On 1 October Catalonia will hold an independence referendum.
A lot has been written about the dubious legality of the enterprise. The Spanish constitution doesn't allow it. And its claim to be binding - while it was only supported in the Catalan parliament by the government party that won a majority of the seats with 48% of the votes - goes against the Catalan constitution that needs a 75% majority to be changed.
But there is more than legality. There is also the enthusiasm on the streets for independence. And there is the rather hamfisted approach of the national government that is explained by many pro-independence activists as an effort to rob them of their democratic rights. Such sentiments don't look at laws. They are more responsive to demagogy and facts on the ground.
The Spanish government is going too far in its efforts to stop the referendum. They should learn from Iraq that allowed a similar referendum to take place - while being very clear about its opposition - but then punished by demanding control over the airports. Similarly Madrid could make clear that - although they don't approve - they won't take measures against voting in schools. Instead they can think up measures that could be taken later on to punish the Catalan government if it tries to implement independence.
Such an approach would have the following advantages:
- it avoids fighting a battle that you cannot win. There is no way Madrid can stop the people from voting. Losing this battle will make them look weak and embolden the separatists.
- it avoids further polarization - that works in favor of Catalan separatists whose ideology puts lots of emphasis on victimization by Madrid.
- it will make Catalans more open to arguments from Madrid.