Chaos in Catalonia

Anti-Catalan referendum © Getty images
Both sides must de-escalate the conflict

Spain is in turmoil, says the Financial Times. Last Sunday more than two million people in the region of Catalonia took part in a referendum on secession from Spain. Ninety per cent of the votes cast were in favour, but turnout for the vote, which had been declared illegal by local and national courts, was just 42%.

Clashes between independence supporters and the police, who tried to stop people voting, have left more than 800 people injured. Catalan president Carles Puigdemont intends to declare independence unilaterally – a step the government insists is legally invalid.

The “clumsy and heavy-handed” response to the vote “will stoke the flames of separatism”, says Roger Cohen in The New York Times. However, “on a fundamental point [Spain’s prime minister Mariano] Rajoy was right: the referendum was illegitimate, having been suspended by Spain’s constitutional court”. By holding the vote, the Catalan government also defied “the many Catalans who do not favour independence and would not take part in the referendum”.

The province is endangering a settlement that’s brought both Catalonia and the wider country “a degree of prosperity and democratic stability unimaginable” at the time of Franco’s death. Indeed, declaring independence now would be the culmination of a “serialised coup d’état”, says Spain’s El Pais.

Of course, if Catalonia does manage to leave, this “would be an even heavier blow” to Spain than Scottish independence would be to the UK, says Martin Wolf in the Financial Times. Catalonia accounts for about 19% of Spanish GDP, while Scotland comprises a mere 8% of the UK’s.

However, Madrid could also make things difficult for a newly independent state because “an independent Catalonia would almost certainly have to leave the EU and then apply to rejoin”. Indeed, “even the threat that Barcelona’s football team might be excluded from the Spanish league” would be a key issue for many voters.

Given the ability of both Barcelona and the rest of Spain to inflict economic damage on each other, it is “high time”, for “both sides to de-escalate”, says The Times.

One way forward is a constitutional conference, with each of Spain’s 17 autonomous regions taking part. The aim could be to produce a series of constitutional amendments that give Catalonia more power, but still underscore “the overarching unity of the Spanish state”. Such reforms might not go far enough for Barcelona, but it is still “worth deploying creative statesmanship to keep the country intact”.