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Unblocking the Catalan question

Rajoy should open the door to dialogue while Mas should eschew unilateral action

Within the next few days, a spokesman has announced, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy will answer the letter sent him by Artur Mas, the Catalan regional premier, proposing negotiations on holding a “consensual referendum” on the future of Catalonia. It is to be hoped that the answer will be characterized by some degree of political intelligence because the “Catalan question” and the situation of Catalonia itself have been festering in stagnation and paralysis, each side talking as if to a wall, while Catalan opinion grows radicalized. In any case, nothing is to be gained by a repetition of the mock dialogue held by the two leaders in September of 2012, a week after the massive pro-independence rallies during the Diada (Catalonia’s national day).

At that time Mas advanced his demand for a fiscal pact “along the lines of the Basque Economic Concert” (an arrangement by which the Basque Country and Navarre collect their own taxes, and share a periodically negotiated percentage thereof with the central government in Madrid) in the manner of an ultimatum. Rajoy flatly refused on the grounds that it was unconstitutional: a refusal which Mas, the leader of the Convergència (CDC) party, exploited as a suitable pretext for a new step: holding early elections, and campaigning on the secession issue. Nothing has improved since then. This is why a new meeting cannot be allowed to be a mere ephemeral generator of frustrations. It must be a structured dialogue to explore the possibility of real solutions.

Yet it would be desirable if, in this scenario, the Catalan premier were to offer some solid assurance that his announced desire to hold a referendum “within the law” is not pure rhetoric. Almost all the steps he has taken toward it are unilateral or sectarian. From the declaration of Catalan sovereignty, unsupported by consensus, to the creation of the Council of National Transition, all the moves in the sovereignty campaign point toward the holding of a referendum at variance with the law: a referendum not on independence or, more generally, on the future of Catalonia, but for secession. Far from the Scottish model it claims to emulate.

If anything positive is to come of an encounter, Mas and Rajoy must overcome the handicapped-leader syndrome — one on account of the Palau de la Música scandal, the other because of the Bárcenas case — which consists of turning mutual rivalry into hostility, so as to regain ascendency in public opinion, each putting on a show of strength at the expense of the other.

Similar financial irregularities and serious questions of alleged corruption have obliged both men to make parliamentary appearances on consecutive days. The script for these appearances was almost identical: the absence of precise explanations, the appeal to their own credibility, the portrayal of their party treasurers as if these were sovereign personalities and the failure to mention judicial decisions (acknowledged money transfers in the case of the PP, seizure of premises in that of the CDC).

Should they employ their usual habits of denial and evasion in relation to the Catalan problem, it may be taken for granted that the situation will rapidly grow worse.

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