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Taking back the initiative

Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy was right to appeal the Catalan referendum, but must now provide credible alternatives to the independence drive

Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has taken the next step in the escalating conflict behind the initiatives of Catalan premier Artur Mas, on the basis that the latter is treating Spanish institutions with a policy of “shortcuts that violate the law.”

The diagnosis is accurate, and Rajoy had no choice but to block the challenge that Mas posed last Saturday when he unilaterally proclaimed that the Catalan referendum on self-rule would take place on November 9 – a vote that Rajoy views as an attack against the rights of all Spaniards.

The pro-independence offensive is a matter of state, not just a matter of government criteria. And behind it are all the people who believe in the rule of law.

As Rajoy himself has underscored, laws can be changed through dialogue, but existing procedures must be respected; flouting the law is unacceptable in every way, beginning with the Constitution. This is why other political leaders, including Socialist secretary general Pedro Sánchez, have expressed support for the government on this point.

The time has come for all parties to act responsibly, abandon entrenched positions and use dialogue

But the gravity of the situation should not be played down. There has been a deliberate attempt to seek a clash of legitimacies: the sovereignty of the Spanish people is being pitted against the sovereignty that the Catalan parliament assigns to the residents of that region. This, despite the fact that in March 2013, the Constitutional Court ruled that Catalonia could not unilaterally call a referendum to decide on something that concerns all Spaniards.

Now, the Constitutional Court has temporarily suspended the referendum and must determine whether the legal framework created by the Catalan legislature and by Catalan premier Artur Mas conforms to the Spanish Constitution or not. The court should also specify the effects of this suspension on activities connected with the vote, such as campaigning, ballot box manufacturing, census drafting and so on.

The Catalan government is taking on enormous responsibility by operating on the basis of done deals. Mas should not go around repeating the message that the best thing for everyone is to accept whatever he happens to decide. Much less should he pretend that the November 9 referendum is nothing more than a survey of 5.4 million Catalans, as he attempted to do in an interview on Sunday.

It must also be noted, however, that for the last two years Rajoy has been hiding behind a generic line of defense built around the Constitution, which has led him to reject all Catalan proposals without making any suggestions of his own.

Rajoy should admit something is afoot when thousands of Catalans keep demonstrating in favor of independence

At this momentous crossroads for Spain, Rajoy should recover the political initiative and admit that something is afoot when hundreds of thousands of Catalans keep demonstrating in favor of independence and ask to be allowed to vote to clearly express their position. Although it is true that Catalonia is a region just like all the others, it is no small matter to Spain that there should be a problem in a dynamic area that generates nearly 20 percent of the country’s wealth.

Rajoy says he is not opposed to reforming the Constitution, but adds that anyone wishing to do so must build up sufficient support. Socialist leader Pedro Sánchez correctly notes that the Constitution cannot be defended from a spirit of intransigence, but from one of renewal. The time has come for all parties involved to act responsibly, abandon entrenched positions and use dialogue, like Rajoy said, to prevent the situation from descending into a confrontation among Catalans and between Catalonia and Spain as a whole. The challenge lies in bringing back important segments of Catalan society into the common project.

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