however, Catalonia is a key part of the Spanish economy, contributing around 20 percent of GDP and being one of only three of Spain's 17 regions (autonomous communities) that make a positive overall contribution to the country's public finances, along with Madrid and the Balearic Islands.
Some 1,300 miles to the north, in another secession debate, Scottish authorities and the British government overcame the absence of a firm constitutional framework to agree on the terms of this year's independence referendum. But in Spain there will be no healthy out-in-the-open political contest. Instead, the People's Party (PP) government's dogged refusal to discuss the rules of the game and Catalan nationalists' belief that they have the supreme will of the region's people behind their cause have combined to create a crisis whose ultimate consequences no one really knows.
In one corner, conservative Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy simply reiterates that "the referendum will not be held; it is illegal." In the other corner, Mas insists that the vote will go ahead even if he has to "take the ballot boxes outside" into the streets. "It is a game of chicken between the PP and the pro-sovereignty Catalans," says José Ignacio Torreblanca, the Madrid office director of the European Council on Foreign Relations.
The absence of any apparent will to negotiate is alarming. But is there any middle ground to be had? Well, there was, but the old mechanisms of Spain's loose structure of regional governments that negotiate asymmetrical levels of power away from the central administration have seemingly broken down. The Socialist Workers' Party, in opposition both nationally and in most regions, including Catalonia, is trying to revive the spirit of compromise with a constitutional reform package that would extend regional autonomy yet further. But the two men in power have left themselves little room for maneuver.
The wily Rajoy has a staunchly anti-regionalist PP right wing he must attend to, along with facing growing support for political forces such as the national Union, Progress and Democracy party and the Catalan party Ciutadans, both of which vociferously oppose greater autonomy for Spain's regions. On the other side, Mas's conservative CiU Catalan nationalist bloc, which has been the hegemonic political force in Catalonia since Spain's democratic restoration, now faces a genuine rival for power in the radical Catalan Republican Left (ERC) party, which unequivocally backs independence for the region. Worse still for Mas, the CiU's old playbook moves of negotiating greater autonomy powers in return for political stability no longer seem to work.
A massive turnout at 2012's Sept. 11 pro-independence rally in Barcelona saw Mas travel to Madrid to propose a "fiscal pact" along the lines of the arrangement enjoyed by Spain's also-wealthy Basque Country, whereby the amount of taxes raised in Catalonia would be equaled by public spending there. With the proposal rejected point blank by Rajoy, Mas called snap elections to the regional parliament. But enthusiastically applied austerity measures against Catalan public services -- and, perhaps, a sense that the CiU was cynically tapping pro-independence feelings for electoral purposes -- meant the less-than-charismatic Mas's invocation of a majority mandate to shape Catalonia's future proved to be a damp squib. This threw him into the arms of the uncompromising ERC, whose parliamentary support is crucial to the premier.
Torreblanca argues that Mas has been dazzled by the "historic opportunity" presented by greater support for nationalism, but he is "trying to ride a tiger.… Once you are on it, you cannot control its direction." Of Rajoy's position, Torreblanca notes that the prime minister "sees no better alternative to stonewalling and he has to consider the hard core to his right," citing support among some PP grandees for a central government intervention in Catalonia, whose public finances are in disarray.
But for César Molinas, a financial consultant and former economic advisor to successive governments, Rajoy's refusal to negotiate is dangerous and serves only to shore up his conservative electorate. "It's a scorched-earth policy. The temptation to win votes in Madrid is more powerful than the desire to deal with the Catalan problem," says Molinas. Significantly, a window of opportunity offered by a rare year in Spain without elections (2013) has now closed with the European parliamentary poll due in May.
In the midst of electoral fever, there isn't any certainty that the main Catalan pro-sovereignty forces can maintain their cohesion. The leftist ERC has had to take the bitter medicine of approving the Mas administration's austerity budget for 2014, yet it aspires to overtake the CiU as the leading party in the region, which polls indicate is a real possibility. "The only thing [CiU and ERC] have in common is independence. If it wins the elections, is ERC not going to want to govern?" asks Molina. In fact, victory for the ERC over the CiU in May's European election, a bellwether poll rather than in itself significant for the status of Catalonia, may bring Mas to the realization that his only hope is to negotiate with other Spanish political forces -- if he can find an interlocutor.
But, of course, there is no negotiating in a game of chicken -- it's all about who blinks first. Rajoy is confident that his absolute majority in Congress, the firmness of the Constitutional Court (which recently quashed a sovereignty declaration by the Catalan parliament), and the fact that Spain could veto the accession of a future independent Catalonia into the European Union will all weaken Mas's resolve. But there are clear risks in allowing a scenario to develop whereby an unofficial referendum could take place, one whose results would not be legally valid but could still constitute a chunk of political capital.
"There is a great deal of confidence in the Spanish government that the international climate will be unfavorable [to Catalan secession]," says Molina. "But what will happen if [Scottish First Minister Alexander] Salmond wins the referendum in Scotland; Europe would be shown an example of a polite secession, backed by an agreement. Why not in Catalonia then?"
Meanwhile, Mas must also see that holding a wildcat Crimea-style poll, as it has been termed by Spain's foreign minister, would only help the radicals to flourish in an environment of open rebellion against Madrid. If he and Rajoy cannot negotiate a face-saving deal for Catalan nationalism, his only practicable option will be to again call early elections. There is talk already of a poll in which the parties would stand for or against outright independence for the region or take a position on the need for a status referendum. Such a plebiscitary election would technically be legal; the problems would come after. A nationalist majority returned to the Catalan parliament could then declare independence, a move that would be blocked by Spain's top court as the Spanish Constitution does not allow for secession. What would happen then would be moot: Moderates from Mas's CiU bloc could get cold feet, but the ERC's firebrand leader, Oriol Junqueras, would surely rally his forces forward toward his vision of a "Catalan Republic which will try to maintain good relations with those [countries] around it."
Nor is there any guarantee that even a thumping majority in favor of a referendum would be listened to by Rajoy or his successor -- but in the eyes of the wider world, the independence movement would have attained the moral high ground.
Rajoy and Mas have tied themselves to the tracks and the train is coming. Politically both right of center, they could talk their way to a safer place. But electoral pressures are pulling them in opposite directions: Mas needs a graceful exit to avoid increased radicalization of the nationalist vote, while Rajoy's stout defense of Spanish unity rouses his conservative forces in the middle of a bruising term marked by spiraling unemployment and corruption allegations against his own People's Party hierarchy. It's time for some statesmanship and a broader vision. Otherwise, a conflict that has so far been a phony war of political posturing could take on less democratic expressions. Unlike the Basque extremists who formed and supported the terrorist organization ETA, Catalonia's independence movement has traditionally eschewed violence. Whatever Spain's Constitution does and does not allow for, there is clearly a danger that intransigence on the part of Madrid could lead to insurrection in the streets of Barcelona.
Photo: JOSEP LAGO/AFP/Getty Images