On October 10, the president of Catalonia’s autonomous government, Mr. Carles Puigdemont, along with a majority in the Catalan Parliament, signed a document declaring the region an independent and sovereign state.

The Catalan UDI (Unilateral Declaration of Independence) came as no surprise to the region’s 7.5 million citizens, nor for 40 million Spaniards. It had been expected by the supporters of Mr. Puigdemont and his “independentista” coalition, and by the Madrid government of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, leader of Spain’s conservative People’s Party.

After the votes were counted in the October 1, 2017 independence referendum, which had been declared unconstitutional by Spain’s Constitutional Court and was partly suppressed by police and Guardia Civil units, President Puigdemont announced that he would proceed based on an incomplete, 92 percent “yes” vote and proclaim an independent Republic of Catalonia.

Yet what he did was not so simple. Following the tactics described by V.I. Lenin in his famous essay, “One Step Forward, Two Steps Back,” the Catalan leader promptly announced after the UDI was approved by the regional parliament and signed that its legal consequences would be suspended, in order to open a dialogue with the Spanish central government on a negotiated solution.

As Madrid ponders whether to talk or crack down, Spain’s internal situation has become much too dangerous for jokes. But in some ways, the brinksmanship between Mr. Puigdemont and Mr. Rajoy evokes a Spanish farsa – a comedy of errors – performed by a hard core of Catalan independentistasand the hard-liners of Castilian centralism.

History and memory

As presently constituted, the Kingdom of Spain is a multinational state, like the United Kingdom and the Kingdom of Belgium. Spain’s caudillo, or military dictator, Generalissimo Francisco Franco, toward the end of his four-decade rule after the devastating Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939, decided to restore a monarchy under the Bourbon dynasty. His choice fell on Prince Juan Carlos, the grandson of the last King of Spain, Alfonso XIII (1886-1931), who died in 1941 as an exile in Rome.

Spain’s transition from dictatorship to constitutional monarchy was a delicate operation. One of the challenges was incorporating the Army – where loyalty to Franco’s authoritarian and unitarist concept of Spain was still dominant – and the then-powerful Communist Party – considered an instrument of Moscow and perpetrator of its own atrocities during the civil war – into a new order based on liberal democracy.

Even more difficult for the military to swallow was the readmission of regional separatisms to Spanish politics, including nationalist parties from the Basque country and Catalonia.

Spain’s 1978 constitution was negotiated against this historical and political backdrop. Catalonia and the Basque regions were granted a large degree of autonomy within the principle of unity and indivisibility of the Kingdom of Spain.

Catalonia’s Statute of Autonomy of September 1979 was born out of these political and constitutional circumstances, defining the region as an “autonomous community integrated into the Kingdom of Spain.” At the time, Madrid’s favored strategy to defuse Catalan and Basque nationalisms was decentralization, which became so generalized that a total of 17 autonomous communities were created in a generous process of devolution.

Ever since, the autonomous government in Barcelona, or Generalitat, has worked to reinforce Catalan identity by cultural and financial empowerment. The regional parties of that time, such as the Convergencia i Unio (CiU) and its longtime leader, Mr. Jordi Pujol, counted on the power of Catalan as the dominant local language to mold the identity and attitudes of new generations. This appears to have been a good bet, since surveys show a significant growth of pro-independence sentiment among Catalans over the past 40 years.

In 2006, in response to the Generalitat’s growing appetite for more power, a new statute for Catalonia was negotiated between Spain’s Socialist prime minister, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero (2004-2011), and the Catalan leader Artur Mas. The new version, which reinforced the prerogatives of regional institutions, was approved in a constitutional referendum in January 2006, as 78 percent of registered voters supported the changes amid a turnout of 48.9 percent.

One of the reasons that Madrid chose to make concessions to the center-right Catalans was that the Socialists, short of an outright majority in parliament, sometimes relied on lawmakers from Catalonia to prop up the cabinet.

