Catalonia backtracks from cry for independence

Soraya S�enz de Santamar�a says talks are under way. Picture: Getty

Soraya S�enz de Santamar�a says talks are under way. Picture: Getty

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After a long hot summer of secessionist rhetoric, as winter sets in the Catalan political class is suffering an attack of cold feet on the independence issue.

The rallying cry has changed from “independence now” to “let’s talk”.

The Madrid government has responded in kind. After 18 months of sneers and silence, it is now talking about dealing with Catalan demands with “tact” and “sensitivity”.

This sea change was signalled in a lengthy editorial published this week in the daily La Vanguardia, the voice of both the ruling Convergència I Unió party and the Catalan business class. Under the headline “Who’s afraid of the moderates?” it made the case for dialogue and negotiation with the Madrid government.

“Moderation signifies a willingness to agree, not weakness or lack of determination. Moderation is more necessary than ever when positions are antagonistic.” It went on to say that, paradoxically, while reformists are gaining ground over secessionists, Madrid seems to prefer a collision course to dialogue. “It appears to be afraid of a third way, involving real and effective negotiation. Is the Spanish government afraid of Catalan ­moderates?”

Apparently not, as this tone of appeasement was immediately matched by senior members of the government. Deputy prime minister Soraya Sáenz de Santamaría made sure the photographers did not miss her friendly chat in parliament with Josep Antoni Duran Lleida, leader of the Unió half of CiU and she said later “dialogue was under way”.

The next day, José Manuel García Margallo, the Spanish foreign minister, said there was a need “to explore alternative ways for Catalonia to cohabit with the rest of Spain” in order to maintain a relationship “that goes back to the Roman ­empire”.

As usual in politics, this change of tone is driven by a combination of realism and opportunism. If there was a watershed moment, it was Mr Duran’s warning to Mariano Rajoy, Spain’s prime minister, that if his government didn’t adopt a more conciliatory stance, it would face a unilateral declaration of independence on the part of a frustrated Catalan parliament. Mr Duran is the uncrowned king of the moderates and chief advocate of the reformist “third way”.

While a universal declaration would be constitutionally meaningless, it could prove internationally embarrassing for Madrid. As Catalonia represents about 19 per cent per cent of Spain’s GDP, it would be destabilising.

Business is the other deciding factor. Catalan business has been reluctant to board the independence bandwagon, ­especially faced with the threat of expulsion from the European Union.

José Manuel Lara, chief executive of Planeta, Spain’s biggest publisher, has threatened to move its headquarters out of Barcelona if Catalonia becomes independent. He recently called on Catalan politicians to “stop lying to people and admit that independence is impossible”.

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