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  October 24, 2017

Spain to Take 'Nuclear Option' on Catalonia

Spain's central government went 'even more nuclear than anybody had expected' when it announced plans to completely strip Catalonia of its autonomy, says Professor Sebastiaan Faber of Oberlin College
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Aaron Maté : It's the Real News. I'm Aaron Mate. The constitutional crisis in Spain and Catalonia is escalating. In response to Catalonia's recent independence vote, Spain's prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, has announced he will strip Catalonia's autonomy and remove its leader. This so-called nuclear option is based on article 155 of Spain's constitution, which allows the parliament to take extraordinary measures to restore order in the country. The move still needs to be ratified by the Spanish parliament, but on Saturday, Rajoy said it's his only option.

Mariano Rajoy: We applied article 55 because no government, I repeat, no government of any democratic country can accept that the law is ignored, that the law is violated, that the law is changed, and that all of that is done in an aim to impose their criteria on others.

Aaron Maté : Joining me now is Sebastiaan Faber, professor of Hispanic studies at Oberlin College, author of the forthcoming book Memory Battles of the Spanish Civil War. Professor Faber, welcome. If you could explain to us what's just happened over the previous few days.

Sebastiaan F.: What has happened is that the Spanish government in Madrid has come through with what it said it was going to do, which is to invoke article 155 of the Spanish constitution, which is vaguely formulated but basically allows Madrid to take over or to revoke the self-government of any autonomous region that it considers not living up to its obligations or posing a threat to the interests of the nation. On Saturday, Rajoy, the prime minister's cabinet came together to discuss this. The question was really, were they going to propose a light, minimal version of taking over this autonomy, or a heavy-duty nuclear option?

I think they surprised everybody by going even more nuclear than anybody had expected, because they came up with a proposal to completely take over the autonomous government of Catalonia, to replace the current president of Catalonia with the prime minister himself, and to take over every single department of the Catalan government, including even public television, public radio in Catalonia, which along with education and language is one of the competencies that is devolved to the autonomous communities. This is a shocking passage of measures that erases, basically with one stroke of the pen, 40 years of autonomous government in Catalonia, and caused an immediate reaction in Barcelona. A manifestation had already been planned, but it turned out more massive than it was.

Currently, this proposal that was formulated on Saturday is up for a debate and a vote in the Spanish Senate. That debate and that vote are scheduled for this coming Friday. There are four or five days now in which things might change. Negotiation might still happen. It's expected that the Catalan president will appear before the Senate in Madrid and make his case against this article 155. It's also possible that the Catalan president will take advantage of this short space he has still, in which he's actually in charge firmly of Catalonia, and call for elections, original elections. It's not really clear.

Aaron Maté : In the Catalan president's speech, he spoke partly in English in a bid to appeal to the international community. What do you think he was trying to do there, and do you think his overture will resonate across the world?

Sebastiaan F.: He was trying to, as Catalonia has been trying to, rally public opinion behind it. What they're really trying for is some form of recognition by the European Union, ideally of course that Catalonia has the right to declare independence. The European Union will never concede that, but at least an acknowledgement on the part of the European Union that Spain has a real problem and that the government in Madrid is not solving it in the right way. Even that hasn't happened. The signals coming out of Brussels so far have been, "This is a domestic problem. We support the Rajoy government in its application of the constitution, and we don't believe in separatism of any kind."

The other question is whether Puigdemont has been able to appeal to international public opinion more widely, so civil societies in the United States and the European Union. There is clearly some support, I think, among especially the left in the civilized world, let's say, for what Catalonia is trying to do. It's not clear, really, to what extent international public opinion will be able to apply pressure to such an extent that it will really force the Rajoy government to change course.

I think one of the weak points for the Rajoy government, to be honest, is the low quality of its public servants. For example, the minister of foreign affairs, Dastis, appeared on the BBC the other day claiming that many of the images that we'd seen of police cracking down on voters on October 1 in Catalonia were fake news, and the BBC journalist couldn't really help laughing at this ridiculous claim by the Spanish foreign minister. There's a way in which the credibility of the Rajoy government abroad is low, even among EU leaders, but that doesn't mean that those EU leaders will let go of their basic position, which is that this is an internal domestic problem, and that the only law that applies is the constitution in Spain.

