I have been trying to figure out the game Rajoy is playing. It is not immediately obvious. Backwards induction led Puigdemont to back down from declaring independence. Backwards induction should then have led Rajoy to accept Puigdemont’s “suspension.” Rajoy should have said, “Thank you for not declaring independence, note that doing so would be illegal, much obliged.” End of crisis, at least for a while, start of talks on constitutional revision.
But that is not what Rajoy did. Instead Rajoy refused to accept the out Puigdemont offered him. He pushed Puigdemont into a corner. Never push anyone into a corner.
Even after that, Puigdemont behaved rationally. (I must note that this has been a marked departure from Puigdemont’s behavior up until this point.) The Financial Times reported that Puigdemont tried to find a last-minute out but Madrid rebuffed him.
So now we have a declaration of independence. Madrid will invoke Article 155 and take over the community.
Why did Rajoy choose to go down this path?
There are three hypotheses.
- “Never attribute to malice what can be attributed to stupidity.” There are governments to whom that adage applies. I do not think the Rajoy administration is one of them. Oh, they are incorrect, but I don’t think it’s because they are stupid.
- Internal constraints. Rajoy may realize that he has been ineluctably creating a secession crisis, but he may also believe that a hard line is the only way to hold together his coalition. I do not believe this to be true, but it is a reasonable hypothesis.
- Rajoy believes the Catalan opposition is unitary and rational. He has played down the game tree and backwards inducted. His (correct!) conclusion is that Catalonia is always screwed and screwed badly in the even of a contested divorce. He therefore assumes that his Catalan opponents will back down in the end.
And therein lie his two errors. His first error is that he assumes that “less costly for Madrid” means “no cost for Madrid.” Accepting Puigdemont’s climb-down had no cost to Madrid. Engaging in economic warfare or (worse) fighting in the streets of Barcelona will be terribly costly for Madrid. The risk of either would have been zero had he reacted less strongly.
His second error is to assume that he is dealing with a unitary Catalan opposition. He is not. Puigdemont has already punted responsibility over to the Catalan legislature. Now it will be up to individual Catalans whether and how to resist. Catalan officials could choose to stay at their posts. Catalan police could refuse to obey orders from Madrid. There might be mass demonstrations, but that would be a sideshow to the real non-violent civic disobedience: bureaucrats continuing to stay at their posts but refusing orders from the Congress in Madrid.
Here is what Rajoy should do, given where we are: show restraint. Fire recalcitrant bureaucrats but refrain from making arrests. Wear down the opposition. Take civil action, sue for breach of contract, insure that businesses keep paying their taxes. Essentially bore the Catalans into submission. Even if there is mass resistance from the bureaucrats, keep it civil. Reason being is that it is one thing to have mass walkouts by bureaucrats. It is quite another to have them actively set up a parallel state enforcing parallel laws and collecting parallel taxes. Once that happens, the jig is up, and the only responses Madrid will have on the table are (1) impose crushing sanctions or (2) break heads.
Human nature being what it is, I do not think (1) or (2) will work, at least not at the level of pain that voters in Castilla and Andalucía and Aragón and Extremadura will be able to countenance. (I hope.) If we go there, then, Spain will disintegrate but with much human suffering along the way. So let us hope that Rajoy realizes that the only solution is boredom.