Financial Times

September 12, 2013 6:47 pm 

Catalan question

Resolve constitutional quandary before it becomes a crisis

Catalans on Wednesday turned out in vast numbers to lay claim to their rights as a nation. Last year, commemorating their 1714 defeat by the crown in the War of the Spanish Succession, Catalan separatists physically took over Barcelona without breaking a pane of glass. This year they linked arms in a human chain from the Pyrenees to their border with (Catalan-speaking) Valencia. This problem is not going away. The question is whether it can be resolved politically before it turns into a constitutional crisis.

Despite Spain’s acclaimed transition from Franco’s dictatorship to democracy, it still has not fashioned a comfortable enough plurinational home for culturally and linguistically distinct peoples. This puzzles lots of Spaniards and angers many Catalans and Basques – the root of the problem.

These are peoples with a deep-rooted identity going back centuries. Democratic Spain gave them real powers. But to mollify Spanish nationalists, some form of home rule was awarded to 15 other regions. This created a financially unsustainable bonanza for local interests across the country, without squarely addressing the historic rights of Catalans or Basques.

Catalan separatism took off after a constitutional court ruling in 2010 struck down enhancements to its statute of autonomy agreed by both the Catalan and Spanish parliaments. The financial crisis has added to the sense of grievance; Catalonia is a big net contributor to Spain’s budget, while the Basques have fiscal autonomy.

Mariano Rajoy, Spain’s prime minister, turned down a Catalan request for similar treatment a year ago. When Artur Mas, the Catalan president, called a snap election in response and lost seats, Mr Rajoy gloated. But separatists won a majority in that election, and a federalist left also thinks Catalans should be given the right to decide their future. That is surely right. But first things first.

Spaniards, Catalans and Basques – who plan a push for greater rights in 2015 – need to revisit the idea of convivencia. This evocative word, for the coexistence of Jews, Christians and Muslims in the pre-Castilian world of al-Andalus, is no anachronism. Plurinational Spain needs an asymmetric federalism that gives national minorities rights and space enough to stay inside the family.

Mr Rajoy and Mr Mas are starting to have this conversation – hopefully not too late. This may look like a postmodern conflict. But nationalism has a dangerous way of confounding complacency.