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Updates on Catalonia

October 26, 2017

Rajoy addressPuigdemont address

The crisis in Catalonia may be reaching its decisive point this week. After the controversy surrounding the October 1 referendum (see our blog post from October 5,, whose unconstitutionality as declared by the Spanish judiciary resulted in a widely mediatized police crackdown that galvanized public opinion worldwide, the political standoff has only worsened. The Catalan government (Generalitat) relied on the results of the referendum (90 percent in favor of secession with a turnout of 43 percent, most anti-secessionist Catalans not participating due to the referendum’s declared unconstitutionality) to announce an ambiguous declaration of independence that it immediately proceeded to suspend, for the alleged purpose of engaging in dialogue with Madrid. The Spanish government, led by Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, refused to engage in any dialogue outside of the boundaries of the Constitution (although it did invite Catalan President Carles Puigdemont to speak before Parliament), and responded by threatening to invoke Article 155 of the Constitution if the Generalitat did not backtrack its steps. Article 155 allows the central government to “take all measures necessary,” after approval by the Senate, to compel the authorities of a region acting against their constitutional obligations to return to the framework set by the Constitution. The government warned that Article 155 would be triggered if President Puigdemont did not clarify, within a deadline of several days, that it had not declared independence, and if, after an additional deadline, it failed to then withdraw that declaration. Puigdemont refused to do either, relying on vague answers that did not satisfy the government’s demands. As a result, the Spanish Executive decided to take the unprecedented step of invoking Article 155, calling moreover for much harsher measures than originally anticipated: the removal from office of Puigdemont and his cabinet, the intervention of Catalan police and public media, a veto power over the Catalan parliament’s decisions, and the call of early regional elections within six months (at which point the applicability of Article 155 would expire). The proposed measures were then sent to the Senate for deliberation and approval.

There is little question that the government is justified in its use of Article 155, at least from a rule of law perspective. The decision was taken with the support of the near-totality of constitutionalist parties in the Spanish Parliament, including the main opposition group, generally very critical of the current conservative government. And most constitutions with devolved autonomy (federal or otherwise) provide for intervention mechanisms when regional authorities abuse that autonomy in a way that is contrary to the overall legal framework, as has happened in Catalonia. Otherwise, devolution of powers would constitute a blank check for action not subject to legal accountability (think of the military’s intervention in Little Rock to enforce desegregation against a hostile state government).

A different question is, first, whether the Generalitat was justified in its violation of Spanish and Catalan legality throughout its independence bid, and, second, whether the specific measures called for by the government were proportionate and politically wise. The first question is a politically subjective one that this blog post can do little to answer, and that will depend on the reader’s sympathies. It is worth mentioning, however, that although the Spanish government is duty-bound to defend the rule of law as reflected in the Spanish Constitution, the Constitution itself is not a document written in stone, and it provides for the possibility of its own amendment. Ultimately, the rule of law implies not so much normative as procedural rigidity, and so long as the process of reform follows the legally-contemplated mechanisms, there should be room for mutually-agreeable changes to the existing system. Unfortunately, the administration of Mariano Rajoy refused to pay heed to Catalan demands for reform earlier in the present decade, and that intransigence may have played a role in driving some Catalans towards unilateral secessionism. The Catalan administration, for its part, is currently displaying a similar degree of intransigence in refusing to make any concessions regarding its independentist claims, even though the main Spanish parties have now agreed to the prospect of reforming the constitution assuming a prior return to legality in the region. Puigdemont knows that confrontation will help his cause, as it may bring international support and force Catalans to take sides. But he also knows that a false step could culminate in a temporary loss of Catalan autonomy (and of his own office) and the reversion of decades of political and economic expansion in Catalonia. Thus, it would seem that dialogue leading to constitutional reform should be the best available solution. The continuing escalation, however, makes that solution seem unlikely, at least in the short term.

The second question (regarding the adequacy of the particular measures proposed under Article 155) is certainly controversial, but part of the government’s calculation may have been the current lack of verifiable democratic support for any eventual declaration of independence given the degree of abstention and the absence of guarantees during the referendum. The government may have felt that, if there is any appropriate time for forceful action, it is now, given that the international community will not back any retaliation by the Generalitat in the form of unilateral independence. In fact, the representatives of EU institutions and the most influential European leaders (such as President Macron and Chancellor Merkel) have come out in support of Rajoy’s decision, stating that the solution to the crisis must go through the framework of the Spanish Constitution. Nevertheless, such strict measures as the removal of the current Catalan leadership and the intervention of the regional administration are likely to lead to a climate of extreme confrontation between the government and important sectors of the Catalan society, who will actively oppose the administrative takeover and reinforce the narrative of “oppression from Madrid.” Thus, even if the government were to succeed in carrying out the proposed measures (something that is by no means certain given the predictable degree of opposition that they will face in Catalonia), the path chosen will do little to dispel secessionist sentiments, and will likely lead to an increased level of polarization, hostility, and conflict.

As of this writing, the government’s proposal for the application of Article 155 is being debated (and is likely to pass based on the ruling party’s majority) in the Spanish Senate, where Puigdemont refused to appear after initially signaling that he would accept the chamber’s invitation to explain his position during a hearing. Simultaneously, the Catalan parliament is meeting to discuss its response to the likely triggering of the Article, a response that may include a (this time definitive) unilateral declaration of independence. For a brief moment, there seemed to be some hope of a mutually-accepted solution when reports started coming out Thursday morning that Piugdemont would call for snap elections during a televised address, something that the Spanish government had suggested could potentially put a break to Article 155’s application. But after postponing the address twice, the Catalan President finally appeared on television to announce that he would not call for elections due to the alleged lack of “guarantees” offered by the Spanish government. Therefore, the standoff continues, and the abyss appears to be closer than it has ever been. The next couple of days will likely be decisive for the outcome of the current crisis. But with both sides continuing their entrenchment, and with an ongoing escalation that is making the situation more volatile by the hour, there appears to be little room for any such outcome to be a positive one.


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