Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy had signaled he intended to deal forcefully with Catalonia’s independence movement. When regional president Carles Puigdemont ignored Rajoy’s demands to withdraw his coalition’s suspended declaration of independence, Rajoy scheduled an emergency meeting with his cabinet on Saturday. Even though many expected he would hit the red button of using Article 155, almost no commentator expected Rajoy to move as aggressively he indicated he would on Saturday. Even if you take a dim view of the ham-handed moves of the separatists, this is a Franco-style crackdown. Stirring those memories is going to make this Constitutional crisis even more charged than it would have been. As the Financial Times summed it up:
The Spanish prime minister will sack the entire Catalan government and call new regional elections within six months in an extreme move set to crush the regional independence movement.
Pending almost certain approval in the senate on Friday, direct rule will be imposed next weekend. Citing the Catalan government’s “conscious and systematic rebellion and disobedience”, Rajoy said Carles Puigdemont’s government would be stripped of its powers and its functions would be assumed by the relevant ministries in Madrid.
The Catalan president will not be empowered to call elections, which Rajoy said he hoped would be held within six months. “We are not ending Catalan autonomy but we are relieving of their duties those who have acted outside the law,” he said. He did not go into details of how article 155 would be applied but a government statement said: “A series of measures will be introduced regarding sensitive issues such as security and public order, financial management, taxation, the budget and telecommunications.”
Not that the government in Catalonia has a forum in which it could get a fair hearing, but earlier commentators reading of the scope of Article 155 argued that some of the measures Rajoy intends to take go beyond what Article 155 allows. The article allows central government to employ “necessary methods” to force a regional government to comply with the Constitution and protect the interests of Spain. The only route mentioned explicitly is that the national government can direct “all authorities” of the rebellious region. From Aljazeera:
Josep Costa, a professor of political science at Barcelona’s Universitat Pompeu Fabra, told Al Jazeera: “The Spanish government really didn’t have a plan to proceed with 155, so there’s a lot of uncertainty as to what can be done and what can’t.”
Costa claims he has seen many proposals, such as the creation of an interim government to run Catalonia, that are “clearly not possible” under 155.
“There’s no doubt [Article 155] has limits … including the Catalan statute of autonomy, which cannot be repealed,” Costa said.
In other words, not that such niceties matter (Spanish judicial independence is #58. below Saudi Arabia and Rwanda), but it appears that having Madrid push aside the Catalonian government, as opposed to tell its various administrative offices what to do, doesn’t look kosher. Note that Rajoy does seem attentive to some of these issues; in his address, he claimed that Catalonia’s self government was not being suspended. It’s hard to take that at face value when Madrid has almost entirely taken control of the spending If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck..
Needless to say, Puigdemont rejected Rajoy’s plans and vowed to fight on. From the BBC:
Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont says Catalonia will not accept Madrid’s plan to impose direct rule on the region.
He described it as the worst attack on Catalonia’s institutions since General Franco’s 1939-1975 dictatorship, under which regional autonomy was dissolved.
Spanish PM Mariano Rajoy’s plans include the removal of Catalonia’s leaders and curbs on its parliament….
He said he would call for a session in the Catalan parliament to debate a response to Mr Rajoy’s plans.
Addressing European citizens in English, he added that the European Union’s founding values were “at risk in Catalonia”.
While the government in Madrid clearly has the means and the will to put down the separatists in the short term, the question is at what cost? Things to watch:
Will the local police refuse to comply? If the police do not cooperate with Madrid, it will be well nigh impossible for Madrid to exercise control. It can’t readily or quickly replace most of these officers. The police don’t need to go into confrontation, they can just act like incompetent bureaucrats: go passive aggressive and ask for orders to be explained multiple times, drag their feet, make openly lame excuses for why they didn’t do what they were told to do.
I have no idea where the loyalties of the rank and file police lie, and reader input would be extremely helpful. Catalonia’s police refused to participate in Spain’s campaign to prevent the referendum, when the Guardia Civil first made raids to seize ballots and ballot boxes, as well as arresting some officials, and the second, high-profile effort to prevent citizens from voting. That does not mean that all or even many police backed the independence movement, merely that they decided to take a hands off position. The chief of Barcelona’s police force, who supports the secessionists, is popular locally and threats to arrest him may backfire If the police again stand aside, this would make maintaining order more difficult and would undermine appearances of legitimacy within Catalonia.
How will Madrid enforce its will on cities and towns? Note that two-thirds of the mayors defied the Spanish government to support the referendum.
How many citizens will give visible support to the separatists? This isn’t just a matter of how large the initial rallies against Rajoy’s planned takeover are, although the press reported today that with no advance planning. 450,000 rallied in Barcelona. It’s a matter if enough people are willing to engage in civil disobedience that it’s impossible for the police to jail them or they start undermining credibility if they try (as in they are forced to set up internment camps) Bloomberg claims the separatists plan to target infrastructure, but I’ve seen comments on other sites that see that sort of talk as an effort to discredit the secessionists.
