Don’t Force Catalans to Choose Between Independence and the Status Quo

Few Catalans are happy with the status quo, but only a minority wants to secede. There is room for compromise in the middle.

Sign demanding a vote for Catalan independence in Girona, Spain, September 22, 2014
Sign demanding a vote for Catalan independence in Girona, Spain, September 22, 2014 (Keith Roper)

Last night I wrote that time is running out to avoid a constitutional crisis in Spain. The Catalans are determined to hold an independence referendum in October; the central government in Madrid is determined to prevent one.

This seems to be a case of an unstoppable force meeting an unmovable object, but there may still be a way out.

A third option

In a column for the Diplomatic Courier, I point out that support for independence is currently about 40 percent — when Catalans are given only two options. When becoming a federal state inside Spain is added as an alternative, only one in three would still vote to secede and, crucially, half the non-separatists would go with the federal option as well.

Whatever their views on independence, 80 percent of Catalans do want a referendum.

Altogether, these numbers point to a solution: A new autonomy statute that gives the regional government more power, put to Catalan voters in a referendum. That way, secession is taken off the table but the Catalans get to have their say.

Remember, Catalonia’s autonomy statute was annulled by the Constitutional Court in 2010. That was a turning point for the independence movement. Before, only one in five Catalans wanted their own state. Afterwards, that rose to almost 50 percent.

Catalans aren’t desperate for independence

If it came to it, I doubt a majority would vote to secede. Many Catalans have friends and family in the rest of the country. Catalan businesses operate across Spain. The economics argue against independence, not in the least because it would mean giving up and then reapplying for EU membership.

But if they are given no alternative to either a status quo they are unhappy with or declaring independence unilaterally, who knows?

There is a third way. All it would take is for the rest of Spain to accept that the Catalans feel separate, give them more power over their own finances and infrastructure (similar to what the Basque Country and Navarre have) and trust them to make the right decision in the end.