Just as Catalonia’s secession crisis threatened to tip Spain over the edge this week, a handful of government and opposition politicians in Madrid met in secret to find a formula for breaking the deadlock.
Mariano Rajoy, prime minister and leader of the conservative Popular party, and Pedro Sánchez, leader of the opposition Socialists, instructed their representatives to draw up a plan for overcoming the crisis by means of a reform of Spain’s 1978 constitution.
It is an ambitious initiative. The founding document of modern Spanish democracy is so revered by mainstream political elites and citizens alike that it has been amended only twice, in 1992 and 2011.
Furthermore, any constitutional reform that kept Catalonia in Spain would hold no attraction for radical separatists such as the ultra-left Popular Unity Candidacy party. In social media statements issued on Wednesday, after word emerged of the initiative, the CUP declared: “Not a step back! Let’s break with ’78!”
Elsewhere, however, many constitutional lawyers, political scientists and civic activists have concluded that a modernisation of Spain’s basic law, especially the elements relating to regional autonomy and identity, may be the most promising way forward. The Socialist party has pressed for such reforms since 2013.
“As much as Spaniards cherish their hard-fought for constitution, it’s time to change it,” says Camino Mortera-Martinez of the Centre for European Reform think-tank.
Like other specialists, she thinks the fundamental need is to update the constitution so that it gives more formal recognition to Spain’s rich regional diversity.
Mr Rajoy, a cautious prime minister, told parliament on Wednesday that the constitution “is not a perpetual law and has no claim to being one”.
Under the PP-Socialist plan, a cross-party parliamentary committee will take evidence for six months from experts on constitutional law and Spain’s cumbersome system of 17 autonomous regions, including Catalonia.
The committee will be charged with drafting proposals for amending the constitution, but important questions about what topics these amendments might cover, and how far they might go, are so far without an answer.
It is also uncertain who will serve on the committee. One reason why the constitution commands such respect is that the seven politicians who prepared the text in 1978 represented the full political spectrum from the rightwing Popular Alliance, a party with roots in the Franco dictatorship, to the communists and, crucially, Catalan regionalists.
The credibility of the latest initiative will suffer if the strongest political forces in Catalonia, including separatists, do not take part, according to leftwing politicians in Madrid and Barcelona.
Carles Campuzano, a legislator for the Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC), one of the region’s two governing separatist parties, poured scorn on Wednesday on the notion that the ERC might participate in the committee’s work.
Another potential pitfall is that the actions of Spain’s government and the Catalan secessionists, not to mention events on the ground in Catalonia, may render the committee’s work irrelevant.
Mr Rajoy has demanded that Carles Puigdemont, the Catalan leader, should clarify by Monday the meaning of this week’s suspended declaration of independence.
A response deemed unsatisfactory in Madrid could prompt Mr Rajoy to press on with the step-by-step application of Article 155 of the constitution, the government’s so-called “nuclear weapon”.
Implemented to the hilt, this would lead to the de facto suspension of Catalonia’s autonomy, risking widespread social disobedience across the region.
In such torrid circumstances, the activities of an obscure parliamentary committee in Madrid might count for little.
If, however, Mr Rajoy were to refrain from deploying Article 155 to the full, the attractions of constitutional reforms to extend Catalonia’s autonomy would be more apparent.
Such reforms would not satisfy the most intransigent separatists but might meet the aspirations of moderate Catalans who want more recognition for the region but do not wish to secede.
Among possible reforms are more control for Catalonia over its finances and explicit recognition of the Catalans as a “nation”, rather than as one of various unnamed “nationalities” — the wording of Article 2 of the 1978 constitution.
Ms Mortera-Martinez says one awkward question is how Spain’s other regions would react if the proposals singled out Catalonia for special favour. “If Madrid makes concessions for Catalonia alone, it could upset other regions,” she says.
One unusual feature of Spain’s constitution that seems unlikely to be reformed is the pride of place given to political parties, described in Article 6 as “an essential instrument” of public life.
“All the politicians, whatever party they’re from, like that bit,” says a former Spanish official.