“Against stupidity, the gods themselves contend in vain.”
Heading into this weekend’s referendum on Catalan independence, the Spanish authorities had everything going for them. The Spanish Constitutional Court had pronounced the referendum illegal, a straightforward violation of the 1978 constitution’s commitment to an indissoluble union of Spain’s nationalities. A substantial majority of residents of Catalonia opposed independence, according to most polling. A previous referendum in 2014 had achieved only 40 percent turnout, confirming local lack of interest.
The local government had pushed through a referendum law on the thinnest margin in the legislature, based its campaign on the false claim that an independent Catalonia would rapidly and easily be admitted to the European Union, and had committed to declare independence unilaterally if it obtained a “Yes” majority. The lesson from the U.K. that “exit” is never as easy as its proponents promise chastened many minds in Catalonia, which may explain why support for independence seemed to be ebbing.
Or the ebb may have been due to Spain’s gradual recovery from the economic crisis of 2010. Catalonia, with only 16 percent of the population but 19 percent of the economy, has long chafed at seeing its tax payments redirected to poorer regions. But Spain grew 3.2 percent in 2016, one of the fastest expansions in the whole eurozone. What looked for half a decade like a bad bargain had regained some of its prior attractiveness.