Spain Constitutional Reform Trial Balloon: Bona Fide or Headfake to Split Catalonia?

October 13, 2017
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The Financial Times reports tonight that some members of the Popular Party and its opposition, the PSOE, the Socialists, are trying to find a more durable solution to the standoff in Catalonia via constitutional reform. But is this just a ploy to discredit the separatists if they continue with their plan to declare independence?

The current state of play is that the leader of Catalonia’s movement, Carles Puigdemont and other members of parliament signed a declaration of independence, which was then suspended in the hope that Spain’s government would be willing to entertain negotiations. But this gambit was never likely to succeed. Spain has repeatedly acted to check the separatists, first via obtaining a Constitutional court ruling declaring an independence referendum to be illegal, then using that as the basis for a crackdown. The King’s fierce denunciation of the separatists was another sign that Madrid would cut them no slack. Prime Minister Rajoy has kept the pressure on by demanding that the separatists either follow through with their threat or retreat by insisting that the need to take a position on whether they are independent or not by next Monday, again making clear he has no interest in negotiating.

While the press has focused on the physical steps to prevent the election, such as seizing ballots and having the Guardia Civil rough up citizens trying to vote and make arrests, even more significant was that Spain intervened in Catalonia’s accounts. Spain used the banks that handle Catalonia’s accounts to prevent payments to be made to support the election. That was one reason why more ballots were not printed. Having Spain insert itself in what Catalonia can and cannot pay for is a significant infringement upon its autonomy. It was arguably kosher because the action was taken pursuant to enforcing the Constitutional court ruling. But with this precedent having been set, and the mechanism for control already in place, it would appear that Catalonia’s wings have already been clipped.

So why, if the Spanish government has held to a hard line on the separatist movement in Catalonia, and Rajoy has made clear that he will invoke Article 155 and assert control over Catalonia if it decides to act on its declaration of independence, are some members of the Spanish government making conciliatory noises?

I welcome input from readers in Spain, since the situation is fluid and some elements of the political calculus may have changed in the last few days. However, I see a rumor about an incipient plan to reform the Constitution to address the question of regional independence, as an inspired political move to further weaken the separatists.

If the separatists proceed with their declaration of independence despite the fact that pre-election polls showed that only a minority backed a referendum if Spain opposed it, it insulates the central government from looking heavy-handed if it resorts to Article 155. Rajoy’s allies can claim that there was a plan in motion to address the separatists’ concerns, but something of such magnitude cannot be done overnight. As with the referendum, they showed they had no respect for the rule of law or the rights of other Spanish citizens, including the large number in Catalonia who either opposed the independence movement, had reservations as to how the separatists were going about it or had more limited demands for autonomy.

Key sections from the Financial Times story:

Just as Catalonia’s secession crisis threatened to tip Spain over the edge this week, a handful of government and opposition politicians in Madrid met in secret to find a formula for breaking the deadlock.

Mariano Rajoy, prime minister and leader of the conservative Popular party, and Pedro Sánchez, leader of the opposition Socialists, instructed their representatives to draw up a plan for overcoming the crisis by means of a reform of Spain’s 1978 constitution.

It is an ambitious initiative.

Perhaps I am unduly cynical, but the “It is an ambitious initiative” when it isn’t even that yet is a tell that if anything were to move forward, the excuses for it failing or merely tidying up some ambiguous bits of the Constitution are already being planted. Similarly, knowing who was tasked to this initiative would also help give an indication as to its seriousness.

Note that even before this rumor was planted (and this story has the marks of a plant as opposed to a leak), Puidgemont’s hold on power was already tenuous. The hard left CUP party is part of Puidgemont’s coalition and holds ten seats he needs. The CUP is already at odds with Puidgement for not following through on his promise to declare independence after the referendum vote was made official. As a different article in the Financial Times points out:

“If Puigdemont publicly shies away from independence, the CUP might decide to pull the plug from the alliance that is keeping the pro-independence movement in power,” says Antonio Barroso, analyst at Teneo Intelligence. “On the other hand, if he remains ambiguous or says Catalonia is independent, Rajoy will use this to justify the next steps to be taken under Article 155 of the constitution . . . either way there could be new regional elections.”

with that background, the promise, even if it is an empty one, of Constitutional reform, both increased the pressure on Puidgemont’s shaky coalition and also weakens the separatists if new elections were held by offering what may be the false promise of a “moderate” compromise.

As we’ve pointed out, Catalonia is certain not to get the devolved power it most desperately wants, which is that of control of tax collection. The Basque region has that authority, which means on a practical level that its budget comes first and remittances to Spain come second. I hope readers will tell me of other powers that Catalonia would like to have. My assumption is they all pale compared to this one.

But the Basque area is small enough in economic terms that Madrid could afford the loss of some tax revenue in the name of keeping the peace. That’s not at all the case with Catalonia.

So even if Rajoy has decided it’s in his interest to placate the separatists, his idea of what is reasonable to give them is likely to fall considerably short of what they want.

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