TOPSHOT - People hold big handcuffs reading
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The most talked-about number in Spanish politics these days is: 155.

Article 155 of Spain’s constitution allows the government in Madrid to intervene directly in the running of an autonomous region, effectively ending a system of self-government that is at the core of the country’s democratic order. After decades of obscurity, the article is emerging as a central issue in the political battle over Catalonia, the northeastern region that is pushing for independence.

As the Catalan government prepares to hold a referendum on secession this year, there is growing clamour in Madrid to invoke Article 155 and compel regional leaders to drop the vote and obey the constitution. The article allows the state to take all “necessary measures” to ensure compliance; if need be, by replacing officials and sending in the police.

The prospect delights hardliners on both sides. In Spain, there is widespread belief — especially on the political right — that Madrid has tolerated the Catalan drift towards independence for too long and that only Article 155 can provide a decisive remedy. In Catalonia, meanwhile, many believe that such an intervention would play into the hands of the secession movement by rallying local support and drawing international attention to the cause.

Either way, the move would turn a long-simmering conflict into a full-blown constitutional crisis.

“The article is the nuclear option. If the Spanish government makes use of it, everything blows up,” says Oriol Bartomeus, a political scientist at the Autonomous University of Barcelona. “What Madrid has to understand is that there is no clear majority for Catalan independence. But there is a very large majority in favour of Catalan self-rule.”

Mariano Bacigalupo, a professor of constitutional law at Spain’s Uned University, points out that triggering Article 155 would take the country into uncharted territory. Spain has never invoked the article, nor have other European countries with similar provisions made use of them.

“Article 155 is a measure that was designed as a last resort, to deal with an extraordinary and traumatic event,” he says. “It was designed not so much to be used but as a deterrence.”

Government leaders in Madrid have so far been reluctant to threaten the Catalan government openly with intervention. But Rafael Catalá, the justice minister, described Article 155 this month as “an option”, arguing that Madrid had an obligation to defend the law and the constitution. Another government official says Spain’s bottom line is clear: “There will be no referendum.”

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Autonomy in Spain

TARRAGONA, SPAIN - OCTOBER 02: People hold up Pro-Catalan independence during the 26th Tarragona Competition on October 2, 2016 in Tarragona, Spain. The 'Castellers' who build the human towers with precise techniques compete in groups, know as 'colles', at local festivals with aim to build the highest and most complex human tower. The Catalan tradition is believed to have originated from human towers built at the end of the 18th century by dance groups and is part of the Catalan culture.  (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)
© Getty

Under the Spanish constitution, the country’s 17 autonomous regions enjoy broad powers of self-government — for example, in education, health and welfare. Some regions including Catalonia have separate police forces and their own official languages

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Officials and analysts agree that Mariano Rajoy, Spain’s famously cautious prime minister, would resort to Article 155 only with great reluctance. When Catalonia wanted an informal independence ballot in 2014, his government allowed the vote despite an order from the constitutional court to halt the process. Prosecutors have since issued charges against various Catalan leaders over the affair, but the ballot itself went ahead without intervention.

This time could be different. Catalan officials insist the planned referendum in September should be binding, making it more difficult for Madrid to ignore the event. What is more, independence leaders have signalled they are ready to defy any ruling from Spain’s constitutional court suspending or banning the vote. Whatever their political calculations, Mr Rajoy and his ministers (many of whom who are lawyers) may ultimately feel they have no choice.

“There comes a moment when a court decision is ignored so flagrantly that not enforcing it creates a problem for the integrity of the rule of law. But it will be a very difficult decision to make,” says Prof Bacigalupo.

In Catalonia, meanwhile, there is little pressure on the government and independence activists to pull back. After years of intense mobilisation, some sense the independence movement is in danger of losing momentum. In that context, a high-stakes clash with Madrid — including a possible intervention by the Spanish police to halt the voting — may seem like a gamble worth taking.

“The independence movement knows that their people are getting tired. They want to go straight to penalties,” says Lluis Bassets, a Barcelona-based columnist for El País.

Legal scholars offer at least one plausible alternative to Article 155. Two years ago, Spain’s constitutional court was given enhanced powers to enforce its rulings — for example, by giving direct orders to the police and public officials. Critics argue the overhaul shifts political responsibility from the government to the judicial branch in a manner alien to the constitution.

Relying on the courts to take the fight to Catalonia may be seen by Mr Rajoy as a less costly political strategy. But intervening in the region — and overruling the decisions made by the Catalan parliament and government — will mark an unprecedented escalation no matter which body stands behind the move.

In Barcelona, meanwhile, preparations for the referendum continue. “We do not have an agenda of disobedience, but of explicit obedience to the parliament of Catalonia,” regional president Carles Puigdemont told the legislature this week. “We have to obey the mandate of the Catalan parliament to hold a referendum.”

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