Catalonia, to be sure, has trampled on the Spanish Constitution. But constitutions depend on the consent of the governed, and Catalonia refuses to be governed by Madrid. Rajoy now faces a political crisis without a clear solution. His minority government depends on the support of a Basque regional party, and the Basques are sympathetic to the Catalans. The governor of the Basque Autonomous Region proposed yesterday that Madrid adopt a British or Canadian solution, allowing the Catalans to vote on secession as did the Scots in 2014. The difference, of course, is that the Scots depend on British subsidies and voted to stay, while the Catalans subsidize the rest of Spain and would vote to leave. The Basques well might follow.
This is an existential crisis for the Spanish state, for reasons I laid out on Sept. 30. Spain is at the cusp of a steep rise in the proportion of elderly dependents (from 25% of the economically-active population to an insupportable 50% by 2050). The question comes down to who will be eaten first in the lifeboat: with the lowest fertility rate of any large European country, Spain cannot support its elderly, and the Catalans want to maintain themselves first.
There is a great deal of speculation about the possible knock-on effects in the rest of Europe. Catalonia is a singularity. The notionally separatist Lombard League has no stomach for a real fight, and no ambitions to create an independent country, as the League-affiliated Mayor of Bergamo explained in an interview yesterday. The Lombards merely want to keep a higher proportion of their tax revenue. The Italian regionalists are playing comedy, while the Catalans are enacting a tragedy: They perceive this moment as one of existential import for their future existence, and will not back down.
The first response of the rest of Europe, to be sure, will be to ask the Catalans as well as the Rajoy government to put the genie back into the bottle. We are well past that point. After demonstrating that mass civil disobedience could defeat the heavy-handed efforts of the national government to suppress them, the Catalans will not turn back. Nor should they. Europe’s infertility leaves the more productive regions of Europe with the choice of impugning their own future by picking up the retirement bill for the continent’s dead beats, or going their own way.
Something that cannot continue will eventually stop.