Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has the upper hand so far in Catalonia's bid for independence. But Europe should learn a lesson from the crisis and try to avoid such local blazes in the future, says Barbara Wesel.
The mood in Barcelona resembles that of the morning after an all-night party. A political hangover and a feeling of helplessness.
The city saw street battles with the police amid highly emotional demonstrations for and against independence. But what's next? Catalan President Carles Puigdemont is no match for the situation; he is buying time while Madrid remains unforgiving – and has more leverage.
The escalation is a warning
Catalonia's independence movement has spread like wildfire since the beginning of October. And the regional government in Barcelona fanned the flames, using demagoguery to fuel emotions. The biggest possible crisis was the goal, and the fire they kindled was successful. A lot of what Carles Puigdemont and his people claimed is absurd: The Spanish government can't be likened to fascism, and there is no democratic basic right to independence for every individual, anywhere and at any time.
But Europe's other governments should take a good look at how the situation in Catalonia got out of hand - and learn a lesson. Ignoring populist movements is not helpful, and neither is letting their demands crash into a wall. That merely serves to fuel the narrative of the oppressed and forgotten who claim they must take matters into their own hands und enforce their rights no matter the price. Mariano Rajoy's inflexibility encouraged Catalonia's secessionists, once no more than a minority movement. Britain acted much more wisely and democratically when it came to Scotland's independence bid.
Which role for Europe?
It is hard to say where they got their child-like faith, but the supporters of independence in Catalonia were convinced Europe would somehow come to their rescue. What an astonishing miscalculation, as the EU is built on the rule of law in the strict sense of rules. The EU's contracting parties are existing national states. The EU has no interest whatsoever to support secessionists, no matter what kind. No Brussels representative will emerge as an official mediator in such a situation - that is unthinkable.
But for EU leaders, there is a lesson to be learned from the Catalan crisis: Populism in its various forms is here to stay – if nothing else, the Austrian election has made that clear. And as unpleasant as it may be, an early warning system must be devised on a European level in order to avoid images like those of police violence in Barcelona.
It's about setting in motion European "soft power," and talking sense to national governments behind closed doors: Gather at the negotiating table before things escalate, before those involved lose face and the point of no return is reached. Otherwise, movements like that in Catalonia and all manner of populist currents, from Islamophobia to Brexit, can hollow out Europe from the inside, and endanger its survival. It's important to man the ramparts before the populists have climbed them, and if possible, to slowly and patiently push them toward negotiated solutions.
These are great times for diplomats who have the opportunity to show their skills, round the clock.