Spain's national government has triggered Article 155, its nuclear option, to block Catalan independence. The time has come for the European Union to do more than make lukewarm statements, DW's Gabriel Gonzalez writes.
Since before Catalonia's independence referendum, Spanish media have overused the metaphor of two trains — one from Barcelona, one from Madrid, representing the regional and national governments — hurtling toward each other. Those trains have collided. Catalonia has declared independence, and Spain's Senate has, for the first time, permitted the government to invoke the constitution's Article 155, which means disempowering Catalonia's elected government and withdrawing the region's autonomy.
The region has declared itself a state or republic four times since the modern Spain was assembled. It first happened during the 17th-century Reapers' War; then in 1973, during the first Spanish republic; then twice during the second republic, in 1931 and 1934, on the eve of the civil war. None of these, however, was a declaration of complete separation, but rather the proclamation of an independent Catalan state within the idea of a federal Spain. And most lasted no longer than a few days.
Which is why people are looking at this first real declaration of Catalan independence with such bewilderment and consternation and asking themselves how it could be possible. Why now, in 2017, in a democratic and constitutional Spain that has granted Catalans the most comprehensive autonomy they have ever enjoyed and promised them prosperity and freedom within the European Union?
To answer this question one must look to Madrid.
Problem of leadership
Headed by Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, the right-wing People's Party has stumbled through this standoff by relying on legal pedantry, with a complete lack of empathy and diplomacy, and demonstrating an alarming lack of imagination in addition. Rajoy is not up to the job. He has significantly contributed to the escalation of the conflict since at least 2010, when the Constitutional Court of Spain overturned the statutes of autonomy that Catalan voters had affirmed in 2006 at the urging of Rajoy, who was then the opposition leader.
In trying to establish the causes of the standoff and apportion responsibility, one must also look to Barcelona. "We don't want to go to sleep with the dream of Scotland and wake up in Northern Ireland," the Catalan politician Lluis Rabell said recently, alluding to self-determination movements in the United Kingdom. The coming days will show whether the propagandists of unilateral and officially illegal independence are going to transform Catalonia into a Mediterranean Northern Ireland. No one hopes for that, but there are reasons to fear it.
Even the sleepiest EU politician must have realized by now that this is no longer just a Spanish problem. Other EU countries could also fall victim to a new kind of "Spanish flu" in the form of unilateral declarations of independence. The European Union cannot remain on the sidelines, as it did with Scotland and is now doing with Catalonia. It must finally make a constructive contribution toward solving such problems when, as Spain's is, central governments are completely overwhelmed.