This is my third and final day in Barcelona; I’ve been sitting making notes at a cafe in George Orwell Plaza. To say that there is no atmosphere of revolution here would be an understatement.
There are Catalan flags and pro-independence posters on display around the city, but you wouldn’t say it’s thick with them. In fact there’s very little change since the last time I was here, two and a half years ago.
The dismissed premier of the Catalan regional government, Carles Puigdemont, who together with several of his ministers has prudently located himself in Brussels for the time being, has accepted the decision of the central government to call fresh elections in Catalonia for 21 December.
Madrid has clearly won this round. But it is important to understand why.
The central government has not been more sensible or more ruthless than the Catalans; it has gained the upper hand because the balance of forces in Catalonia favors it.
If support for independence was overwhelming, things would have played out very differently. A unilateral declaration of independence would have had real force; Madrid would have been unable to enforce its directives without massive intervention, which in turn would have produced a backlash.
Without the ability to count on supporters on the ground in Catalonia, prime minister Mariano Rajoy would effectively have had to choose between accepting independence as a fait accompli, or attempting a military reconquest of the region.
But this is not Eritrea or East Timor or Kurdistan. Supporters of independence form at best a narrow majority, and that’s nowhere near enough to stage a revolution.
The 21 December vote now becomes – as its 2015 predecessor was supposed to be – a de facto referendum on independence. It will probably again be close. But Rajoy’s government needs to do three things to ensure a peaceful and democratic outcome.
First, it needs to run an impeccably clean election. The pro-independence forces must be given, and must be seen to be given, every chance to seek a mandate. If they can plausibly claim that the poll has been rigged in Madrid’s favor, the crisis will only continue.
Second – partly for the sake of the first point, but also for its own sake – there needs to be an amnesty for the separatist leaders. It’s fundamental to democracy that no-one should be put at risk of criminal charges for advocating peaceful constitutional change. Spain’s trigger-happy prosecutors need to be reined in.
While I think the government will probably do the first and may well do the second, it is unlikely to do the third. But it is equally essential: the government must prepare itself, in the event that the separatists are returned with a majority, to negotiate with them in good faith for constitutional revision, including the option of an officially-sanctioned referendum on independence.
My guess is that this time the anti-independence forces will win, which means the third point would not be put to the test. But I could be wrong about that, and in any case the issue will have been postponed rather than settled. An anti-independence government would offer just the opportunity that is needed for a new deal on autonomy that might address the Catalans’ grievances.
And if Puigdemont and his allies do again win a majority, the ball will be back in Rajoy’s court. One can only hope, with very little grounds for optimism, that he would deal with the situation more wisely than he did last time.