The fact that Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and several of his government colleagues touched down in Catalonia for a regional Popular Party (PP) event was a definite plus because it at least certified that the Catalan question is a major problem, for Catalonia itself and Spain as a whole. The government has spent two years ignoring the issue, but recognition of a problem is an essential part of finding an eventual solution.
In his first public speech on the matter, Rajoy managed to avoid striking a wrong note when talking about the ties between Spain and Catalonia. This is no joking matter, especially given the sense among Catalans of a lack of recognition on the part of the PP since the party led its campaign against the Estatut and the series of new powers therein assigned to the region. Beyond the rhetoric, the prime minister also made some valuable political points: that democracy consists of more than political representation and voting (what is so frequently described as Catalonia's "right to decide"), but rather the observance of the norms under the rule of law is also key; and also the inverse, in that the rule of law is not properly anchored if there is no voting, whether in elections or a referendum, at the appropriate territorial level.
The PP leader was also right to criticize the unilateral approach taken by Catalan premier Artur Mas and his allies in the formulation of the questions and the date of their proposed regional referendum, besides their anticipation of the result as necessarily being a boost for the independence drive.
The problem with Rajoy's choice of more positive mood music in Catalonia is that it is not accompanied by any lyrics. There is no political content that can play a part in finding a way out of the current impasse. Instead, all of the stances adopted are negative: no to Catalonia's go-it-alone referendum plan, but no counter-proposal under which all Spaniards (including Catalans) could vote; no to any kind of referendum which is considered not only inappropriate but also illegal (something which is debatable); no proposal for constitutional change or any other kind of reform; and the (correctly) negative response to the Catalan administration's refusal to consider the economic, social and European problems that secession would bring with it, but not one clue as to how Catalans could better be included in general solutions for the problems of Spain.
As things stand, we have two proposals on the table: one, that of independence, which excites one portion of Catalan society as much as it gives grounds for unease and irritation to another; the other, which has gained less attention in the media but which is far more sensible, is a federal reform of the Constitution and Spanish democracy as a whole, as championed by the opposition Socialist Party.
The party of government has not been able to seize the opportunity (and it is a great opportunity) to formulate an alternative proposition, not so much to counter the designs of the secessionists but to provide a new horizon to those citizens who feel trapped by their complex strategies.