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A Failure of Leadership in Spain

Mariano Rajoy should never have let the Catalan independence crisis come this far.

Mariano Rajoy
Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy arrives at Congress in Madrid, October 29, 2016 (La Moncloa)

The unstoppable force of Catalan separatism is about to meet the unmovable object that is Mariano Rajoy.

The Spanish prime minister and conservative party leader has vowed to prevent an independence referendum in the northeastern region at all costs. The Catalans are determined to vote anyway.

Neither side will be able to claim victory on Monday.

Rajoy may succeed in blocking the vote, but his intransigence has already convinced moderate Catalans there isn’t a future for them in Spain. The separatists may manage to organize a referendum, but it will be so marred by illegality and irregularity that the outcome cannot possibly be considered a mandate to break away.

This crisis has been many years in the making

Older Catalans remember the repression of their culture and language under the dictatorship of Francisco Franco.

A younger generation of separatists was galvanized when Spain’s Constitutional Court, in a suit brought by Rajoy’s People’s Party, overturned parts of Catalonia’s autonomy statute in 2010. Subsequent appeals for redress by Catalan nationalists, who have won every regional election since the turn of the century, were ignored by Rajoy, who came to power in 2011.

Rajoy has made a career out of out-waiting problems

When Spain teetered on the brink of insolvency in 2012, he refused to ask the European Union for a bailout. He was vindicated when the European Central Bank calmed markets by buying Spanish bonds.

When Rajoy lost his congressional majority in 2015, he waited half a year while centrist and socialist parties tried and failed to form a government before calling snap elections, which he won.

But the Catalan problem is not going away on its own

Rajoy has delegated responsibility for squashing the Catalan rebellion to police and prosecutors at a time when Spain needs compromise and statesmanship. Rajoy hasn’t shown a capacity for either.

Indeed, he has barely shown up. He has refused to meet Catalan leaders and hear out their demands. In the few public appearances he has made in recent weeks, Rajoy has only robotically maintained that the law must obeyed, betraying no appreciation of the aspirations of millions of Catalans.

An independence referendum is impossible under the current Spanish Constitution. But when three out of four Catalans demand one, sticking to the letter of the law is not a solution.

Nor is raiding printers in search of ballot papers, detaining Catalan officials for organizing a vote and taking pro-independence websites offline. Such heavy-handed tactics only polarize Spain further.

By forcing the Catalans to choose between a Spanish state that denies them a right to self-determination and declaring independence unilaterally, Rajoy is gambling with the future of his country.

Cooler heads may yet prevail. A majority of Catalans still don’t want to leave Spain. But Rajoy should never have let it come this far. A leader would have found a better way.