“El peixos grossos sempre es menjaran els minuts.”  If your Catalan is as bad as mine, it means “Men are like fish; the great ones devour the small.”

A proverb that describes how a lot—but not all—of Catalans feel about their place in Spain.

On October 1st, the Catalan government held an illegal independence referendum. According to organizers, 90% of Catalans wish to walk it alone.  But they failed to mention the turnout, just 43%, and the many irregularities.

With Spain’s 19% of GDP and 16% of the population coming from Catalonia, Madrid’s anxiety is understandable.

Its reaction, however, is not.

“We’re going to prevent independence from occurring. . . I can tell you with absolute frankness that it will not happen,” said Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, the Spanish Prime Minister.

And he appears to be a man of honour. To prevent the vote, thousands of police and paramilitary officers trooped from all around Spain. TV screens screamed as old men were dragged down stairs, ballot boxes (Democracy’s posterchild) confiscated, and polling stations closed.  Once the dust settled, close to 1000 people had been injured.

Spain, who escaped the pangs of dictatorship just forty-two years ago, can’t afford to respond in such a repressive way that even Franco would envy.  Indeed, such a brute reaction seasons the secessionist’s Botifarra (a delicious Catalan pork sausage you must try).  Joking aside, violence only empowers separationist movements, as history has shown.

But is there another way?

The thousands who attended a Sunday unity rally in Barcelona, capital and heart of Catalonia, indicates that not all is bleak for Madrid.

The Spanish government should opt for discussion.  Its soft power cart has both economic and diplomatic carrots. A first step could be a reassertion of Catalan autonomy, with its lingual, judicial, and financial bonuses.  Or, if Rajoy feels generous, a negotiation like the Basque Country’s Economic Agreement, where the local government collects the taxes.  Another option could be financial pressure.  Madrid owns 66% of Catalonia’s public debt. And since the referendum took place, several major businesses, such as Banco Sabadell, Spain’s fourth-largest financial company, have announced their flight from Barcelona.

And then there’s the diplomatic approach.  The European Union has declared its support for the Spanish government.  An independent Catalonia would immediately leave the EU and would have to submit a membership application.  The application and its approval process would take years, and during that time a regional economy that relies on Eurozone benefits could be destroyed.  By stressing the realities and pains that would accompany a unilateral declaration of independence, the national government would gain much support both regionally and globally.

True, by agreeing to have a dialogue, Madrid would acknowledge that a secession option does exist—and yet it does, whether the government likes it or not.

“To prevent is better than to heal,” said Hippocrates. And the Spanish government should avert violence, not cause it.

Featured image courtesy of AP