Analysis

Spain Was Headed Toward Political Crisis, Then Came the Barcelona Attack

Former Israeli ambassador to Spain writes that Spanish leaders who were previously on a crash course to dramatic divorce now stand united in the face of national trauma

Among other leaders and thousands of Spaniards, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and President of the Generalitat of Catalonia Carles Puigdemont observe a minute of silence the day after a van crashed into pedestrians at Las Ramblas in Barcelona, Spain on August 18, 2017.
SUSANA VERA/REUTERS

Spain’s King Felipe, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and Catalonia regional president Carles Puigdemont stood together on Friday in the heart of Barcelona, observing a minute of silence to honor the victims of Thursday’s deadly terrorist attack. Such togetherness cannot be taken for granted in today’s Spain.

At total odds with the policy of the Spanish national government, the government of Catalonia, whose capital is Barcelona, called a referendum on independence for the region. Also not to be taken for granted was the fact that representatives of Spanish sovereignty over the region, who do not often visit Catalonia, were greeted with applause, not jeers.

Before Thursday’s attack, bitter wrangling had been expected between the Spanish central government and the regional government in Catalonia.

The two sides had dug in their heels with uncompromising positions that have not augured well for Spain’s future.

Just recently, the Catalan prime minister got the regional parliament to approve a resolution permitting the legislation of a temporary constitution that would pave the way for Catalonia’s final separation from Spain.

On October 1, Catalan voters will weigh in on independence, responding to the referendum. Before Thursday’s slaughter, everyone was preparing for a political crisis whose final outcome no one dared to attempt to predict. And then came the slaughter on Barcelona’s Rambla, one of the most famous tourist spots in the world.

As has been reported, the terrorists were of Moroccan origin. It should be noted here that Spain has a common land border with Morocco and is the only European state to border an Arab country. It is not terribly difficult to cross from Morocco to Ceuta and Melilla, two Spanish enclaves on the North African coast.

After Thursday’s events, Spain as a whole wept and wore black. The sense of mourning was national and the hurt was felt by all Spaniards. Suddenly there were no divisions between speakers of Spanish and of Catalan. The chant at solidarity rallies held over the weekend, “I am not afraid,” was expressed in both languages. Suddenly Rajoy appeared to be everyone’s prime minister.

Sometimes trauma brings people together. The shock that consumed the public, the solidarity demonstrated by the citizenry, the desire to feel united in the face of mad terrorists all made people forget for a moment about Catalan separatism.

At this time of distress and uncertainty, now more than ever, there is a need for close coordination between the military and the police. Barcelona’s police, the Mossos, need the involvement of the Spanish national government. There are decisions that need to be made on a national level. And everyone also understands that there is a need to muster every possible resource without regard to cultural background to deal with the spreading cancer of terrorism.

Could we be witness to period in which the referendum in Catalonia and the endless competition between Barcelona and Madrid are postponed? Could the voice of reason take precedence over the desire for separation? The fog of war has not yet cleared. The process of picking up the pieces has not yet been completed, but a cautious assessment indicates a temporary postponement of the process of separation in favor of national unity, at least for a time.

Victor Harel is a former Israeli ambassador to Spain.