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Catalonia and the King’s Speech

As the debate surrounding Catalonia’s illegal referendum on independence continues, there is a need to focus on what is truly at issue. On Tuesday night, in his first institutional speech since ascending to the Spanish throne in 2014, King Felipe VI did precisely that. His remarks were short and to the point. The Catalonian regional officials who pushed the referendum, he said, “have tried to break Spain’s unity and national sovereignty, which is the right of all Spanish people to democratically decide on their life together.”

In so declaring, King Felipe harked back to an address by his father, Juan Carlos I, who in February 1981 affirmed the inviolability of the young Spanish democracy in condemning an attempted coup d’état: “The Crown cannot tolerate in any form any act which tries to interfere with the constitution which has been approved by the Spanish people.” The coup collapsed, and Spain’s democracy deepened.

Thirty-six years later Spain is a mature parliamentary monarchy in which the Crown’s role is strictly circumscribed. Yet King Felipe’s address was exceptional and crucial. Contrary to the secessionist leader Carles Puigdemont’s claim that Felipe “deliberately ignored millions of Catalans,” the king spoke to all Spaniards. In so doing, he centered attention on what is fundamental: the survival of Spain’s democracy. It was a sobering message within Spain but one that should resonate outside, where coverage of the crisis has been diverted by other issues, particularly the clashes with Spanish police and profuse recommendations for mediation between Spain and Catalonia.

The images of Spanish police confronting citizens have saturated the international media, notwithstanding the clear examples of fraud, exaggeration and misinformation that have come to light. The West is not used to such displays outside of the intermittent battles between police and leftist protesters at global gatherings such as the Group of 20 Summit in Hamburg this summer. Those cases clearly contrast law enforcement with people who are openly defying the law.

What made Sunday’s violence jarring was that the Catalans in the streets were shrouded in the appearance of legitimacy due to encouragement from regional authorities, and by the fact that they were voting. It was a deft but deeply irresponsible manipulation by the Catalan separatist leaders—using the symbols of democracy to undermine the democratic order, and in the process putting civilians in harm’s way.

The other constant in international coverage has been calls for “dialogue” or “mediation” between Spain and Catalonia. This is simply wrongheaded. “Dialogue” in general terms does not mean anything. It is pointless given that Catalan secessionist authorities refuse to live up to or even recognize their responsibilities under the law. “Mediation” connotes a bilateral relationship that does not exist. Catalonia is part of Spain. This is an internal issue that must be addressed by all of Spain.

So far the Spanish government has held back from invoking its constitutional authority to suspend home rule in Catalonia. But as the king said on Tuesday, “the legitimate powers of the state have the responsibility to guarantee constitutional order and the normal functioning of institutions.”

What’s really needed is introspection. As the king rightly noted, “Catalan society is fractured.” Spain needs to respond to what has happened, and to its causes. This will almost certainly involve a discussion about the future of the Spanish Constitution.

Four decades ago, Spain peacefully moved from dictatorship to democracy. In that moment there was an undeniable unity. Everyone felt a loyalty to the project of Spain even if they had different visions of what it should look like. That feeling has been lost.

Perhaps we have been so blinded by the success of the Transición that it has been difficult to appreciate that Spain has reached a critical juncture. The crisis in Catalonia has made plain the problems of Spain’s decentralization. You cannot have a shared sense of belonging without shared experience. This puts front and center the challenge of education that Spain faces. Having many different math books or many ways of teaching history, as we do today, does not create that commonality.

Spaniards need to work toward a new commitment to, and connection with, each other and the constitutional system. This is a responsibility for everyone, but particularly younger leaders—the generation of 49-year-old King Felipe. Much like that dangerous moment in 1981, if Spain is able to construct these stronger bonds, it will emerge from this postmodern coup attempt more structurally sound.

Ms. Palacio was Spain’s foreign minister, 2002-04.