Spain has a new Prime Minister, after the conservative administration of Mariano Rajoy and his Popular Party was ousted in the country’s first confidence vote since the return to democracy.
His successor is Pedro Sánchez, the leader of the Socialists, who has managed to cobble together an alternative coalition without new elections by winning the support of three Catalan separatist parties.
Given that the Government is apparently facing an immediate ‘Catalan crisis’, this last fact is a concerning development.
Rahoy has received a lot of flak for his handling of Charles Puigdemont’s illegal bid to separate the province from Spain last autumn. Some of it has even come from this site.
But not all of it is fair. Whether or not the Spanish constitution is one we would choose to copy, it was ratified democratically and it prohibits any part of Spain from seceding from the whole. There are mechanisms in place to change the constitution, but the Catalan government eschewed these in favour of what was an illegal vote. And it was the Spanish courts, not the government, which acted to uphold the law and sent in the police.
Those who insist that Madrid ought to have adopted London’s approach overlook crucial points, not least of which is that David Cameron’s policy of conceding point after point to the SNP to ‘settle the issue’ handed the separatists enough advantages to make the fight much closer than over-confident unionists had expected.
But more importantly, the SNP were not attempting to hold an illegal referendum, but seeking one through the proper constitutional channels. It would have been fundamentally different if the Scottish Government had attempted to unilaterally hold an illegal vote, and one hopes that London would have adopted a firmer policy in such circumstances.
As for Madrid’s controversial use of the European Arrest Warrant to bring Catalan ministers to trial on charges including ‘rebellion’, well… those are crimes in Spain, and they stand accused thereof, and it’s not an obviously unreasonable charge in light of their behaviour. This piece is very interesting on the curious case of Puigdemont’s warrant, but it seems reasonable to argue that prosecuting a politically-motivated crime does not automatically mean that the prosecution is illegitimate or politicall. Not unless you want to create a ‘defence of political motivation’.
The sum of this is that there isn’t an easy alternative strategy on Catalonia for Sánchez to adopt. Spain has been devolving power to Catalonia for decades without any appreciable decline in separatist sentiment (see the cartoon at the bottom of this post). To make yet further concessions in the face of the Catalan government’s illegal conduct would have set a very bad precedent indeed and invited more of the same.
But the history of devolution is in many ways the story of unionist parties striking Faustian pacts with nationalists, or nationalist sentiment, for short-term political gain and leaving their successors to grapple with the fractures that result. If Sánchez seeks to avoid an early election, or if one is held and doesn’t deliver him a stable coalition, he may well be tempted to throw a few more bones to the separatists – concessions which will, needless to say, be banked without reciprocation.
Such a policy wouldn’t create nasty front pages or viral pictures, and it would doubtless win the approval of the constitutional sages who have overseen two decades of deepening fragmentation in both Spain and Britain. But there are no obvious grounds for thinking it would do anything but further empower a movement which already felt confident enough to make an illegal independence bid – pretty much guaranteeing more scenes like last autumn’s somewhere down the line.
According to the Times, the new Prime Minister is “scrambling to devise a solution to the Catalan independence drive which has threatened to tear Spain apart.” The idea that there is a ‘solution’, that satiating the separatists is just one more concession away, is a fallacy which has served Spain and Britain poorly.
Sometimes you just have to say ‘no’, and mean it. Rajoy, for all his faults, understood that. Hopefully his successor does too.