Published:  12:52 AM, 12 September 2017

The issue of Catalan separatism

Catalan lawmakers have voted to go ahead with an October 1 referendum on separating from Spain. Spain's constitutional court declared the vote suspended. And Catalan politicians said they would proceed. Hundreds of thousands of independence-minded citizens are expected to take to the streets of Barcelona in a show of force, further roiling the waters. Just weeks ago, Catalonia was the scene of a terrorist attack that killed 16 people, most of them when a van ran over pedestrians on Barcelona's main promenade.

The show of unity that followed was but a brief spasm, it turned out. Almost immediately, Catalan and Spanish politicians --- in addition to pointing fingers at each other over potential security lapses - resumed their sparring over the region's aspirations. Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy told Catalonia's elected officials that their duty was to "prevent or paralyze" the referendum.

Separatism has deep historical and cultural roots in Catalonia, which has a distinct language. At one point, Spain's national lawmakers came close to appeasing Catalan's nationalist sentiment by allowing the region special autonomy. But when that statute was struck down by Spain's constitutional court in 2010, the tensions came to the fore.

The dispute gathered steam during the financial crisis after Rajoy rejected a plea by Catalonia to reduce its contribution to a Spanish tax system that transfers money from wealthier to poorer areas. Spain has emerged from its banking crisis to spearhead Europe's economic recovery, with a gross domestic product that is expected to grow over 3 percent this year. But that has not curbed the independence drive in Catalonia led by separatist lawmakers who have held a majority in the regional assembly since late 2015.

The overall situation has caused a political confrontation forthcoming, regardless of the effect of the referendum. The Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy had threatened to summon Article 155. This may beget discomfited questions in a European democracy. The amputation of ballot boxes by the police, or their negation to allow polling booths to be opened, seems to be more a theoretical possibility in the broader regional context.

The European Union would undoubtedly reserve itself from any demand in Spain. It may cause Brussels some discomfiture to be silent on any explicit obstacle of a popular vote by Madrid. With some imagination, it should not be hard to tap into the currently improved economic prospects for Madrid to strike strategic compromises with Barcelona. Such a conciliatory stance is imperative considering the risk of a populist upsurge in a region where separatism remains a live issue.

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