On Sunday, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy brushed off the unseemly show at Saturday's "unitary" march against terrorism. "We didn't hear some people's affronts", he said. Given his front row position for the Catalan separatist shouting and whistling, we can assume he was being diplomatic.
In an interview with El Nacional, also on Sunday, the First Minister of Catalonia, Carles Puigdemont, evaded questions regarding specific details of the upcoming October 1 independence referendum his regional government means to organise, but made it clear the vote would go ahead, barring state intervention ordered by the central government in Madrid.
Asked about his statements to the The Financial Times, in which he admitted “We have more than 6,000 ballot boxes already. I do not see how the state can stop it”, Mr. Puigdemont replied: "I cannot provide more details for obvious reasons".
Those obvious reason he is referring to is the Director of Public Prosecutions, José Manuel Maza, who said in July that his office would prosecute any attempt to acquire ballot boxes for what the Spanish government still—after several years—regards as an illegal vote as a crime: the misuse of public funds. Mr. Puigdemont's remarks to The FT and El Nacional, then, represent another direct challenge to the rule of law in Spain.
Thirdly on Sunday, the editor of the pro-independence Catalan news site Vilaweb penned an editorial explaining what happened yesterday in Barcelona from the separatists' point of view. Titled "We're not afraid of anything", the article defended marchers' freedom to drown out whomever they wished with whistling: "this country [Catalonia] has changed a lot. It has changed so much that it no longer accepts acritical submission to politicians and media that try to pressure the population into attending [the march] in a certain way".
"And with that, Barcelona and Catalonia have made it clear before the world that they no longer fear anything. Before the world and, very particularly, before the Spanish state, whose principal representatives should take good note of what happened. If they want to understand where we're going and why."
Faced with Mariano Rajoy's consistent refusal to allow a vote to take place, The Spain Report's central criticism of Catalan separatists over the years—and this has all been going on for a long time now—has been a practical one: that they are not really ready to declare independence and secede from Spain. They are not willing to pay the price. They do not really value their stated goal. They are all bark and no bite and the last five years at least have been filled with rhetoric and bluster.
Nothing had really changed that appreciation of the whole until the events of the past few days. On the one hand, as noted in our editorial on August 22, Catalan authorities did manage the aftermath of the terror attacks acceptably well, both in policing and media terms (notwithstanding the very serious questions about intelligence and policing failures prior to the attacks, including at the house in Alcanar only hours earlier). Their claim was that they were, indeed, ready to operate as an independent state, and had shown the world as much.
On the other, as noted yesterday, there is now no shared sense of common decency between Catalan separatists and the rest of Spanish society, including non-separatist Spanish citizens in the region. Not even the dead victims of a jihadi terror attack are reason enough for them not to rail against the Spanish state, even for an hour or so at a "unitary" march against terrorists. All things Spanish must be protested against at all times, regardless of the outcome. Beyond the irreconcilable emotions of the moment, such behaviour ultimately comes down to a problem of shared values.
And that is where the change is to be noted. A tragic, detestable real-world event has forced its way onto the Spanish political agenda, and Catalan separatists—including the Catalan regional government—have reacted according to their values and beliefs. The Islamic State has provided an evil real-world test: one that forces a reaction beyond the years of rhetoric. Hardcore separatists are interpreting this event and its aftermath towards their stated goal, not away from it. They have dug in, not backed down.
Such a reaction is a problem for the Spanish state and for Mariano Rajoy's government, often accused by the right-wing press of having been too weak in the face of the separatist challenge since 2012. This time round, the central government must be seen to be acting. It has a range of legal options it is considering, but they must lead to some form of action. In his interview on Sunday, the Catalan First Minister said it would be "absurd" not to be worried about Madrid's response, although Spain's position, he argued, was "unsustainable".
The ball is now in Mariano Rajoy's court, and he faces a more determined opposition than he did 10 days ago. Even if his government does opt for some major legal action in the next 35 days, separatists' reaction in Catalonia might surprise the Prime Minister.