OPINION
Text in which the author defends ideas and reaches conclusions based on his / her interpretation of facts and data

Negotiate, but what?

Spain’s government must do more than merely point out that any Catalan referendum would be unlawful

Not long ago a Catalan businessman told me that his secessionist son asked him if he was worried about the independence movement. "No," he answered, "because this will all come to nothing. If I didn't see it that way, then I would be worried." Perhaps the mass turnout for the pro-independence human chain and recent opinion surveys have now got him worried. At least they ought to be cause for reflection in the national Popular Party (PP) government that opts to do nothing, seemingly in the same belief that the secessionist storm will just blow over.

The recent data can be resumed thus: since the mass rally a year ago, the independence movement has gained ground in Catalan society, and is now the only real political project on the menu. The holding of a referendum on the future of Catalonia is the common denominator of broad majority of Catalan citizens. Intermediate solutions — improved financing, infrastructures, reforms relating to cultural and language matters — are no longer seductive. Not even the prospect of a special tax-sharing arrangement, such as that enjoyed by the Basques, satisfies those who want independence. The traditional Catalan parties are losing voters en masse. The ruling CiU bloc is still falling. The Catalan Socialists and the PP are becoming minority concerns, losing their unionist votes to a new splinter party, Ciutadans. Of course it is not the same thing to express an intended vote in a referendum that is still up in the air, as to do so when the referendum is real. But, if in Catalonia the referendum is seen as the only possible solution. In Madrid, the government and pro-union parties consider that a referendum is impossible. How then to resolve the impasse?

Calculated strategy, laziness, irresponsibility, ignorance of reality, incapacity to imagine a solution, or ingrained authoritarianism — these and other factors may explain the immobility of the Spanish government. The impression is that the PP's view of Catalonia is handicapped by ideas inherited from the past. Catalonia is still confused with CiU; it is still believed that CiU has authority to impose a change of course, and that the conservative nationalists will never turn against the desires of the region's business sector.

Madrid believes the conservative nationalists will never turn against the desires of Catalonia's business sector

Thus the strategy has been to let CiU sink, so that it will eventually mend its ways. But what is happening in Catalonia is the emergence of a powerful social movement, centered on the middle classes but increasingly spreading across the spectrum with no exact correlation to the region's political parties, which, in many cases, are merely following in its wake. At the same time, the alternatives to independence now have practically no voice other than the fledgling Ciutadans movement. The Catalan Socialists are adrift amid their own contradictions and the PP is more isolated than ever.

So the question of the day is: what is there to negotiate? I have often written that, in the end, it is a question of recognition. Catalonia wishes to be a complete political subject, not the arm of a political subject. And this recognition can be conferred by a referendum. It is a question, then, of the conditions thereof: the question to be asked, the minimum voter turnout, the majorities required for any change in the structure of the state, etc. But Madrid governments, conservative and Socialist, flatly refuse to consider such a thing, pointing to its unconstitutionality. Do they feel incapable of competing in a Catalan referendum? Have Spain's two major parties nothing to offer that might be attractive to the Catalans?

The Catalan question demands a political solution. To hide behind the Constitution and refuse a referendum can only aggravate matters. There has to be a doorway for the popular will. This was the view of the Canadian Supreme Court. And it turned out well for the Canadian government. A question of political courage.

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