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History is made up of strange coincidences. One of these consists of the fact that both Carles Puigdemont and Mariano Rajoy bear facial scars incurred in life-threatening car accidents. Mr. Puigdemont, the Catalonian separatist leader, covers his forehead scar with long bangs. His nemesis, the Spanish Prime Minister, has worn a beard since his own accident made shaving an ordeal.

The challenge now facing these two men, who have starkly similar personalities despite their visceral political differences, is to avoid causing deeper scars among the Spanish people that would make reconciliation between the central government and its breakaway territory even harder than it has already become. If they fail, all of Europe could come crashing down.

If less-informed outside observers awarded a first-round propaganda victory to Mr. Puigdemont owing to the excessive use of force by Spain's Guardia Civil to prevent Catalonians from voting in the Oct. 1 independence referendum, it's not clear most Spaniards feel that way. The clash between national police and separatist supporters would not have happened had Catalonia's own force, Los Mossos d'Esquadra, obeyed the instructions of Spain's Constitutional Court and prevented polling stations from opening. That the Mossos failed to enforce a high-court ruling has created a national debate about whether Catalonia's regional force can be trusted to uphold the law.

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Still, the sight of heavily armed Guardia agents beating back voters with batons, injuring hundreds of them, will long remain a stain on Spain's (and Mr. Rajoy's) international image. It enabled Mr. Puigdemont to earn a well of sympathy from beyond Spain's borders, and perhaps persuade some fence-sitting Catalonians to jump aboard the separatist train.

It is absurd, however, for Mr. Puidgemont to claim, as he did in an address before the Catalonian parliament on Tuesday, that the result of a referendum in which only 42 per cent of Catalonians voted gives the region the right to unilaterally declare its independence. Or that "the people have determined that Catalonia should become an independent state in the form of a republic." There is no precedent under which a region within a unitary state – one that overwhelmingly voted to approve a constitution that declares the country indivisible and that already enjoys broad autonomy – can claim its independence based on such flimsy arguments.

Mr. Puigdemont knows that. Apart from left-wing academics, he has zero international support for a unilateral declaration of independence, or UDI. Europe's leaders have circled the wagons around Mr. Rajoy. They are terrified of the consequences of a Catalonian UDI for the continent's still-fragile economy and fear a wave of independence fever in other restive regions of Europe.

That's why, despite creating enormous expectations among diehard separatists and despite huge pressure from the far-left extremist faction of his own Junts pel Si (Together for Yes) coalition, Mr. Puigdemont stepped back from the brink on Tuesday and called for a "dialogue" with the central government "to arrive at an agreed solution."

So, the second round in this Spanish standoff goes to Mr. Rajoy, who is often as underestimated as his demeanour is unassuming. But the unshakeable Prime Minister has survived a breakdown of Spain's traditional party system and the endless campaign finance scandals engulfing his centre-right People's Party. He has nursed Spain's economy from the ditch to the front of the European pack and, at least on the Catalonian question, enjoys the solid backing of Albert Rivera, the leader of the upstart Citizens party that has been keeping Mr. Rajoy in power.

Still, the hardline approach has its limits and Mr. Rajoy would be wise to seize the opportunity Mr. Puigdemont has offered for dialogue. The odds are he won't, given his own party's uncompromising stand in the face of separatist demands. His voters still regard separatists in Catalonia and the Basque Country as radical extremists to whom not an inch can be ceded.

Since Oct. 1, there has been some talk of reviving a proposal to follow Canada's lead by adopting a Spanish Clarity Act that would lay out the terms under which Madrid would have to negotiate a region's separation – mainly to clarify that Catalonia has yet to meet the test. But embracing this so-called via canadiense would also imply recognizing a region's right to secede.

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No national leader, with the possible exception of far-left Podemos chief Pablo Iglesias, is ready to go that far. Which means there will be more scars all around before this drama is over.

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