Catalan president Carles Puigdemont gave an intentionally ambiguous address to the Catalan regional parliament last night, in which he stopped short of declaring immediate unilateral independence from Spain.
Instead, he acknowledged the results of the 1 October independence referendum, vowing to implement the resulting popular mandate. Puigdemont and other members of the pro-independence majority in the regional parliament subsequently signed a written declaration of independence (in a separate room). This however was not formally voted, nor approved, by the parliament. Importantly, Puigdemont signalled the parliament may suspend the effects of such a declaration, in order to allow time for a negotiation with Madrid “over the next few weeks”.
The deliberately ambiguous formula reflects a recognition that rushing too quickly to a full unilateral declaration of independence could backfire. It was Puigdemont’s attempt to compromise between the need to buy himself more time, and pressure from the radical wing of the separatist coalition to make good on the result of the referendum (see Eurasia Group – SPAIN: Catalonia likely to issue symbolic declaration of independence).
The Catalan government is acting on what it takes to be a mandate for secession resulting from the referendum, without taking direct institutional and personal responsibility for it just yet. This is intended both to shield individual Catalan politicians from the predictable legal repercussions and to complicate the central’s government task of responding to the declaration.
In sum, Puigdemont will allow a few weeks before formally adopting a unilateral declaration of independence, approving it in parliament, and formally activating a gradual process of secession laid out in the legal transition law passed by the regional parliament last month. In the meantime, the Catalans will take stock of the countermeasures Madrid will put in place. The Catalan government is therefore unlikely to take any practical steps towards secession in the near term (see Eurasia Group – SPAIN: Political and institutional crisis will deepen).
Rajoy under pressure to respond
Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy is under pressure from public opinion in the rest of Spain, and his own nationalist base, to respond to the most serious challenge to date by the Catalan government to the rule of law and Spain’s democratic institutions. Hardliners in Madrid see this a de factounilateral declaration of independence by the separatist Catalan leadership.
Rajoy’s conservative Popular Party (PP), with traditionally nationalist leanings, now finds itself vying with the centrist Citizens to show a firm response to the independence challenge. Citizens, normally more progressive than PP but having initially evolved out of an anti-independence Catalan party, has been pushing the central government to crack down on the separatists.
The Socialist Party (PSOE) the other large party in the constitutionalist block, has a more moderate position, urging the government to show restraint, pushing for a negotiated solution with the separatists (though short of a legal independence referendum), and calling for a reform of the constitution to give regional governments more powers. However, PSOE’s has now also hardened its stance after last night’s declaration, and moved closer to the government.
The leftist Podemos is alone amongst the largest parties in openly supporting a legal independence referendum. A survey released by the right-wing daily ABC appears to show a marked increase in support for Citizens, while left-wing parties, more ambivalent on the issue, seem to have lost some ground.
Madrid will scale up pressure
In an address earlier today Rajoy sought to put the ball back in Puigdemont’s court. He is expected to address parliament later tonight, to give more details over the government’s strategy going forward.
The Prime Minister signalled the government will give Puigdemont a chance to clarify if a declaration of independence has indeed been triggered, and called on the Catalan government to walk back its drive towards secession.
Importantly, Rajoy also mentioned the government has or is about to activate the procedure to trigger article 155 of the constitution, which give it the power to ‘suspend regional autonomy’.
A conservative interpretation of article 155 could be used by Madrid to take over only select competences and agencies of the regional government. A more clear-cut, but extensive use of article 155 (‘full 155’) would allow Madrid to disempower the regional government altogether, disband the regional parliament, and force fresh regional elections.
Puigdemont is very unlikely to abide by Rajoy’s demands, so we expect Madrid to scale up the pressure on the regional government in the coming days and weeks. Ultimately, we think the full use of 155 is now likely—indeed, this is now our basecase. However, it will not happen immediately. This is partly because Rajoy will try to preserve the unity of the ‘constitutionalist block’, to ensure the government’s response still has bipartisan support (whether this is needed to approve it or not).
Moreover, having seen how badly the police intervention backfired on referendum day, Rajoy is aware that this move will be resisted by the Catalan authorities and will probably be met with more mass demonstrations in Barcelona and other Catalan cities.Other softer, less controversial steps are also possible, in parallel. This will involve further restricting the regional government’s finances, and taking over select competences of the regional administration. The judicial process will also continue running its course, and we may see more top-ranking Catalan officials and possibly elected officials indicted on account of disobedience, embezzlement, and sedition (the latter crime potentially entailing long jail sentences).
The direct take-over of select agencies and competences of the regional government may be achieved by resorting to the National Security Law (NSL) or article 155 of the constitution but also by invoking the state of emergency. The state of emergency has been used before in response to prolonged strikes affecting critical infrastructure (air traffic control). The NSL can be activated by decree, without parliamentary approval. Article 155, on the other hand, requires approval by the Senate only (where PP holds an absolute majority), whereas the state of emergency would necessitate approval by a majority in parliament, and would therefore require the support of more parties beyond Rajoy’s PP.
Catalan regional police, which sided with pro-independence activists on referendum day by failing to apply court orders, and whose chief is already being prosecuted for sedition, is likely to be a particular focus of the central government’s response.
More extreme measures, such as declaring the state of exception or siege (which involves a drastic limitation in civil rights and recourse to military tribunals in the latter case), are not on the cards at this stage.
In a forthcoming note, we will explore in more detail the scenarios for the medium term, and possible ways out of the current standoff.