Spain took steps on Thursday to crush Catalonia’s destabilizing bid for independence, the most severe political crisis the country has faced in the last four decades. The move came nearly three weeks after Catalonia held an unconstitutional referendum to secede from Spain. Days of anxiety followed as the Catalan independence leaders and the Spanish government showed no signs of compromise. A decision point is coming on Saturday — there’s still time to dial back the tensions.
While the conflict between Catalonia and the governing power of Spain goes back well over 100 years, the surge for independence reflects the radical rejection of the status quo across Europe. Meanwhile, the European Union has been too reticent to intervene, arguing the crisis is an internal matter. But the EU has a lot to lose if the conflict continues to escalate. An independent Catalonia would serve only to weaken the region and the rest of Spain, the fourth biggest economy in the eurozone. Both Madrid and Barcelona have been shown not to be negotiating in good faith. The EU, as the only honest broker left, has an opportunity to be a neutral and effective mediator.
Spain has been its own worst enemy as the controversy over “Catalexit” intensified. The morning after the referendum, news all over the world carried images of bloodied Catalans, as the Spanish police were deployed forcefully to stop the illegal election in the region, leaving more than 300 people injured. A Madrid court then ordered the imprisonment of two Catalan separatists pending trial on sedition charges. Both were grave mistakes on the Spanish government’s part. Suddenly, the international community became sympathetic toward the secessionists, giving them a political win, however illusory. At the same time, businesses in Catalonia started moving their headquarters to other parts of the country amid the political uncertainty.
Catalonia’s economic prosperity — Catalans account for 16 percent of Spain’s population but make up nearly 20 percent of Spain’s GDP — has been one of the reasons behind the secessionist movement, as the country struggled for the past decade with a dire financial crisis. Catalonia complains it contributes more in taxes to Spain than it receives. On the other hand, many myths and flat-out lies have also fueled the movement, such as the belief that an independent Catalonia will automatically enter the EU. That’s false. More crucially, Catalonia has become an economic powerhouse largely because of Spain’s concessions affirming sovereignty — unmatched in Spain — through the years: taxation power, official language status, broad policy powers.
The Spanish government will decide on Saturday whether or not to take over the Catalan government, an option known as Article 155 in the Spanish constitution. If the option is triggered, more violence and business panic will follow. That’s when Brussels could play an important role as a neutral arbiter tempering the passions on both sides.