The crisis in Catalonia has gone from simmer to steady boil. Spain’s government threatens to take emergency steps to end a bid by secessionists in the country’s wealthiest province to break away. The Catalan leader behind the separatist drive isn’t backing down and warns that regional lawmakers are poised to formally endorse secession. Without a cool-down, a European Union nation of 46 million could be on a path toward civil conflict.

Breaking away from Spanish rule has been on the minds of Catalans for 300 years. Catalans have their own language and culture. Today, the region enjoys a degree of autonomy. But Catalans complain that, as Spain’s richest region, they pay to Madrid more in taxes than they get back. On Oct. 1, Catalans overwhelmingly voted in favor of secession.

Was it really overwhelming? Turnout was just 42 percent. Spain’s Supreme Court had previously declared the vote unconstitutional and therefore illegal. As a result, large numbers of Catalan people who oppose independence opted not to vote; they viewed the referendum as a sham. A week after the vote, hundreds of thousands of Catalans filled the streets of Barcelona, demonstrating against independence.

Instead of talking, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont have been exchanging threats in a perilous game of brinkmanship. What’s at stake? The heart of the Catalan region is Barcelona, the Mediterranean tourist oasis that’s vital to Spain’s economic health and national brand. The region also is home to several of Spain’s pharmaceutical, chemical and metalworking industries. Take away Catalonia, and Spain loses 20 percent of its economy.

The Catalans must understand that secession will lead to chaos and, potentially, violence. However, there remains room for talk. Madrid can still offer Catalans greater autonomy. It’s a compromise that avoids conflict, and one that Catalans would be wise to accept.

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