Spain needs responsible politicians. Instead, they are stoking insurrection

Compromise and careful negotiation can ease the Catalan crisis. Yet both sides in the debate are sticking doggedly, and dangerously, to their moral certitude.

It happened before in the bourgeois capital of a prosperous region that proclaimed itself a republic. The year was 1919 and the revolutionary spirit was roaming the streets of Munich, capital of the short-lived Bavarian Soviet Republic.

That’s where Max Weber delivered his famous lecture Politics as a Vocation (Politik als Beruf), in which he defined the basic virtue of a politician: to be able to balance conviction with responsibility. A responsible politician, he argued, will avoid doing anything that, while impeccable from a moral point of view, could alter the supreme public good of social peace.

Weber’s words fell like a hammer blow on his audience, made up of impetuous students, eager to build a new country. Today in the streets of Barcelona, his sentiments would also fall on hostile ears. The regional government, blind to the social and economic uncertainty in which Catalonia is currently immersed, has abandoned the ethics of responsibility and has thrown itself off the cliff of its earnest moral principles. Since the staging of an unconstitutional referendum on 1 October, more than 1,000 Catalan companies, including its largest banks, have moved their legal headquarters from Catalonia to other Spanish regions. Social unrest is on the rise, with spontaneous, and increasingly difficult to control demonstrations by both separatists and unionists in many Spanish cities – not just in Catalonia.

But the Spanish government also deserves criticism for its decision to impose direct rule from Madrid. The Spanish prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, announced on Saturday that he was legally invoking the rather vague article 155 of the Spanish constitution, which allows the Spanish government to give legally binding orders to regional governments that have been acting outside the law.

After the Spanish senate authorises it next Friday, the Spanish government will dismiss the Catalan executive, and will limit the powers of the Catalan parliament. In practice, this means elected Catalan politicians will be replaced by unelected Madrid bureaucrats. Needless to say, these “men in black” will meet resistance both within the official buildings and in the ever more febrile streets.

If the conservative-led Spanish government executes this plan, it will be acting according strictly to an ethics of conviction. The moral principle is immaculate. Spain’s rule of law has been violated by the Catalans’ illegal referendum, and thus the Catalan authority must be suspended. End of story.

But were it to act responsibly, Spain’s dominant political forces would avoid anything that could lead to a serious disturbance of public order. By suddenly taking the reins of what, like it or not, is the democratically elected ruling body of a 7.5 million-strong region, they risk infuriating large social groups. Indeed, polls suggest that two out of three Catalans oppose the application of article 155.

In an ideal world, the pure and surgical implementation of legality should not delegitimise the actions of a government. However, in today’s Catalonia, what would prevail in the popular narrative is the perception that the Catalan government has been “occupied” by foreign forces. Article 155 will have a boomerang effect both in the short-term – because it may trigger an insurrection in Catalonia – as well as in the long-term, because it will surely enhance the chances of the separatists in the next regional elections.

This does not mean that Spain’s government and its unionist political allies have to renounce their political principles. But they should seek a compromise.

Instead of imposing direct rule and firing the Catalan government from day one, the Spanish government should first ask the Catalan leader, Carles Puigdemont, to call for early elections. In the event of a negative response, the Spanish government could proceed with the mildest implementation of article 155 – that is, legally forcing the Catalan authorities to organise the early elections themselves. Threatened with judicial prosecutions, the Catalan government would be forced to obey – and, as a matter of fact, early elections would be the second-best option for most separatists.

Only if the Catalan authorities failed to comply with this requirement, then, and only then, should the Spanish government take over those Catalan autonomous institutions necessary for organising the regional elections.

Spain’s major unionist parties – the PP, the PSOE, and Ciudadanos – should substitute this gradual chain of actions for the harsher reaction they all seem to prefer now. They need to understand that incrementalism does not mean appeasement, but rather responsibility. Only a better calibrated response can persuade the average Catalan citizen to accept the eventual suspension of the Catalan government as a lesser evil, over joining an insurrection in the streets next week – or in the ballots next month.

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