Last Wednesday it looked like the previous evening’s suspended declaration of Catalan independence had backfired, by giving the Spanish government the chance to put the ball back in the Catalan government’s court by asking for clarification. Here I argue that the Spanish government, by setting in motion the process to commandeer the Catalan regional government in accordance with Article 155 of the Spanish constitution, may be walking into a PR trap.
The way this process is regulated in the Spanish senate’s rules of procedure will allow Catalan regional premier Carles Puigdemont to present his own appearance before a senate committee as his defence in a political show trial before a kangaroo court dominated by members of the governing party. For maximum mutual damage, Puigdemont can even call snap regional elections after the Senate committee finds against him, but before a plenary session of the Senate authorises any corrective actions proposed the Spanish government.
The whole process will take the better part of two weeks, during which both Catalan and Spanish nationalists – politicians, media and grass-roots – will vociferously escalate tensions.
Last Tuesday evening Catalan regional premier Carles Puigdemont delivered his ambiguous suspended declaration of independence, followed a round of rejoinders by the various parliamentary group speakers. The session adjourned without a vote, and was followed by the signing of a declaration of independence by the separatist MPs – numbering 72 out of 135 – who then sang the Catalan anthem.
This appeared to backfire by giving the Spanish government the opportunity to ask for clarification, putting the ball back into Puigdemont’s court. On Wednesday morning, an extraordinary meeting of the Spanish cabinet took the first step in the application of Article 155 of the Spanish constitution, which allows the Spanish central government to commandeer a recalcitrant regional government that acts against the Spanish constitution or the interest of the Spanish state.
The first step in the Art 155 process is for the Spanish PM to demand that the regional premier in question take corrective action. This the Spanish government did on Wednesday, by giving Puigdemont until Monday morning to clarify whether independence was indeed declared last Tuesday evening. According to the Spanish government’s official communication to the Catalan government, any answer other that a straightforward ‘no’ will be interpreted as confirmation that independence was indeed declared. By all accounts, Puigdemont will respond on Monday with an elaborate political declaration. In that case, the Spanish government has already stipulated Puigdemont must by Thursday morning revoke the declaration of independence, and take the necessary measures for both the Catalan government and parliament to return to the Spanish constitutional fold.
Needless to say, as soon as Puigdemont’s answer is in Spanish nationalists will demand immediate action from the Spanish government, without regard to the time needed to go through the Spanish senate for approval as Art 155 requires. Catalan nationalists have been demanding since Wednesday that Puigdemont press on with Catalonia’s unilateral independence. Tension will escalate substantially. This concludes Act One.
If, as it appears likely, Puigdemont fails to go back to the Spanish constitution by Thursday, the rest of the process is governed by Art 189 of the Spanish senate’s rules of procedure. The second step in the process is for the Spanish government to submit to the senate a proposal for corrective measures to be taken, for which Art 155 authorises the Spanish government to command Catalan government officials directly.
This is likely to happen on Thursday, after an extraordinary meeting of the Spanish cabinet. At this point, we will know the extent of the coercive measures the Spanish government considers necessary to restore the constitutional order in Catalonia. This can range from calling snap Catalan elections to taking control of the regional police, educational system, or pubic media.
Once this is known the Catalan separatists will have several days to prepare to resist these specific measures while the Spanish senate debates them. This concludes Act Two.
Art 189 of the senate rules of procedure requires the speaker of the senate to submit the government’s request and supporting documentation to the senate’s territorial committee, or to an ad-hoc commitee. This committee will then request that Puigdemont or a representative present any allegations or documentation in support of the Catalan government’s position.
Puigdemont can refuse to appear, but he can maximise the reputational damage to Spain by actually appearing before the senate committee and framing his appearance as his defence in a political show trial by a kangaroo court of Spanish senators dominated by members of the ruling People’s Party, which holds 55% of the seats in the senate.
The Spanish government operates in a purely legalistic frame, while the Catalan separatists are waging a communication war in the arena of international public opinion. It is not far-fetched to expect the Spanish government to actually play into the Catalan government’s communication strategy. It is a foregone conclusion that the senate committee will “find Puigdemont guilty” and submit the Spanish government’s request for authorisation under Art 155 to the senate plenary. This concludes Act Three.
The last step in the Art 155 process is for the Spanish senate to debate the recommendations of the committee and vote on authorising the Spanish government’s proposed corrective actions. The PP has a majority to pass this by itself, but last Wednesday the PSOE pledged support for PM Mariano Rajoy’s invocation of Art 155 in exchange for the PP agreeing to open up a reform of the constitution in the next six months. In addition, one can count on liberal party Ciudadanos to support the government, too. This gives an 80% majority in favour of the government.
Puigdemont can sow maximum confusion, however, by calling snap Catalan elections between the moment when the senate committee approves its conclusions, and the senate plenary votes to authorise the government’s request. By dissolving the Catalan regional parliament and putting the regional government in caretaker mode, Puigdemont could throw the Spanish government’s strategy into disarray.
It is, again, not far-fetched that the Catalan government will follow such a strategy of mutual damage. An alternative is that it will simply announce its refusal to comply with any orders Rajoy’s government may issue following the senate’s authorisation.
All along we can expect the European Union to watch in impotent horror as public rhetoric and tension escalate for the two weeks it will take this process to unfold.