Catalan Voters Tell Madrid to Back Down

Support for a split. Photographer: Pau Barrena/Bloomberg
Support for a split. Photographer: Pau Barrena/Bloomberg

Spanish Justice Minister Rafael Catala may have grounds to declare that yesterday’s nonbinding independence vote in Catalonia was “an act of pure propaganda that only served to exacerbate divisions among Catalans.” Yet in the face of such open contempt from the Madrid government, support for Catalan independence keeps growing.

The outcome of the poll was ambiguous for secessionists. Some 2.24 million people voted, 80.7 percent of them for full independence, another 10 percent for considering Catalonia a state but within Spain, and 4.5 percent against even the idea of statehood. That puts the number of secession supporters at only a third of the 5.4 million people estimated (by the Catalan government) to be eligible to vote. Because this poll was nonbinding, voters weren't fully confronting the reality of splitting off from one of the world’s major nations and a key European Union member.

And as in Scotland, the spiral of silence phenomenon probably pushed people to back independence. As Susana Beltran, a member of anti-secession Catalan Civil Society, explained, "People who don't want this are afraid to speak out. They don't want problems with their friends, with their jobs, in life in general.”

In a real ballot with legal consequences, people tend to be more cautious and less susceptible to peer pressure. That explains why, in Scotland, the “no”vote ended up being significantly larger than even late polls suggested it would be.

Catalan secessionists must realize that they do not have solid majority support. Yet the vote's more important message is for Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, who last week arrogantly called for “sanity” on the part of the Catalan government. He has consistently refused to deal with the political, rather than the legal, side of the issue.

Rajoy discovered in 2010 that Spain’s Constitutional Court was willing to overrule any Catalan move for more autonomy on the grounds that the Spanish constitution declared the country an indissoluble unitary state. He has repeatedly used the court as a bludgeon, getting it to ban even Sunday’s informal vote.

Yet it is only a matter of time before a majority of Catalans support independence. Sunday’s vote is likely to improve secessionist parties’ performance in the next Catalan parliamentary election, to be held no later than 2016. Then, the law and the will of the people in Spain’s wealthiest region will be in open conflict.

Such conflicts make things tricky, as Ukrainians know from losing Crimea. The peninsula had a vocal and sizeable pro-Russian population that the Kiev government had ignored. When the Kremlin moved to annex the region, Ukraine did not have enough support in Crimea to hold on to it.

Rajoy has signaled his willingness to negotiate with the Catalan government, but only from a position of strength. That's no way to approach a region where close to 2 million people are unhappy with the way they are being governed from Madrid.

Spain is the only European country where people feel a stronger regional than national identity, according to the World Values Survey. That makes centralization a bad idea. The best option for the Spanish government is to go back to the 2006 Statute of Autonomy, which was passed by the parliament and approved by 2.5 million Catalan voters -- but then emasculated in 2010 by the Constitutional Court. By granting Catalans exactly as much independence as they have always asked for, that would effectively put an end to the secession movement.

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View contributor. He is a Berlin-based writer, author of three novels and two nonfiction books.

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