Financial Times

A glimmer of hope for the future of Catalonia

More autonomy in a reformed Spain is the most sensible way forward

JULY 15, 2018

The road to a settlement between the Spanish state and the separatist-ruled region of Catalonia is steep and strewn with obstacles. Like its conservative predecessor, the Socialist government in Madrid is unreservedly committed to the unity of Spain, enshrined in the 1978 constitution. Conversely, the ruling coalition in Barcelona appears as determined to secede from Spain as was the government that made a reckless, illegal declaration of Catalonian independence in October. These positions are fundamentally irreconcilable.

 There are nevertheless ways to drain the political atmosphere of the poison that has turned the confrontation into Spain’s most serious internal challenge since a failed military coup in 1981. It is in this spirit that Pedro Sánchez, Spain’s prime minister, and Quim Torra, Catalonia’s regional premier, met on July 9 in Madrid. No breakthrough came from the talks. None was remotely likely. Yet the meeting offered a glimmer of hope that a constructive, practical dialogue might unfold in months and years ahead.

 The two leaders agreed to revive a forum of Spanish and Catalonian government ministers that last met seven years ago. They also considered holding a joint ceremony in Barcelona to honour victims of the Islamist attacks there in August 2017. On Catalonian secession, however, there was complete disagreement. Mr Sánchez made clear his opposition not only to independence, but to a referendum on the issue. For his part, Mr Torra is a diehard separatist who owes his rapid ascent to Carles Puigdemont, his predecessor, who handpicked him for the premiership. Mr Puigdemont, having fled Catalonia last year, is in Germany awaiting possible extradition to Spain.

 Political conditions in Madrid and Barcelona make it difficult, but not impossible, to build on the modest progress achieved so far. Mr Sánchez leads a minority government and may choose, or be forced, to call an election next year. He is wary of making concessions to Catalan separatists that would tempt the conservative People’s party and the liberal Ciudadanos party, his main opponents in Madrid, to paint him as weak on Spanish unity. In Barcelona the government is a mishmash of leftwing, centre-right and independent forces whose only unifying element is the goal of secession. Any concessions to Madrid might fracture this alliance.

 Given his precarious grip on power, Mr Sánchez may wish to play for time rather than launch bold pre-election proposals. But for several years the Socialist party has devoted much thought to the Catalonia problem. Its ideas are broadly on the right track. The party envisages a deal that would expand the region’s autonomy, while respecting the 1978 constitution’s insistence on Spain’s indivisibility.

 Such an initiative must give Catalonia more control of its financial resources. It ought to include explicit recognition of the Catalans as a nation, instead of an unnamed “nationality” — the wording used in the constitution. It could also involve reforming the Senate, Spain’s upper legislative chamber, to make it more representative of the country’s autonomous communities. The PP and Ciudadanos should do their best to find common ground with the Socialists on these proposals.

 True, such an offer, though potentially attractive to moderate Catalan nationalists, would never satisfy intransigent secessionists. But the latter should remember that independence is a deeply divisive issue in Catalonian society. Not one opinion poll during the past eight years of crisis has shown a majority for secession. More autonomy within a reformed Spanish state is the most sensible way forward.