After Catalonia declares independence, Spain takes over and sacks the government

Monday, October 30, 2017

After the Catalan parliament passed legislation calling a binding referendum to decide whether Catalonia should become “an independent state in the form of a republic,” it was clear the Catalan and Spanish governments were headed for a constitutional crisis. The legislation stipulated that if the number voting Yes exceeded the number voting No the parliament would, two days after receiving the official results, put into effect a formal declaration of independence and begin constituting the new republic.

But the preliminary title of the Spanish Constitution states “the Constitution is based on the indissoluble unity of the Spanish Nation, the common and indivisible homeland of all Spaniards.” “Indissoluble unity” and “indivisible homeland” mean just that – “indissoluble” and “indivisible”; the day after the Catalan parliament passed the referendum bill, the Constitutional Court suspended it.

And after Catalonia, despite the Court’s decision, held the referendum, the Spanish government of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy directed Catalan President Carles Puigdemont to clarify whether he had declared independence at a session of the parliament, and Puigdemont refused to do so, it was clear the Spanish government would seek Senate authorization under Article 155 of the Constitution to take whatever measures were necessary to ensure that Catalonia complied with the Constitution.

Article 155, the so-called “nuclear option” that until now has never been invoked, stipulates that if an Autonomous Community such as Catalonia doesn’t fulfill its obligations under the Constitution or other laws, or acts in a way that seriously prejudices the general interests of Spain, the government may, following approval by an absolute majority of the Senate, take whatever measures are necessary in order to compel it to meet its obligations or to protect the general interest and, in so doing, may issue instructions to the authorities of the Community.

Many in Catalonia and the rest of Spain hoped the crisis might be resolved through dialogue between the two governments – dialogue that might lead to a new Statute of Autonomy for Catalonia that would increase its financial and fiscal autonomy and perhaps even recognize its unique status as a historical nation.

But that didn’t happen. Instead, on Friday, after considering the possibility of calling new elections if Madrid promised not to apply Article 155 – something Madrid refused to do – and then backing down under pressure from two of the pro-independence parties, Puigdemont left it up to the Catalan parliament to decide what to do. After a heated debate and the walk-out of more than 50 of the 135 members, 70 voted to constitute “the Catalan Republic, as an independent, sovereign, democratic, social state under the rule of law.” Ten said “No” and two abstained.

Soon thereafter, the Spanish Senate voted 214 to 47 to authorize the government to take whatever measures were necessary with respect to Catalonia. The measures, which took effect Saturday, removed Puigdemont and the Catalan government from office and placed Catalonia under the control of Madrid – ultimately, under Deputy Prime Minister Soraya Saenz de Santamaria, the vice-president of the PP and a hardline opponent of Catalan secession. The Catalan parliament was dissolved and new elections called for December 21. In addition, the chief and the director-general of the Catalan police, the Mossos d’Esquadra, were replaced.

On Monday, José Manuel Maza, the Spanish Attorney General, announced he had filed charges with the National Court and Supreme Court against Puigdemont and other Catalan political leaders for rebellion, sedition and/or misuse of public funds. As he did, rumors circulated that Puigdemont and other members of the Catalan government had fled the country and taken refuge in Brussels. Belgium is one of the few EU member states in which an EU citizen can seek political asylum and the Belgian minister of immigration said asylum was a possibility.

How did this outcome, which so many hoped could be avoided, happen? There is an abundance of explanations having to do with Catalonia’s history, its cultural identity and its economic position in Spain. But one key feature contributing to the outcome was the fact that both Spain and Catalonia had multi-party minority governments – governments that, because they didn’t control secure majorities in their parliaments, were susceptible to the pressures of the parties, even small ones, that participated in the minority government or, in the case of Catalonia, the pro-independence majority in the parliament.

In the case of the Spanish government, in the June 2016 election, Rajoy’s center-right Popular Party (PP), founded by Manuel Fraga Iribarne, a long-time minister under Francisco Franco and, like Rajoy, a Galician, obtained 33 percent of the vote and 137 of the 350 seats in the Congress of Deputies, the lower house of the national parliament. The PP formed a minority government with the Citizens Party (Ciudadanos, C’s), a liberal party headed by Albert Rivera, a Catalan strongly opposed to independence, that obtained 13 percent of the vote and 32 seats in the election. Together, the two parties won 46 percent of the vote and 169 seats, seven short of a majority.

In the case of the Catalan government, in the September 2015 regional election most of the old Convergence and Union (CiU) party, reorganized as the Democratic Convergence of Catalonia (CDC), formed a coalition – Together for Yes (Junts pel Sí) – with the Republican Left (ERC). Together for Yes won 39.6 percent of the vote and 62 of the 135 seats in the Catalan parliament and the two parties subsequently formed a minority government. But with the support of the hardline, far-left Popular Unity Candidacy (CUP), which won 8 percent of the vote and 10 seats, the minority government had a slim parliamentary majority for pro-independence legislation. It was that parliamentary majority that voted for the independence referendum in September and the same parliamentary majority, minus two members, that voted to declare independence on Friday.

While making it clear both before and after the October 1 referendum that Catalonia would not become independent, Rajoy suggested on several occasions in the past two weeks that there could be negotiations and perhaps even consideration of changes to the Constitution provided Puigdemont renounced the Catalan declaration of independence. But even those tepid gestures were opposed not only by Saenz de Santamaria and other PP hardliners but by Rivera and the C’s, who insisted that Madrid not only make use of Article 155 but see to it that Puigdemont and the other pro-independence leaders were charged and prosecuted for sedition or rebellion.

And in Catalonia, when Puigdemont floated the possibility of calling new elections if Madrid didn’t make use of Article 155, he was faced with accusations of being a traitor to the cause of independence by the leaders and supporters of his party’s partners in government (the ERC) and  in the pro-independence parliamentary majority (the ERC and CUP), which insisted that the parliament proceed with the declaration of independence. 

Sadly for both Catalonia and Spain, the two governments, lacking as they did secure majorities in their electorates and parliaments and dependent for political survival on hardline coalition partners – in Catalonia, on the hardline supporters of independence; in Spain, on the hardline proponents of Article 155 – were unable to find their way to some middle ground between the opposing poles of hardliners. And so, in a replay of the classic prisoner’s dilemma game, in failing to find their way to some middle ground of cooperation through dialogue, both governments lost. The Spanish government lost whatever residual legitimacy it might have had among the 40 to 45 percent of the Catalan population who, according to pre-referendum polls, supported independence, Puigdemont and the other members of the Catalan government lost their positions and may lose their freedom, and Catalonia lost – possibly for a long time – the autonomy it had enjoyed since 1979.  

It’s much too soon to know what will happen in Catalonia under direct rule by Madrid – to what extent the supporters of independence will acquiesce in or resist Madrid’s rule, to what extent there will be widespread civil disobedience, work stoppages, economic disruptions, and confrontations that escalate into outright violence of the kind seen in the October 1 referendum, how tough or lenient the courts will be with the leaders of the Catalan government and, of course, who will win and lose the Dec. 21 elections. But it’s hard not to agree with Ada Colau’s characterization of what happened Friday. Colau, the mayor of Barcelona, a founder last year of Catalonia in Common (Catalunya en Comú) and an outspoken opponent of both Catalan independence and the use of Article 155, tweeted, “es un desastre” – it’s a disaster.  


Written by David R. Cameron, professor of political science and director of the Program in European Union Studies of the MacMillan Center.