How the Catalonia Crisis Could Be Resolved

The Spanish prime minister’s decision to invoke Article 155 of the Constitution will not entail a full-fledged suspension of autonomy, but will probably include the convening of elections in Catalonia in early 2018, putting the Catalan police under control of Spain’s Home Affairs Ministry and other restrictive measures (financial control, for instance), writes Francisco de Borja Lasheras, Head of ECFR Madrid Office.

The best possible settlement, part of the best case scenario, would entail a twofold process, consisting of, on the one hand, a return to the constitutional and statutory framework in Catalonia, and, on the other and in parallel, negotiations towards an ambitious constitutional reform in Spain, including more home rule for Catalonia.

This would require first and foremost that the Catalan Government of Mr Puigdemont withdraws its threat of a unilateral declaration of independence (UDI) from Spain and repeals the so-called disconnection laws rammed through the Catalan Parliament in September (contravening Catalan’s own Statute of Autonomy, the Spanish Constitution and parliamentary rules, breaching opposition’s rights) and declared void by the Spanish Constitutional Court, triggering the current crisis. This request not only comes from the central government in Madrid and key EU leaders, but of broader segments of Catalonia’s political and social community, its main newspapers, the business class, all of opposition parties and also some segments of the secessionist camp - especially in view of the massive capital flight, which has skyrocketed with this instability.

This so-called normalization phase would include a re-empowerment of moderate voices of Catalanism (favouring more home rule and some even independence, but with respect to the rule of law). Such voices are now sidelined by Mr Puigdemont and his support base, but remain crucial for the democratic governance of Catalonia and for the rest of Spain, too.

In parallel, negotiations towards constitutional reform would initiate with the official opening of a parliamentary commission, agreed in September between the government of PM Rajoy (PP) and PSOE (Socialists, main opposition party), and entrusted with the review of territorial cohesion, with a focus on Catalonia. Rajoy has also agreed with PSOE the initiation of constitutional reform, confirmed at last week’s plenary session of Parliament. This process would involve representatives of the Catalan Parliament as well as its representatives in the Spanish Parliament, together with other forces, and a revamped dialogue between authorities in Madrid and Barcelona. Analysts suggest that this should envision a specific constitutional reference to Catalonia and its national character, but other key political forces want this reform to have a broader agenda, aimed at renewing the constitutional pact in Spain. The actual reform would be a process spanning several years, including constitutional elections and a nationwide referendum. As a result, and provided a majority of Catalans agreed, this would also entail an upgrade of the 2006 Statute of Autonomy of Catalonia, followed by a legal referendum circumscribed to that region, just like the one in 2006.

In the meantime, some of measures towards more home rule could be explored and eventually decided before – e.g. a more balanced system of fiscal transfers and/or more tax powers-, as hinted by authorities in Madrid.

Reactions from the hardliners – and the role of Mr Puigdemont

Now, and most unfortunately, this ideal path is not likely to take place as envisaged, for the Catalan Premier and the main secessionist parties are expected to pursue their unilateral path, after their refusal to adhere to Rajoy Government’s request last week to withdraw any UDI or the threat thereof. They have announced they will not take part in the parliamentary commission on territorial reform. Three things are important to be understood here:

• One, that the secessionists have a wafer thin majority of seats at the Catalan Parliament, enabled by an imperfect proportional representation system that benefits nationalist constituencies, but not of votes. In fact, support for independence in Catalonia, though higher than in the past, is not yet representative of a clear majority and hovers around 40%. In fact, part of the strategy of the secessionist camp is precisely scaling up confrontation with the State – and garner international support- to amplify their support base.

• The hardliners in Catalonia, unlike traditional Catalanism (I myself support), resemble both the Tea Party’s maximalism and its upending of the Republican Party and US politics, and disrespect for the rule of law in Kaczynski’s Poland. The supremacist undertones in some sectors within the secessionist camp (e.g. the current Speaker, Carme Forcadell, famously referring to non-nationalist Catalans as “non-Catalans” and “adversaries of the people”) bears resemblance with Italy’s Lega Norde and other populistic and xenophobic forces now in Europe.

• In a nutshell, a big part of the problem lies in the fact that these hardliners, as an FT editorial argued recently, “purport to speak in the name of the whole people, a baseless claim, for they are driving forward a radical agenda that deeply divides Catalonian society, treating (the rule of law) in the most flagrantly high handed manner”.

At this stage, Mr Puigdemont’s government and their base are scaling up a post-truth narrative that conflates the cases of Slovenia, Kosovo and even Maidan Ukraine, building a case of repressive Spain to push forward to UDI – the only topic they want dialogue to focus on and get international mediation for. Moreover, Mr Puigdemont cannot afford to lose the support of the anti-EU extreme left party, CUP - whose numbers he needs to keep his job.

Next steps: Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution

The Government of PM Rajoy has just agreed with PSOE the scope of measures that the actual implementation of Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution will entail, after consent from the Senate, expected later this month. Article 155 is inspired by Article 37 of Bonn’s Fundamental rule of federal coercion. Such measures will not include a full-fledged suspension of autonomy – a step that neither the Government, nor any Spanish democratic party really contemplates, self-government being a constitutional landmark for Spain – but will probably include: the convening of elections in Catalonia in early 2018 (where secessionists could lose the majority), putting the Catalan police under control of Spain’s Home Affairs Ministry and other restrictive measures (financial control, for instance).

Any such measure will be gradual, offering last-minute face-saving opportunities for Puigdemont at every juncture, but will of course be met with resistance and secessionists’ street politics, fanning their victimhood narrative, and polarizing politics in the rest of Spain. In parallel, there are procedures under the Spanish justice against some of the leaders of the secessionist camp, for major violations of the laws on public order during the riots of September. The secessionists could go for a formal UDI, as a response, which in turn will be rejected by half of the Catalan Parliament, key municipalities such as Barcelona, etc.

So, in the short term we are heading to escalation, also within Catalonia, tensions and public order problems (key challenge now from a State perspective, but also for coexistence in Catalonia). The main EU leaders remain overall supportive of Madrid and of Spanish unity, as the EU is based on respect for Member States’ constitutional frameworks (Article 4.2 of the EU Treaty), though of course there will be tensions there too (e.g. with Flemish secessionists, Slovenians, etc.), especially as the crisis deepens.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.