Force against Catalonia risks a high cost for Spain

It pays to stay ahead of the game. If you don’t plan or innovate as a business you find a competitor will appear in front of you. If you’re a political party that doesn’t catch voters' imagination you’ll find a rival beating you to office – the Tories might like to take note of this after a disastrous end to their party conference in Manchester this week. But what happens if you’re a country and you don’t move with the times to ensure you retain the support of your citizens?

In Spain this fortnight they’re finding out. It turns out that the cost of a rigid and unchanging constitution, that was designed to do one thing (namely, end a dictatorship and help the country transition to a modern democracy), is pretty high as it risks losing the respect of the citizens it supposedly serves. 

Mariano Rajoy, the Spanish Prime Minister, has spent the past half-decade hiding behind the words of the constitution that demand the Kingdom be ‘indissoluble’. Yesterday the Spanish King himself appealed to these words to undermine the organisers of the democratic vote made on Sunday. 

Catalonia’s independence referendum was a symptom of a system which doesn’t keep up with shifting priorities of its people. Catalans have, more and more, been drawn to a rival project that says it reflects better the aims, identity and aspirations of the people of Catalonia better than a government based in Madrid. These shifting priorities have come up against the hard fact of a constitution that Spanish authorities will not let bend. 

Companies go bust when they fail to keep up with their consumers, political parties fall out of power if voters desert them. Countries are no different, if their institutions and structures don’t match their citizens’ preferences they find their authority dissipates totally and they unravel without extreme coercion. Beating old women, using military police to injure nearly a thousand of their own people, troops on the streets, and now suspending parliamentary operations makes it pretty clear that Spain is choosing the option of force. Spain should be more careful, its constitution and modern authority is derived from its commitment to democracy. 

Flexibility, conciliation and a proposal to run a second and fully respected referendum could yet save Spain. It’s still an option for Rajoy and the Spanish establishment. It could win a vote if it gave its Catalan citizens the choice. It’s a risk that Spain should take. And, after a decade of intransigence and a weekend of violence it’s a right Catalonia has won. If Spain doesn’t take the risk, just like a business running out cash, the state will find (very quickly indeed) it doesn’t have enough Catalan supporters to justify its continued control of the region. 

But what happens if Rajoy chooses to inflict pain on Catalonia? Frankly, Spain risks undermining not just its own authority but the legitimacy of the European continent to speak out on the issues of democracy and violence against citizens across the world – that’s one hell of a cost for the EU to bear in order to maintain the territorial integrity of a member state.

I have a small bet in the office. I am betting that the European Commission, its Parliament and its member states abandon Catalonia when it declares independence (which the Spanish court’s planned suspension of the Catalan parliament for next Monday has almost certainly made even more inevitable).

If I’m right, if Europe turns the other way and Spain is free to crack down on its own people without any international repercussions, it will show up the lie that the EU is a project that works for its citizens and not just its bureaucracies and elites. The European Union might just find its own authority goes as well and it risks a crisis of its own legitimacy – of those that were drawn to its nature as crossing boundaries and transcending national identities – the Catalan crisis is a European crisis too. Will the EU step ahead of the game?