Rajoy’s Attitude Makes Catalan Secession More Likely

Belittling Catalan demands and denying their right to self-determination only hardens attitudes in the region.

Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy makes a speech in parliament in Madrid, May 17
Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy makes a speech in parliament in Madrid, May 17 (La Moncloa)

Whatever happened to Mariano Rajoy’s willingness to talk?

In February, he offered to hear out Catalan demands for self-government except one: holding a binding independence referendum.

Now instead of sitting down with Carles Puigdemont, the Catalan president, Rajoy has avoided meeting him in Madrid and challenged him to what could only be a fruitless debate in the national parliament.

While Puigdemont was giving a speech across town, Rajoy dismissed all his plans as “political, juridical and social nonsense.”

“I can tell Spaniards not to worry,” he told reporters on Monday, “because this will not come into force and the national sovereignty will keep being the national sovereignty as long as the majority of Spaniards want it to be.”

No right

This has been Rajoy’s position all along: no part of Spain has the right to secede unilaterally.

But his refusal to even listen to Catalan grievances, must less recognize their right to self-determination, only makes a breakup of Spain more likely.

The intransigence of the Spanish government has radicalized the Catalan people. A decade ago, less than one in five wanted independence. Given the choice, the overwhelming majority of Catalans would have been content with either the status quo or becoming a federal state within Spain.

But then Spain’s Constitutional Court, in a suit brought by Rajoy’s conservative People’s Party, annulled Catalonia’s autonomy statute, arguing that its description as a “nation” had no legal standing.

Subsequent Catalan appeals were brushed off. An independence referendum in 2014 was declared illegal but nevertheless saw 40 percent turnout. Artur Mas, the regional president at the time, was convicted earlier this month for organizing an illegal vote and barred from holding public office for two years.

His liberal party, long the dominant force in Catalan politics and opposed to independence, has joined the separatist cause, teaming up with the left after the most recent regional election to start the process of seceding from Spain.

Unhelpful attitude

The reaction from other Spaniards, politicians and commentators alike, is too often to belittle Catalan wishes and nitpick the specifics of their plans. They (misleadingly) claim Spain is already one of the least centralized states in Europe and accuse the Catalans of wanting to secede because they feel superior to other Spaniards.

This is an unhelpful attitude. Nobody responds well to being lectured to. Insulting the Catalans’ sense of nationhood as well as the leaders they have elected does nothing to convince them Spain has their best interests at heart.

Spanish nationalists misunderstand their challenge. It’s not to prevent the Catalans from breaking away. If they clearly and really wanted to, there is little Spain could do, short of using force, to stop them.

Rather the challenge is to convince the majority of Catalans they are welcome and respected in Spain.

This shouldn’t be so difficult. Most Catalans still speak Spanish as their first language. Many have friends and relatives in the rest of the country. Catalan businesses operate across Spain and many Catalans work for Spanish companies. The economics argue against independence, not in the least because it would mean giving up and then reapplying for EU membership.

Catalans aren’t desperate for independence. Even now, few surveys find a majority in favor. But eight out of ten do want a referendum. People want their voices heard. They don’t want their destiny decided in Madrid. They want to control their own fate.

If only Rajoy and the rest of Spain could trust the Catalans to make the right choice.