FINANCIAL TIMES.- Just as it faces a watershed general election next month, Spain is being convulsed by a vote in Catalonia’s parliament to begin the process of secession from Madrid. For a country just starting to emerge from a profound economic crisis, and at last engaging in debate about political and institutional renewal, the last thing Spain needs is a constitutional crisis calling into question its future as a unitary state.
Catalonia and Spain have been sparring for the past three years as separatist sentiment has built in the prosperous north-eastern region, sharpened by the economic crisis and refusal of the rightwing Partido Popular government in Madrid to discuss greater Catalan autonomy. The risk now is that this phoney war — with vast demonstrations and charged symbolic gestures in Barcelona and veiled threats from Madrid — could give way to a real clash.
This week’s vote in Barcelona sets Catalonia on the road to an independent republic, gives the regional assembly 30 days to legislate for two pillars of a putative new state — Catalan tax and social security authorities — and says Catalan institutions will ignore decisions of Spain’s Constitutional Tribunal, described as “illegitimate”.
The ostensible driver of this resolution was Junts pel Sí, the main independence bloc made up of centre-right nationalists and centre-left republicans, which came first in September’s Catalan elections with 62 out of 135 seats. To acquire a majority in parliament the coalition enlisted a separatist group of the radical left, which won 10 seats. The entire separatist camp presented the regional election as a plebiscite for independence. Yet, even with this motley alliance, it fell short of a majority of votes with only 47.7 per cent. That is far below what it would need morally to justify a rupture with Spain — even if there is no legal provision for separation in the constitution.
Mariano Rajoy, the Spanish prime minister and PP leader, has helped to turn Catalonia’s political challenge into a constitutional impasse by his refusal to discuss change. But Artur Mas, president of the Catalan autonomous government, has bungled the politics of his challenge time and again.
Borne along by the separatist tide, Mr Mas has ceded leadership of the independence movement first to his nationalist rival on the left, Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya, and now to the far left Popular Unity Candidacy (CUP), a radical tail wagging the dog of Junts pel Sí. The extent to which he has lost control is encapsulated by the way these leftists were allowed to shape this week’s parliamentary resolution — and still refuse to vote for his re-election. His standing has been further battered by court cases about kickbacks from public contracts. These have painted a picture of the Catalan ruling party as corrupt as Spain’s ruling PP, which is enveloped by slush fund investigations.
Mr Rajoy yesterday took the Catalan parliament and government to the Constitutional Tribunal. But this is a crisis that requires a political solution. The constitution has served democratic Spain well but the country needs it to become a living document serving a dynamic and evolving state, reformed along clearer federal lines.
This newspaper opposed Scottish secession and regards a break-up of Spain as equally undesirable. The economic consequences would be devastating for both Spain and Catalonia, creating grave political and legal uncertainties and doubts about the viability of public finances on both sides of the divide. Madrid must not overreact to Barcelona’s act of defiance. But it is Catalonia first and foremost that must now step back from triggering a profound crisis.