Madrid has badly mishandled a deliberately provocative referendum

The president of Catalonia, Carles Puigdemont, writes in the Guardian that “a de facto state of emergency” has ended Catalan home rule just weeks ahead of a planned referendum on independence. Madrid appears deaf to the argument that its heavy-handed attempts to stop the vote will only ultimately strengthen support for secession. A judge sent in the police to arrest a dozen local officials; the Guardia Civil seized millions of ballot papers; the central finance ministry took over the region’s finances to prevent public money from being used in the vote. All the Spanish prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, has achieved by being so oblivious to public sentiment in Catalonia is to harden opinion in the region and draw thousands onto the streets.

If nothing is done to work towards a compromise, a political train wreck threatens in the EU’s largest southern member state. This situation has been long in the making. A key tipping point came when Spain’s constitutional court in 2010 knocked down parts of a revised “statute of autonomy” – the result of a compromise reached four years earlier between Madrid’s then Socialist prime minister and the then centre-right Catalan nationalists. That was a document which boosted Catalonia’s already impressive levels of self-government. But Mr Rajoy’s conservative People’s party had lambasted the agreement as a dagger aimed at the heart of Spain’s 1978 constitution, and appealed to the constitutional court. Their victory there caused a reaction: the Catalan political leadership shifted towards separatism.

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