Our prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, had said that he would make a move only when the Catalan premier took significant steps in connection with what he calls the "sovereignty process," of mounting a referendum (prohibited by the Constitution) for the independence of Catalonia. Well, Mas has already taken a significant step; now it is Rajoy's turn.
Four Catalan parties, CiU, Esquerra, ICV and CUP, who add up to an ample majority in the regional parliament and who represent an ideological spectrum ranging from conservative Catalan nationalism to the extreme secessionist left, have announced a question to be put to voters in the referendum, and a date for holding it. Their many discrepancies on the exact wording of the question had introduced a certain amount of tension into the atmosphere. The political stalemate had displaced media attention to collateral sideshows such as the pro-secessionist historians' congress titled "Spain against Catalonia", and the looming threat of an unedifying public ideological squabble. Suddenly, the announcement of inter-party agreement on the referendum has brought politics back into focus.
The surprise lies in the double question, or sequential branching question: Do you want Catalonia to be a state? In the affirmative case, the voter will have a second option: Do you want this to be an independent state? It might be thought that the intention is pedagogic: to ensure that there is no ambiguity whatsoever in the vote for independence. The reality is that the secessionist-left party Esquerra has had to accept, for the sake of consensus, a formula which is neither clear nor binary, as it has always advocated. The pressure from the conservative nationalist party Unió and the ecologist party Iniciativa has apparently prevailed.
Do some of us, perchance, harbor a suspicion that the mainstream nationalist party Convergència has seen the double question as a way to wriggle out of its own uncomfortable, not-entirely-welcome "independence process"? This may be, but very probably the key to the consensus has been otherwise: all the parties have an interest in the accumulation of political capital with an eye to the gallery, and not in the referendum itself, which they all suspect will never be held. In any case, the Catalan Socialists are left in an uncomfortable position: the condition they demanded for supporting the referendum - that the question not be for independence alone - has been fulfilled. If they remain aloof, they clearly align themselves with the pro-Spanish parties PP and Ciutadans.
The political stalemate had displaced media attention to collateral sideshows
So now Rajoy has a proposal on the table. It is taken for granted that he will say no. The agreement ends one stage, that of previous discussions between the Catalan parties, but produces no significant change in expectations. The announcement of question and date will produce a great hubbub in Spanish politics, and high tension in the media, but it will not alter the road map: no to the referendum, on the part of the Spanish government; and early regional elections in Catalonia in sight in the near future, when the CiU-ERC coalition falls apart. However, it is beyond doubt that the question as formulated does offer more room to the Spanish government. Because the differential between the first yes, that of a change in the relation with Spain, and the second yes, that of independence, will be decisive.
If favorable to the first, the referendum would open the path to negotiation of a new constitutional pact, a "third way" that no one has so far been capable of proposing. But the fear and blindness of the politicians who decide things in Madrid make the referendum look highly improbable. The question offers Rajoy and Rubalcaba an opportunity that they will not know how to take, for reasons of principle: Spanish nationalism also darkens the mind.