If both sides are willing to lose some face, the Catalan crisis can be peacefully resolved

Protesters shout slogans and wave Esteladas (Catalan separatist flags) as they gather outside the High Court of Justice of Catalonia in Barcelona, Spain, on 21 September: Reuters

The best way to judge the scale of the constitutional crisis in Spain is to transpose it, albeit imperfectly, to a UK context. Imagine, then, a world where Theresa May orders in police and soldiers to raid Scottish government’s offices in Edinburgh, arresting 14 senior officials in the process, and seizing independence referendum materials. Then the Chancellor, Philip Hammond, declares the financial “credit” Scottish-based agencies can receive from UK-wide entities to pay wages and order supplies is suspended, and they require Edinburgh to seek HM Treasury approval for all non-essential Scottish government spending.

Then there’s a broadcast by the Prime Minister calling Nicola Sturgeon’s unofficial referendum illegal and urging her to end her “escalation of radicalism and disobedience”, adding a threat of jail for postal workers and local authorities if they have anything to do with the regional referendum.

Then Ms Sturgeon fires back that she intends to declare unilateral independence within 48 hours of a Yes vote. That is how acrid the atmosphere in Spain has become. Hence the dangers. There is more than a whiff of confrontation in the air.

Nowhere in Europe, no stranger to separatist movements, is a state currently facing such an immediate threat to its integrity as does the Kingdom of Spain. It is almost as if the Catalans were acting on Donald Trump’s cue at the UN about the imperatives of sovereignty.

Plainly, matters have been allowed to drift for too long, too far. Perhaps the Spanish government hoped the problem would simply melt away of they ignored it for long enough, or that no one would take it seriously, and boycott the exercise as they did in 2014. Or they may have thought the Catalan administration was bluffing, and would think again.

On their side, the Catalans may have deliberately provoked Madrid into its state of overexcited exasperation, precisely as a way to pitch the centre against the provincial government, and to heighten tensions. It is also the case that many Catalans, at the top of the political system and throughout that prosperous land, sincerely and passionately believe in their independence, on cultural, linguistic and political grounds, and want to get on with it.

They are entitled to their view of course, just as the rest of Spain’s electors and government are entitled to voice theirs. The way the situation has been handled, with both sides badly miscalculating the reactions of the other, may or may not increase the chances of indolence, but they have made the crisis in Spain what it is today – serious and immediate, and the most grave since democracy was restored four decades ago.

Madrid fears, understandably, that if Catalonia was to break away then so would other regions, such as the Basque Country, which has also long harboured ambitions of statehood. The authorities in Barcelona, meanwhile, look around the kaleidoscope map of the Europe of today, more fragmented than in centuries, and see plenty of examples of smaller sovereign states surviving and indeed prospering within the ambit of the European Union, such as the Baltic republics, former constituent parts of the Soviet Union and the likes of Slovenia and Croatia (ex-Yugoslavia) and the Czech Republic and Slovakia (the division of Czechoslovakia). That potential political framework is one reason why Spain has proved so unhelpful to the SNP’s claims about the ease of attaining “independence within Europe”.

They ask in Barcelona: if states as dinky as Luxembourg, Malta and Cyprus (with their combined populations of 1.5 million) can have EU member status, with commissioners and votes in the EU Council, then why not Catalonia (whose population is 7.5 million)? One (bad) reason being that Spain would immediately veto a Catalan EU application, thus dragging the European Union into a second unwelcome large-scale distraction running alongside Brexit.

As Scotland and Catalonia agitate for secession, Belgium, host to the EU, could break up and it is anyone’s guess as where the Basque region, Wales or Northern Ireland – as well as numerous other wannabe nation states – could end up. It would certainly complicate the “Spanish” claim to Gibraltar if there is no Spain to speak of. There would be no winners from such a chaotic turn of events.

Tempers need to cool, for the good of all. The Spanish government has the means to frustrate the Catalans whether they like it or not; and any independence that is claimed without the consent of Madrid would be inherently unstable, if not unsustainable.

In return, the Spanish government must agree to a new and properly constituted democratic vote on the future of Catalonia, and agree to respect its findings. No vote can be upheld as legitimate, fair and free if the authorities seek to undermine it and the political heat is so intense that it melts rational debate.

Before the referendum is held on 1 October, the two sides in this have to step back from this brink and reset their negotiations over the Catalans’ contested constitutional status, including further options for “asymmetric“ devolution (such that Catalonia would enjoy further autonomy in areas that other parts of Spain do not enjoy or require).

As with Scotland in recent times, the division of opinion within Catalonia on independence is such that continuing argument is inevitable. If there were a permanent and overwhelming majority for independence in Catalonia, or for the status quo, then the issue would have long ago been determined, and Madrid and Barcelona would not now be squaring up to each other.

Carles Puigdemont, the President of Catalonia, sincerely or not, has offered “unconditional dialogue” with his counterpart, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, who would be wise to accept the offer. He would be wise also to take the initiative with the counter-offer of a legitimate, legal plebiscite on agreed terms and agreed timings. Few nations stay together under threat of force; but few with a strong democratic tradition need fall into violence to resolve the irreconcilable. Unlikely as it seems, dialogue and some sort of peaceful resolution of the Catalan question remains the most likely outcome. It will require both sides to lose some face, however.

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