Modern Spain’s Unchartered Territory

The phrase Direct Rule has a certain resonance  for a British and US media sensitised by the not so distant memories of Northern Ireland where the British government sent in the army to try and maintain law and order at the height of the Troubles.

Its use to describe the next stage of the Catalan crisis may be convenient short hand but it is not  a phrase that the jurisprudential Spanish prime-minister  Mariano Rajoy has opted to use. Instead the phrase has been Article 155, as incomprehensible  on a first hearing, as Article 150 was when  British MP’s finally sat down to  discuss Brexit.

Article 155 which gives the Spanish government the right to take unspecified  measures to restore an  autonomous government to lawful conduct not only has never been used before, but it is also so broadly  framed as to give the central government considerable flexibility to go in as hard or as soft as it chooses.

Nevertheless beyond dark memories of the lead up to the Spanish Civil War, there is no case history to draw on, and the government is entering  unchartered territory which, quite apart from the  legal challenges it might throw up, is a potential political minefield.

One of the ironies of the current crisis -not always explained  by those in the  international media too easily seduced by  in the emotionally-charged rhetoric of the Catalan separatists – is that Catalans , far from the being  repressed people controlled from the centre, are part  of a virtual  federal system with more than 90 per cent of its administration  in the hands of the Catalan regional and  even more devolved layers of local government, greater selfgovernment  than most other regions  enjoy in Europe

Catalonia’s  autonomy may be a source of grievance for radical pro-independents, but as it stands it has been secured over years of skilful wheeling and dealing with Madrid by less radical Catalan nationalist politicians, with today only nine of cent of Catalan public sector workers employed by central government.

Autonomous  rule extends across the health service, education,  local media including the well funded and Catalan nationalist  TV3, and the police force where the Catalan Mossos  de Escuadra have grown from 15,300 in 2009 to 17,000, compared to the national police and civil guard  local presence which fell from 6,500 to 5,900 during this period and just over 2,000 army personnel currently.

While in Northern Ireland direct rule was imposed drawing on a highly organised military contingency, on a province with far less locally administered resources than Catalonia, it was also done in the midst of a violent sectarian terrorist campaign.

Spain’s pro-independence  campaign has been largely peaceful until now, but Catalan Nationalism remains a highly volatile issue, and Mr Rajoy is caught between  rock and hard place as to how to deliver  Article 155.

While’s Catalonia’s  current autonomous  status is enshrined in the Spanish Constitution , any move by Madrid to replace management levels of the regional  administration with officials designated by Madrid, will be seen by many Catalans  as an attack on their democratic institutions  and way of life, and risk boosting  the pro-independence campaign if nothing else out of a sense of self-preservation.

This risk is recognised by the opposition party the PSOE  which,  while in favour of  Article 155 , is strongly of the view that  it should be limited in its scope and be focused  on organising new elections as soon as possible in the hope that a new more pragmatic, less radical  Catalan  autonomous government can  be formed.

In recent weeks the Spanish media has been filled with memories of the early 1930’s when an autonomous  Catalan government briefly declared a unilateral independent Republican  state of Catalunya only to be intervened militarily  by a democratically  elected government. The president of that government , the Spanish Republican Manuel Azaña later blamed Catalan separatists for dividing Spain and fuelling the later Spanish Civil War.

Much as some journalists have a tendency to see Spain thhough the prism of the Spanish Civi War , history has moved on.  These days, Mr Rajoy -no dictator if not a great statesman either-  is under pressure from hardline right wingers within his own party  and the leader of the centre right opposition grouping Cuidadanos to ‘punish’ the current  Catalan government  for its ‘rebellion’ against the Spanish state, and do whatever it takes to impose its authority, abiding by  the Constitution, democratically  approved in the 1970’s by a clear majority of Spaniards.

To some extent Mr Rajoy already has an important foot in  the door. While  Catalan companies continue to exit the region in increasing numbers and local  hotel receipts plunge because of the political instability , Madrid is fully in control of the  main purse strings, including payments such as salaries of public sector workers  and subsidies for local special projects in  addition   to the powers of taxation it already had.

By contrast Catalonia  has been in  political  free-fall for months, if not years, , is heavily in debt, has no currency of its own, and no Central Bank,  and its access to credit is via Madrid. The region is today  a shell of an  autonomous state and the nationalism of its many citizens remains a  live wire and wont easily be defused.

It  is far from  clear how the Mossos de Escuadra will react to being intervened, since their rank and file is divided about where the allegiance should lie, in the heart of  Catalan nationalism  or under orders from Madrid. As it is  the extra 6,000 police dispatched to Catalonia to reinforce security, still leaves Spanish police outnumbered by Catalan police.

As for the army, Spanish voters are hugely sensitive about the involvement  of armed forces publically, given that the depoliticisation  of the military was one  of the key policies of the post-Franco’s transition to democracy.

The security organisation  in  Catalonia, part of Spain which is not part of the EU but also a highly valued NATO member,  so controversial  on the day of the ‘illegal’ Referendum on October 1ts, may once again  be challenged by a growing  campaign of civil  disobedience, including street demonstrations  and lock-ins . God forbd there is no further Islamist terrorist outrage.

Rajoy and the King of Spain, are not alone in believing  the fate of Spanish and European democracy is being played out in the streets of Barcelona and Catalan separatism cannot, must not be allowed to pursue  its relentless anti-system unilateralist  strategy. But Mr Rajoy will be well advised to act in way that is seen  measured and proportionate , or seen that way by the civilised world inside and outside Spain.





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  1. Carlos says:

    Great article Jimmy
    Can someone tell me what the following have in common as I am at a loss?
    Apart that they all want to put up frontiers, despise their neighbours and think they champion the truth – surely there is something else that drives their nationalistic fanaticism!
    – Catalan pro independence supporters
    – British Brexit voters
    – American Trump voters & supporters
    What has caused these 3 forces to erupt in the West in the last 18 months??????

  2. Thank you Jimmy, a good lead up to what will be an unchartered experience for us all, only so because the chartered experience of mediation hasn’t been explored.
    You talk of the ‘emotionally-charged rhetoric of the Catalan separatists’, and yet what of Albert Rivera and his flashing bloodthirsty eyes when he calls for the 155 to be applied at once, what of El País firing their columnist John Carlin for expressing a different opinion on Catalunya to their PP-PSOE one?
    I would be very careful when defining strong feelings, that I agree are never attractive, as ‘emotionally charged rhetoric’ without looking behind the scenes. Screaming school girls can be annoying to the senses but there is sometimes a wolf that the on-looker hasn’t seen or sensed. Prejudice is exactly this, to pre-judge a situation because of what we feel it means, rather than listening and looking with the innocence of a child.

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