Federiga BindiSenior fellow at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, Jean Monnet chair at the University of Rome Tor Vergata, and D. German distinguished visiting chair at Appalachian State University
Unfortunately not—the Catalonian crisis will be the biggest challenge Europe will face since the Balkan wars, and may lead to the end of Spain as we know it.
Catalonia is divided. Spain is divided. King Felipe VI’s speech was inadequate. He should have spoken in both languages—after all, he is fluent in Catalan and Prince of Barcelona. He should have called for dialogue and negotiations between both parties, but instead he stood firmly on the side of the Moncloa Palace.
Though Catalan President Carles Puigdemont is primarily responsible for the crisis, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has transformed what would have otherwise been a unilateral, unconstitutional, and useless referendum into a major victory for the separatists. After seeing pictures of bloodied Catalan elders, citizens who were once lukewarm to the idea of secession are now fully supporting it.
The EU and its member states must resolutely push both parties toward a negotiated solution—possibly, a more decentralized Catalonia that remains within the Spanish state. Separatists need to realize that an independent Catalonia will never be part of the EU and will lose most of its richness. The Madrid government has to face the fact that a Spain without Catalonia will lose both its formal and informal bargaining power and weight in Brussels. Both Puigdemont and Rajoy should resign and give others the task of negotiating. If both leaders remain in power, the ultimate risk is of a violent confrontation: one accidental death is all it would take.
Francisco de Borja LasherasPolicy fellow and head of the Madrid office at the European Council on Foreign Relations
This is not just about self-government—as a Basque, I support it. First, it is about parliamentary majoritarianism over pluralistic democracies—a PiS Poland style of politics. The secession laws were passed by the pro-independence bloc at the Catalan Parliament in a shockingly undemocratic manner. This “referendum” without a “No” campaign was a plebiscite mostly for secessionists.
Second, populism—similar to that witnessed in the Brexit campaign—has largely silenced reason and trounced moderates. It has control over Catalan power, all of which has led to a rise of hate speech and to a political discourse that sometimes resembles Italy’s Lega Norde party.
Third, it is an ultimatum that would abridge other Catalans’s rights, not to mention other Spaniards’s, and which no serious democracy could accept.
Authorities in Madrid must offer a real vision for Catalonia. Constitutional reform is an option and more home rule is feasible. Yet, in the midst of an information war including the usual suspects, only one side is trying to uphold the common rules. Unless the current Catalan leaders step back, they will jeopardize self-government and further destroy political stability, especially after the referendum violence and as we see images of mobs harassing policemen and non-nationalists.
While rightly condemning nationalism elsewhere, still many fall into the romantic trap of this Catalan nationalism and its Trumpesque post truth.
Jonas Parello-PlesnerSenior policy fellow at the Hudson Institute
“El sueño de la razon produce monstruos,” (or, “The sleep of reason produces monsters”) was inscribed by the Spanish artist Goya on his most famous etching. Today, Spain seems to have an equally dimmed sense of reason and has sleepwalked into a self-created nightmare.
October 1 was a sad day that fractured society. Still, Spain can keep together. It is a modern, enlightened, European democracy. My Catalan grandparents and father were repressed in the 1940s before they left Barcelona. Yet Franco’s Spain is in the distant past. Catalonia now has full respect for its language and mostly manages its own financial affairs. If Catalonia were to leave Spain, it would also leave the EU, only to start a cumbersome reentry process.
A few things to remember: the Catalan referendum wasn’t constitutionally mandated, as it had no agreement with Madrid. Secessionists rammed the referendum through the Catalan parliament, ignoring the opposition. If Catalonia is genuinely moving toward independence, this would be a bad start for its democratic tradition.
Furthermore, Catalans are divided. The result of the referendum was overwhelmingly in favor of independence, but it was mainly the galvanized separatists who voted. More than half of Catalans did not vote—including most of my remaining Catalan family. They are part of the silent majority who don’t necessarily want to leave Spain, but might want to leave Catalonia because of the lack of options provided by local politicians.
The use of force by police against recalcitrant voters seemed excessive. Madrid could have maintained the legal and moral high ground without a show a force. Equally, declaring independence now would be reckless. Both the Spanish and Catalans need to regain the rational middle ground to move forward together. Let’s hope they end the slumber of reason together.
Marc PieriniVisiting scholar at Carnegie Europe
During my latest visit to Catalonia three days before the referendum, I was struck once again by the extraordinary economic and social progress achieved during the last three decades. The cities I visited this time, Barcelona and Tarragona, boast infrastructure and a level of social and cultural development that far outclasses most of the comparable cities in the EU’s Mediterranean region. Yet, there is dissatisfaction. A second impression was the widespread recognition that independence would bring popular satisfaction, but also immense economic and social problems—not to mention the deadlock between the Catalan authorities and the Spanish government.
