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Opinion

Opinion: Spain versus Catalonia – An epidemic of insanity

The damage has already been done to both Spain and Catalonia, writes DW's Martin Muno, regardless what happens as a result of Sunday's planned independence referendum.

Carles Puigdemont's Catalonian regional government is likely to furtively welcome whatever means chosen by Spain's Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy to block the independence referendum in Catalonia. Whether it's stationing the police and paramilitary Civil Guard in the region, raiding polling stations or arresting Catalonian leadership, the central government in Spain seems to be doing everything to intensify Catalonia's hate towards the central state.

Rajoy is like a populist who throws fuel on the fire and then complains that it's burning. His ruling conservative party is largely to blame for expanding the ranks of Catalonia's independence movement.

Read more: Catalonia, Madrid ramp up rhetoric ahead of contested independence referendum

Declaration of autonomy: A missed opportunity

The regional and the central governments agreed to sweeping autonomous powers in 2006, which Catalonian voters supported in a referendum. Catalonia was henceforth defined as a "nation." With the Statute of Autonomy it seemed that it might be possible to heal the fractured relations between Barcelona and Madrid that had been first stoked during the civil war in the 1930s and the resulting Franco dictatorship.

Muno Martin

DW's Martin Muno

However, Rajoy's party contested the Statute in Spain's Constitutional Court, which ruled against key articles in 2010. The court decision suggested that a recentralization of political power towards Madrid was in the works, with palpable consequences: Before the ruling, just 14 of Catalonia's 135 regional parliamentarians were in favor of independence. Now it is 72 – an absolute majority.

Everyone's a loser?

Catalonians know the dangerous game they are playing. It is perfectly clear that an independent Catalonia would create complicated relations with the rest of Spain and the European Union. A split not only endangers FC Barcelona's place in both the Spanish league and Champions League, but forces a region the size of Belgium to build its own state infrastructure. It means leaving the EU. It means problematic trade with Spain and Europe. The ecstatic joy now being expressed about the prospect of an independent Catalonia may quickly go quiet when reality sinks in.

Read more: Catalonia referendum throws FC Barcelona's future in doubt

Madrid's resentment of Catalonia's independence sentiments is understandable. Catalonia comprises one-fifth of the country's GDP. Without it, Spain faces further economic stagnation. The EU also has good reason to be concerned. Independence for Catalonia may spark similar movements in Basque Country, Northern Ireland, South Tyrol, Scotland and Flanders.

Read more: Beyond Catalonia: Separatist movements in Western Europe

Too late to go back?

As for the referendum itself, given recent police raids and arrests, it seems unlikely an orderly process can happen on Sunday. Its result would hardly be legitimate, either politically or legally.

Could Rajoy's government block a future referendum? It could, but at the price of a permanent and massive presence of the Civil Guard in Catalonia. The consequences of that move were already experienced in Basque Country in the 1980s: A de facto state of emergency that led even some conservative Spaniards to sympathize with the ETA separatist group.

Spanish and Catalonian leadership are acting like teenagers racing their cars. They need to start negotiating in order to avoid disaster. A fair financial deal, autonomous rights and a federal form of governing from Madrid all need to be on the table. However it is doubtful that either Puigdemont or Rajoy are the right men for this job.

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