Catalonia’s new statute was opposed at both ends of the political spectrum. On the right, Spain’s Popular Party considered its provisions much too generous, while the Republican Left of Catalonia (Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya, or ERC) believed them to be far too modest. Later in 2010, the statute was revoked by Spain’s Constitutional Court at the request of the People’s Party. Mr. Rajoy has ever since been regarded as an “enemy” of Catalonia.

Balance of forces

The Catalan independence movement has gathered momentum in recent years, finding its voice in the pro-independence bloc Junts pel Si (Together for Yes) – an alliance of the former CiU, which had a traditional middle-class, center-right constituency, and the republican-left ERC.

After the regional elections of September 2015, the Catalan Parliament’s 135 seats were distributed among six main coalitions and parties:

  • Junts pel Si (62 seats) – a coalition of the center-right Convergencia Democratica de Catalunya(CDC) and the ERC. Their MPs, together with the extreme leftists of Candidatura d’Unitat Popular, give the pro-independence front a comfortable parliamentary majority of 72 deputies.
  • Bastions of the anti-independence movement are the Ciutadans – Partit de la Ciutadania or Citizens Party (25 seats), which supports the union with Spain, and the People’s Party (11 seats). Both groups oppose any form of referendum or federalism.
  • Occupying the middle ground is the Socialist Party of Catalonia (16 seats), which is pro-unity and wants to transform Spain into a federal state.
  • Finally, the left-wing Catalunya Si que es Pot (Catalonia Yes We Can) coalition (11 seats) backs the referendum, but is unenthusiastic about independence and separatism. It includes some Greens and Catalan communists.

Confrontation

Most independent observers have concluded that both Madrid and Barcelona have been following the wrong strategies in recent months, demanding things that the other side cannot accept. Both Mr. Rajoy and Mr. Puigdemont must share the blame for this situation.

Mr. Puigdemont and the secessionists want an independent Republic of Catalonia. That’s the bottom line of the Catalan nationalism, an idea rooted in what its supporters consider to be a long tradition of special rights dating back to the Middle Ages, when Catalonia was a force to be reckoned with in the Crown of Aragon and the western Mediterranean.

Set against this project is Spanish nationalism, anchored in the imperial military tradition of Castile. Its adherents find it impossible to accept the secession of Spain’s richest, most developed region – especially because its example would create a precedent for other separatists in the Basque country or in Galicia (even if the situation there is quite different). Prime Minister Rajoy and his first deputy, Soraya Saenz De Santamaria, along with the other top leaders in the People’s Party, have been relentless in their opposition to secession, threatening early on to invoke Article 155 of Spain’s 1978 constitution (authorizing the central government to impose direct rule on Catalonia) – a “nuclear option” approved by the Spanish Senate on October 27, 2017.

In such cases, when a population and a territory want to separate from a state, these legal and constitutional questions are paramount. In the current political context of liberal democracies in Europe, it is exceedingly difficult to suppress by legal means the attempt by a region’s majority population to create their own national community. This is especially true when one is dealing not with a postcolonial situation in a distant country, but with a historical nation in the heart of Europe.

Televised images of the Spanish Guardia Civil clubbing voters during the independence referendum made a bad enough impression abroad. Packing Mr. Puigdemont and the democratically elected leaders of Catalonia off to jail on charges of treason would be even worse.

Miscalculation

Many observers have pointed out that there was room for Prime Minister Rajoy to take a more pragmatic approach before the October 1 referendum. He could have consented to constitutional and legal changes, and even allowed the referendum to take place without interference, while reserving the central government’s right to confirm or reject its validity.

Precedents such as the Quebec referendum of 1995 and the Scottish independence referendum of 2014 suggest that putting the matter to an open and democratic vote – though it entails certain risks – is the best way to resolve the problem. In Quebec, the “No” party won by a narrow margin (50.6 percent to 49.4 percent). A mere 54,288 votes decided that Quebec stayed in Canada. But the question is regarded as settled to this day. The same happened in the Scottish referendum, where “No” votes prevailed by a comfortable 55.3 percent