Spain is a country at the heart of European politics. It entered the union after peacefully winning its democratic freedoms after a long-standing military dictatorship, and is a country that has so far successfully managed its internal cultural specificities. Spain (before the Catalan referendum) is an example of what the European Union stands for.
Because Spain’s contemporary history is so emblematic of the EU, the shocking levels of violence witnessed at Catalonia’s independence referendum is not acceptable. Madrid and Barcelona have an obligation: non-violent resolution of differences through dialogue and compromise. The hallmark of the EU endeavor should prevail.
Charles PowellDirector of the Elcano Royal Institute
My short answer is: I very much hope so! Spain is enduring the most serious challenge to its territorial integrity since October 1934, when the Catalan authorities rose against the democratically elected government of the second republic and declared independence. This tragic episode triggered the suspension of the 1932 Catalan Statute of Autonomy and the imprisonment of the rebels, a precedent some seem determined to emulate.
However, history need not repeat itself, and Catalonia’s secession from Spain (which would probably lead to the collapse of its semi-federal state of autonomies) can still be averted if common sense can be made to prevail.
Recent opinion polls tell us that most Catalans do not favour independence, as the recent referendum has confirmed. Furthermore, the majority regard themselves as both Spanish and Catalan (in varying degrees), while only 25 percent say they are exclusively Catalan; and most Catalans would like to determine their future in a legally-binding referendum sanctioned by the Spanish authorities.
This being the case, it should be possible to find a peaceful, negotiated solution to the current stalemate, which could lead to a revamped Statute of Autonomy and a far-reaching constitutional reform. Of course this will never satisfy the hard-line secessionists who are tearing Catalan society apart and threatening Spain’s overall stability, but it might be enough to bring many moderate disaffected Catalans back into the fold. The alternative is simply too awful to contemplate.
Stephen SzaboResident senior fellow at the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies
Spain can hold together, though it will have to be less Castilian and become more of a federal system to survive. It has already devolved considerable autonomy to the Basque region and to Catalonia, and should consider shaping a new constitution along the lines of the German Federal Republic. The German model gives each individual Länder a great deal of control over culture and law enforcement, but also provides for a system of revenue sharing.
It is important that the EU continues to make it clear that an independent Catalonia will not be accepted as a member state—the last thing Europe needs is more fragmentation. The Madrid government should understand that it has widespread international backing for its position, which can be undermined by the heavy-handed tactics employed during the referendum. If the Spanish government remains resolute but restrained, the substantial forces within Catalonia that want to remain in Spain will be given a chance to prevail.
Paul TaylorContributing editor at POLITICO Europe
Spain can hold together if the governments in Madrid and Barcelona choose negotiation over confrontation. As of October 3, they appeared to be going in the opposite direction. The televised address by King Felipe VI, accusing the Catalan leadership of putting itself outside the constitution, suggested that the Spanish authorities had decided to force a showdown rather than open a window for talks on wider autonomy for the province. By putting all the blame on the Catalans and omitting any call for dialogue, he could drive many who are lukewarm about secession into the arms of the breakaway movement.
Catalan President Carles Puigdemont, who called Sunday’s illegal referendum that Madrid sent riot police to disrupt, says the Catalan parliament will proclaim independence in the coming days. The mood in Barcelona is insurrectional. Any attempt to remove Puigdemont could trigger mass demonstrations and violence in what has so far been a peaceful movement.
Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy could still avoid a breakdown if he indicated a willingness to step back and compromise. Sadly, he and his conservative People’s Party (PP) seem to prefer a fight in which the unity of Spain may be the ultimate casualty.
Pierre VimontSenior fellow at Carnegie Europe
This question would have been unthinkable only a few months ago. But the disastrous handling of the whole independence issue, by both Spain and Catalonia, has unleashed a rare degree of hatred and violence that will be difficult to cool down. There is now a risk of irreversibility that could well lead to complete collapse.
Yet there is still hope before disaster. After the events of the referendum, Catalonia may be tempted to follow on with a unilateral declaration of independence. But it is doubtful that Spain’s partners, in or outside of Europe, would endorse any initiative of that sort, or recognize a sovereign Catalonia. In spite of the excessive use of force against independence supporters, the Madrid government is still seen as being on the side of law and order and as protecting the constitution. Prime Minister Rajoy does not look like a dictator while the results of Sunday’s aborted referendum are far from convincing. To retain this broad political support at home and abroad, the Spanish government needs to call for dialogue and show understanding of the more moderate Catalonian politicians. If not, the drift will go on and with it a dangerous threat to Spanish unity.