Spain’s nationalists lose the plot

If you had any doubt about how poisonous the influence of nationalism can be in politics, have a read of some of the things being said by the Spanish opposition against the centre-left government of prime minister Pedro Sánchez.

Sánchez’s crime – and his opponents are using the word “crime” quite literally – is to have agreed to cross-party talks with the separatist administration of Catalonia, and in particular to utilise an independent facilitator, or rapporteur, in those talks.

Simple common sense, you might think. Since the Catalan crisis erupted about six years ago, I and pretty much every other foreign observer have been saying that the essential first step in solving it was for the Spanish government and the Catalans to sit down together and negotiate in good faith.

But then you wouldn’t be a Spanish nationalist. Opposition leader Pablo Casado said that Sánchez was “illegitimate”, “a felon”, and guilty of “high treason”. He also said this was the gravest threat Spanish democracy had faced since 1981, when fascist officers held up a parliamentary sitting at gunpoint in a coup attempt.

Albert Rivera of Citizens chimed in as well, claiming that Sánchez was “sell[ing] out our national sovereignty” and that “We need to create a civic front” against him.

This is not about a deal with the separatists, remember – this is just about talking to them. Imagine what they would say in the unlikely event that Sánchez actually agreed to such a democratic move as consulting the people of Catalonia on whether they want independence.

And these are not far-right politicians (although the far-right party, Vox, has joined the chorus). Casado’s People’s Party is a mainstream centre-right party; Citizens are supposed to be liberals. But the prospect of even minor concessions to the separatists has them frothing at the mouth.

Two things have brought the issue to head. Firstly, the trial of a number of Catalan leaders on charges associated with the unofficial 2017 referendum and subsequent declaration of independence is due to begin next week. Sánchez has carefully avoided interfering with the prosecutions, but any convictions would obviously be a major blow to relations with Catalonia.

Secondly, Sánchez needs to get his budget through parliament, and for that he will need separatist votes. The Socialists and their far-left allies, Podemos, have only 156 seats in the 350-seat Congress of Deputies. The People’s Party and Citizens have 169 between them, meaning the 24 Basque and Catalan separatists hold the balance of power.

They will probably end up supporting Sánchez, but it’s not unreasonable that they want something in return. If they pitch their demands too high, however, they may end up forcing an early election (otherwise due in the middle of next year), which would probably bring the People’s Party back to power and return a significant far-right delegation.

So the opposition’s inflated rhetoric over Catalonia is a product of political calculation as much as genuine conviction. But that doesn’t make it any more excusable.

It is still within living memory that Spaniards fought and killed one another in their tens of thousands over just these sorts of issues: left vs right, centralism vs autonomy, different conceptions of the “nation”.

I don’t think anyone really wants those days to return. But the Spanish right is showing all the signs of the authoritarian mindset that in less stable times took the country down the road of war and dictatorship. It needs to take a step back.

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