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The Impossible Dream

by Gerald Frost

Catalonian nationalism throws Spain into crisis

In 1932, four years before the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, the philosopher and essayist José Ortega y Gasset declared that the “Catalan problem” was impossible to solve. He is reported to have said: “It is a perpetual problem, which has always been, and will remain as long as Spain exists. . . . It is something that no one is responsible for; it [lies in] the very character of that people; it is its terrible destiny, which drags distress throughout its entire history.” In his view, the best that could be hoped for was that the Catalans, and their fellow Spaniards, would recognize the intractable nature of the problem and would consequently avoid rash or unrealistic measures that were bound to bring on disaster.

No such insight has informed the recent conduct of the Catalan government, whose quest for national independence by means of the referendum it staged on October 1, in defiance of the Madrid government and Spain’s highest court, threatens to tear Spain apart. Nor has it informed the actions of the Spanish prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, who is mostly famous for his caution but who has been uncompromising in his rejection of Catalan demands. The two sides have not talked to one another for several years, and the rhetoric of both has been characterized by hyperbole and intemperance. The outcome has been a major constitutional crisis, with mass protests in the streets of Barcelona, Girona, and other Catalan cities, followed by the botched but violent attempts of the Guardia Civil to stop the vote, resulting in injuries to around 800 separatists and 40 policemen. This has led to wide international condemnation of police methods, a public-sector strike to protest police violence, and an ill-judged intervention by the king, as well as huge counter-demonstrations in many Spanish cities.

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