The Basques and Catalans have swapped places, I argue in my latest op-ed for the Netherlands’ NRC newspaper.
It used to be that the Basques fought for the independence while the largest party in Catalonia leveraged its kingmaker position in Madrid to negotiate for autonomy.
Now the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) holds the balance of power in the Spanish parliament; it provided Socialist Party leader Pedro Sánchez with the votes he needed to oust Mariano Rajoy on Friday. The Catalans openly defied the Spanish state by organizing an independence referendum on October 1.
What explains the differences?
First of all the attitude of Spain. The Basques got far-reaching autonomy, including the right to collect their own taxes. The Catalans, who have always shunned violence, got less power and were forced to surrender some more in 2010, when the Constitutional Court rewrote parts of the region’s autonomy statute in a case brought by Rajoy’s conservative People’s Party.
Another reason is the attitude of the Catalans themselves. It is said they would rather dream of independence than make it a reality. Secession is, after all, not without its risks. There is a lot of business between Catalonia and the rest of Spain that would be affected. An independent Catalonia would need to reapply for EU and euro membership and Spain would have a veto.
That 40 to 50 percent of Catalans nevertheless want to secede is Rajoy’s fault. Why couldn’t his party accept Catalan autonomy? Why wouldn’t he allow a referendum on independence? Why can’t the Catalans collect their own taxes, like the Basques?
Rajoy refused to so much as negotiate with the Catalan government. The hope is that Sánchez will be more conciliatory, but for many here it will be too little, too late. A year ago, Catalan nationalists would have accepted a “Basque” solution. Now the autonomists are in the minority.
Whereas the Basques have reconciled themselves to Spanish rule, the Catalan people are polarized between opponents and proponents of independence with almost no middle ground.