From the opprobrium being heaped on Spanish prime minister Pedro Sánchez from the right, you would think he had just signed away half the country.
Pablo Casado, the leader of the conservative People’s Party, has accused the socialist of “high treason” and argued Spain now faces the gravest threat to its democracy since the failed military coup of 1981.
Albert Rivera of the liberal Citizens has called Sánchez “a danger for Spain”.
What horrible crime has Sánchez committed?
He has agreed to appoint a facilitator in talks with the separatist government in Catalonia.
The separatists have long called for international mediation. During the last seven years, when Casado’s People’s Party was in power, the central government in Madrid refused to so much as negotiate with the Catalans about independence or increased autonomy. This intransigence radicalized the separatist movement. At one point, one in two Catalans told pollsters they wanted to break away from Spain.
Sánchez is willing to talk but maintains that a referendum on independence is still impossible. The separatists, whose support Sánchez needs in the national parliament, welcome the change in tone but are wary. They hope that can outsider can make the Spanish government see reason.
The right-wing reaction is not only over-the-top but premature. Catalan and Spanish officials have not even agreed yet if they will look for a mediator or a mere facilitator — “someone,” in the words of Deputy Prime Minister Carmen Calvo, “to call the meetings and take notes.”
The overreaction is partly political. The Citizens and People’s Party are competing with each other and a new far-right party, Vox, for nationalist votes. Beating on the Catalans is a sure way to win support elsewhere in Spain.
That is because the cosmopolitan, republican, pro-European independence movement in Catalonia represents a threat to the Spanish self-image. So long as Spain dominates the affluent coastal region, which accounts for a fifth of its economy, it can reasonably call itself a great nation. Without Catalonia, it would become a medium-sized European country at best.