How Madrid Should Address the Catalonia Crisis

Negotiation With the Regional Government Is Key

A torn sticker depicting a Spanish flag is seen on a streetlight in Barcelona, October 2017. Gonzalo Fuentes / REUTERS

Of all the examples that a government facing a separatist movement could follow, Spain seems to have chosen the Serbian one. It has now threatened to shut down the Catalan regional government if it considers the independence referendum result, as Serbia did with the Kosovar government in 1990. Since October 1 it has maintained a massive presence throughout the region—with police sent in from other parts of the country—despite apologizing for this week’s violence. On Thursday it dispatched hundreds of soldiers to the region, also mimicking the Serbian government’s reaction to Kosovo’s declaration. To many Catalans, all of this resembles an external force occupying a territory rather than a legitimate law enforcement presence attempting to maintain the peace.

On the day of the referendum, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy characterized the crackdown that brought about nearly 900 injuries as a liberal move designed to protect Spanish democracy. In reality, however, Madrid looks to be trading peace through consent for peace through indiscriminate mass force. With each flummoxing step in this process, the central government has eroded the confidence many Catalans had in the social contract, and ruined the reputation for peaceful government it has established since the end of General Francisco Franco’s fascist regime.


Through its draconian post-referendum crackdown, Madrid has transferred the allegiance of many Catalans from itself to a disjointed independence movement that, one week ago, looked destined for failure. The Spanish government had a straightforward path ahead of it. The referendum, unconstitutional and widely perceived as illegitimate, came with no legal guarantees. Turnout was only 42 percent. Absent Madrid’s illiberal reaction, it would have been viewed as a possibly cathartic but basically meaningless political act. The world and many Catalans would have ignored it.

But Madrid has botched its response so badly that it has injected life into the movement and made formerly ambivalent parties take sides. Witnessing such a nakedly repressive crackdown and occupation on its own streets, the Catalan regional

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