Spain’s welcome step back from the brink

Spain’s welcome step back from the brink
Financial Times


Madrid and Catalan separatists have a chance to initiate dialogue.


Carles Puigdemont, the Catalan leader, stepped back from proclaiming independence in a speech to the regional assembly on Tuesday night. He also called for dialogue with Spain to resolve a crisis brought about by the separatists’ decision to hold an independence referendum that had been declared illegal by the constitutional court. It is a matter of relief that Madrid is responding with measured steps that acknowledge the gravity of the crisis. An immediate crackdown would almost certainly have deepened confrontation with the separatists and placed a political compromise even further out of reach.


Mariano Rajoy was within his legal rights to initiate moves towards triggering Article 155 of the Spanish constitution, which would give Madrid unprecedented powers to take control of Catalonia’s regional government. But in his own speech to parliament on Wednesday the prime minister instead first demanded clarification from Mr Puigdemont on his intentions.


These are small but promising openings. They buy some time for both sides to cool the temperature, control intransigent hardliners in their own camps, and open channels towards dialogue which for now do not exist. This is a political crisis. The only way to resolve it peacefully is through talks. Nevertheless the situation remains fragile, the atmosphere febrile and the potential for blunders that lead to bloodshed is live.


Mr Puigdemont is less of a hardline separatist than some of his radical colleagues. His claim that the October 1 referendum has given Catalonia a popular mandate to create a sovereign state is disingenuous all the same. Only 43 per cent of the population turned up to cast their ballots, of whom 90 per cent supposedly voted to break with Spain. But if a reminder was needed that Catalan society remains divided, last Sunday’s mass pro-union demonstrations, which brought hundreds of thousands on to the streets of Barcelona, provided it. Opinion polls indicate that slightly more than half of Catalans still favour union with Spain.


Nonetheless, it would be rash for Madrid to feel entitled to take a heavy-handed response as a result. A show of force, such as that on polling day when hundreds were injured as police attempted to prevent polling, risks backfiring. This is a battle that will be won or lost in the court of public opinion, most pressingly among those moderate Catalans who neither favour independence, nor are staunchly pro-union, but who want to see the potential for instability and economic disruption dissipate.


Mr Puigdemont keeps the right to self-determination in his pocket because this is his main leverage over Madrid. Understandably, Madrid is not willing to negotiate in such circumstances. It insists that it will never discuss independence at all.


Yet, as Jonathan Powell, the UK’s chief government negotiator during Northern Ireland talks, wrote in this paper last week, setting such preconditions is “almost always a mistake”. It is just a way of preventing dialogue.


Spain’s allies in the EU and beyond, should continue nudging both sides towards the negotiating table, discreetly from behind the scenes. There is no mandate for Catalan independence. Yet greater autonomy, and some form of recognition of the region’s special status within Spain, could avert a graver conflagration. It might be tempting for Mr Rajoy to think that, with time, tempers will calm and this distraction will go away. Such complacency led to the current stalemate. The only reasonable way out of it now is compromise.