Mariano Rajoy was challenged, Tuesday, by Carles Puigdemont, who submitted, then suspended, a declaration of Catalan independence – a ‘soft’ UDI (Unilateral Declaration of Independence). The Spanish Prime Minister responded yesterday with the opening of the Article 155 process, which was interpreted by some Spanish policymakers as a soft version of this constitutional article which allows him to intervene in Catalan autonomy. Instead of requiring Carles Puigdemont to reverse his declaration, before intervening, the Council of Ministers approved the issuing of a request for clarification, in which he was asked whether he actually declared independence in his appearance in Parliament on Tuesday evening, or not. In the case of an affirmative answer, the mechanisms of article 155 would be triggered, which include a further opportunity for backtracking on the declaration before the definitive intervention in the autonomous structures – an action which must be approved by the Senate, where Rajoy’s Popular Party have an absolute majority. The Spanish government would also refer the order to the Constitutional Tribunal (TC) , which could take additional steps to disable Puigdemont.
On paper, Rajoy has given the President of the Generalitat one last opportunity to reverse or clarify the alleged declaration of independence. But in practice, what he presented to him was tantamount to the referendum question itself, because the Spanish government, as sources in the Palace of the Moncloa have explained, wants unconditional clarity in the form of a binary answer: either, yes or no. Any perceived evasion or circumlocution will be understood as an affirmative answer and will trigger the application of article 155, and intervention by Spain into existing Catalan autonomy. Thus, the Spanish PM is pushing Puigdemont to proclaim independence, in the case that he has not done so; or to act as if Tuesday never happened, and abandon the state of “confusion” he argues the President of the Generalitat’s speech to Parliament created, and return to the prior, legitimate, state of Catalan autonomy.
Therefore, the latest response from Spain to Puigdemont’s most recent intervention, has essentially been practical activation of the previously-unused and most interventionist mechanism in the Spanish constitution. This mechanism can be used to punish the Autonomous Communities, and lead to the dismantling of the institutions of Catalan self-government. That said, the Spanish Executive, via a meeting of the Council of Ministers next week, would have to determine the scope and reach given to this previously untested intervention. This was contained in the formal reply, approved by an extraordinary Council of Ministers meeting, convened by Mariano Rajoy at noon on Wednesday, and agreed with the Socialist general secretary, Pedro Sánchez, at a meeting overnight. The political response was announced in two places: at the headquarters of the PSOE (Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party) and the Congress of Deputies. In the first place, Sánchez announced an agreement with the Spanish PM to open a debate on constitutional reform within a period of six months. The Socialist General Secretary has long wanted to enter into discussion on this topic, but has been unable, until now, to gain any specific commitment to do so. Any eventual reforms would have to take into account the conclusions of the Committee for Modernisation of the Territorial Model, which was launched by the Congressional PSOE. It would likely be able to count on support from the majority Popular Party and the Ciudadanos party.
In the lower house (Congress), it was Rajoy who explained his intentions towards Catalonia should Puigdemont respond to the request for clarification by denying a UDI: article 155 would not need to be applied. However, the Spanish president refused to participate in mediated talks or to negotiate on a mutually-agreed referendum. He spoke out firmly against the intentions of the pro-independence parties, asserting they were attempting to “impose conditions” on the proposed negotiations. “There are dialogues which are simply not possible: I cannot hold discussions with anyone with regards to how we dodge our own laws, or about an illegal referendum,” he said. Nor can discussions be held, “on topics which are expressly prohibited in article 2 of the Constitution”, that is to say the unity of Spain and Spanish national sovereignty.
Despite demands from the independence parties, the PNV (Basque National Party), and Podemos, the Spanish PM reinforced his entrenched position, once again asserting he would continue to deny of the right to vote, and reiterating that negotiations and discussions with Catalonia could only be held if Catalonia returned to the existing agreements of devolution and autonomy. The Spanish president explicitly requested the PDECat (Catalan European Democratic Party) return to “the compliant Catalanism” with which his Popular Party felt comfortable during the first legislature of Jose-Maria Aznar (Spanish Centre-Right PM from 1996-2004). In essence, Rajoy asked for an erasure of the last seven contentious years of Catalan political life, implying that it would only be in a kind of political environment where Catalonia “returns to the fold”, in which he would be willing to begin bilateral discussions. The Spanish president reiterated that he is not prepared to recognize sovereignty in Catalonia, because it would be, according to him, an attempted coup against Spanish national sovereignty and the unity of the State. He appealed to moderates in the PDECat party – those uncomfortable with the perceived unilateral approach – implying the Spanish government would be willing to see recent events as “a slip-up”, whilst being hopeful of a “return to legality”, according to sources in the Palace of the Moncloa.
“Spain will not be broken up without its citizens first deciding so,” said Rajoy, who asked that “the unity of the Democrats be maintained and expanded”, referring to the two parties that have given his strategy unconditional support: the PSOE and Ciudadanos. During a parliamentary session in which Albert Rivera made it clear that his proposal to reform the Constitution would have to reverse some concessions made to peripheral nationalists over the last 40 years, Rajoy showed an openness to reforming the Carta Magna (the Spanish Constitution of 1978), along with, among others, Ciudadanos. It was evident that with the current majority in the Congress, Rajoy can ensure no referendum can be undertaken within Spanish law, and this will continue to be an insurmountable wall for the those parties in favour of the right to decide.
Rajoy acted as a “wolf in sheep’s clothing”, making a concerted, coercive step seem soft, while putting the ball firmly in the court of the Generalitat. It will be up to the Catalan government now to declare or re-declare independence, or assert a return to the existing authorized form of devolved autonomy.