Even though the historical parallels look ugly, it’s not at all clear that the separatists are up for anything resembling a real fight. Recall that Rajoy’s coalition consists of a mix of interests, with the majority merely wanting a better deal with Spain (most important, Basque-style control over the spending of tax revenues collected). As our Andrew Watts noted:
Are you guys being serious with these Spanish Civil War comparisons? The Catalonian separatists are led by a bunch of wallet clutching conservatives. Their followers are mostly middle class. They’ll fold at the first sign of trouble much less violence.
The Catalonians couldn’t even issue a proper declaration of independence. If Madrid thought they were serious it’s likely they would’ve held back on invoking Article 155. The outbreak of civil wars aren’t great for your country’s credit rating or economy.
How quickly will political blowback increase the costs to Rajoy? Catalans are seen in most of Spain to be privileged whingers, so stomping on them is a popular exercise. But the Basques can throw a wrench in Rajoy’s plans, and they have made clear they don’t like what is happening in Catalonia. From Bloomberg:
The Basque Nationalists, who allowed Rajoy’s minority government to pass a budget earlier this year have abandoned the prime minister since the Catalan crisis escalated, stalling approval of next year’s spending plans and adding further uncertainty to the economic outlook.
Article 155 has never been invoked and the decision could trigger the unravelling of the 1978 constitution that established the 17 autonomous communities that make up Spain. The constitution was devised specifically to accommodate Basque and Catalan national aspirations.
The other 15 communities – including some that have no historic identity as such – were effectively invented so as to avoid the impression that the Catalans and Basques were getting special treatment. Many now believe that this federation of 17 regions, or café para todos (“coffee for everyone”), is obsolete and that the constitution needs an overhaul.
How long can Rajoy take the damage to Catalonia’s economy, which is big enough to hurt Spain? Rajoy seems to have lost the plot that harsh treatment of Catalonia, particularly if the crisis is protracted, will do even more damage to Spain. And the costs are already mounting. From a must-read article by Don Quijones:
It’s not easy being a Catalan bank these days. In the last few weeks the region’s two biggest lenders, Caixabank and Sabadell, have lost €9 billion of deposits as panicked customers in Catalonia have moved their money elsewhere….
Moving their official company address to other parts of Spain last week may have helped ease that resentment, allowing the two banks to recoup some €2 billion of deposits. But the move has angered the roughly 2.5 million pro-independence supporters in Catalonia, many of whom have accounts at one of the two banks. Today they expressed that anger by withdrawing cash en masse…
The fallout of political instability in Catalonia is being felt across the whole economy. Real estate investment in the region, both domestic and foreign, is drying up. Starwood European Real Estate Finance, the European subsidiary of the U.S. property giant Starwood Capital, has announced that it’s shifting its focus away not only from Catalonia but Spain as a whole, and toward more stable European markets.
It’s not just investments that have been put on hold. People are not spending much either. Important consumer purchases have been put on hold until some semblance of stability returns, and people are not going out as much as before. Based on my own observations, the bars are emptier and the streets are quieter.
Tourism to Catalonia, Spain’s most visited region last year, slumped by 15% in the two weeks following the referendum on independence, according to industry experts
Quijones also describes at some length how Spanish consumers are boycotting Catalan products….many of which are composed heavily of inputs from the rest of Spain. He continues
The web of interdependency between Spain and Catalonia is so tightly woven that if one goes down, the other goes with it. Catalonia accounts for 20% of Spain’s GDP, and roughly a quarter of Spanish exports and the government’s tax revenues. Without it, there’s no way the Spanish State would be able to meet its gargantuan financial obligations — not even with Mario Draghi’s help!
Will the separatists embark on a sustained campaign of violence? Even though Andrew Watt’s view, that most Catalans who oppose Rajoy’s takeover don’t have the stomach for a real uprising, does not contradict the possibility that this struggle over the future of Catalonia could give birth to a militant separatist movement. And it does not take many people operating on a dedicated basis to do enough damage so as to represent an ongoing threat. Please correct me if this estimate is too low, but Naked Capitalism readers earlier estimated that the military wing of the Irish Republican Army consisted of about 300 people.
And there may be a bigger lesson to consider. While advocates of peaceful protest argue that non-violent demonstrations have led to large-scale political change faster than violent revolts, correlation is not causation. Unfortunately, it is likely that non-violent demonstrations can succeed only in certain contexts: when the peaceful demonstrations are so large that putting them down risks civil war, and potential disobedience by the police and/or military, and when the elites are either divided or rational enough to recognize that even if they can win in the near and maybe even intermediate term, it would be a Pyrrhic victory. By contrast, if the government is irrational or simply unwilling to cede power, violence may be the only way to wrest power from its hands. Do you think the Afrikaners would have given up South Africa had it not finally become clear that they could no longer hold it?
Rajoy has not made a single conciliatory gesture, not even trying to present himself as being left no option other that to invoke Article 155 and proceeding in a more gradual manner to create the appearance of being measured and giving Catalonia’s citizens the chance to rethink their stance (or as Lambert puts it, for Quislings to come forward). Instead, he has embarked on a course of action that appears destined to produce the greatest amount of conflict. Rajoy might take heed of Cate Blanchette’s observation as Queen Elizabeth: “I do not like wars. They have uncertain outcomes.”