Aaron Maté : One issue for Puigdemont, I imagine too, is the domestic situation. The referendum was overwhelmingly approved, according to local authorities, but turnout was less than 50%. Meanwhile also, isn't this also fueling some economic uncertainty with businesses now saying that they're considering pulling out of Catalonia because there's too much unrest?

Sebastiaan F.: Yeah. Thousands of businesses have made a gesture of pulling out, in the sense that they've changed their main address, not quite their headquarters, but their main address. They've moved it outside of Catalonia. That has happened a lot. That's a real fear. The effect of some kind of economic or corporate exodus out of Catalonia is a real fear, and that would really destabilize, I guess is already destabilizing, the Catalan economy.

You're also right that Puigdemont, in strictly legal terms, his position is not too strong, because even though 90% of the people who voted on October 1 voted in favor of independence, they made up slightly over 40% of the people eligible to vote. It's also true that the Spanish constitution does not allow a referendum on self-determination, let alone succession. Really all he's got is the force of moral indignation and potentially the support of international public opinion.

What he's really after is still, to me, not quite clear. It's not self-evident to me that he or at least his party really wants independence and believes in independence as the ultimate goal. I think for them an acceptable solution would be some kind of negotiated outcome whereby Catalonia's position within in Spain would be defined more along the lines that they'd like to see it, would be more beneficial to Catalonia, would strengthen self-rule. Some of his coalition partners in this broad pro-independence coalition, especially the CUP, the more far-left partner, will not likely accept that as a positive outcome of this process. Puigdemont, like you said, has to struggle with this lack of legal standing but also with a potential breakup of the coalition that he heads up.

Aaron Maté : If I recall correctly, in a previous interview you were pointing out that Puigdemont might have a political motivation in this independence struggle, in the sense of shoring up domestic support for his leadership as a way of rallying his people around him, versus necessarily being so committed to the actual goal of independence.

Sebastiaan F.: Yeah, that is true. I think both parties, both main parties, the Partido Popular, Rajoy's party in Madrid, and [foreign language 00:09:02] party in Catalonia are in this game in part to gain votes, or not to lose votes in any case. I think it's important, if I can make one other point.

Aaron Maté : Please.

Sebastiaan F.: I think beyond the motivations and the short-term goals of these politicians, it's important not to lose sight of the fact that the Catalonian problem, the crisis of Catalonia, is really a crisis of Spain. It's a deep constitutional crisis of legitimacy, which is really the next chapter in something that we saw start in 2011 with the Indignados Movement, the 15M Movement. Currently in Catalonia, you could say that the general discontent with the state of democracy in Spain and the caliber of democracy in Spain is currently finding a vehicle in the cause for independence, that it's just a vehicle for a much deeper crisis that the invocation of article 155 this Saturday only confirms, because if people are discontent with the level of democracy, the level of participation, the corruption of the political parties, the rigidity of the traditional executive and legislative structures in Spain, then basically scratching democracy altogether for the sake and in the name of the constitution only goes to show that the system is really broken and needs to be fixed in some way.

Aaron Maté : On that point, I'm wondering if again this opens up some space for Podemos, the anti-austerity movement that's arisen in the last few years, being able to reach the people both in Spain and Catalonia with their message as an alternative to the Spanish government, especially in the aftermath of the Spanish government cracking down brutally on the Catalonian vote when it happened just a few weeks ago.

Sebastiaan F.: Yeah, in principle, I agree with you. There is an opening. I think a key element here is local capital or local credibility. It's really hard at this point in Spain, given the escalation which has really trickled down to civil society, so that the vision of Catalonia is not just political. It really is splitting families, friendships, and political parties as well, including Podemos. This is a really hard landscape to navigate for any political party that isn't already committing to either being strongly in favor or strongly against self-determination in Catalonia. In principle, I would agree with you that there is an opening for a more reasoned, more broad critique of the system as it is and a call for reform of that system, but the way that emotions have been mobilized at this point, and the way that political allegiances have been mobilized by parties that we can see occupy the extreme points of the debate about Catalonia makes it really hard for Podemos to break down that divide and to take some kind of middle road, even though it is the one that makes most sense in the long term.

Aaron Maté : Right. As we wait to see how the Spanish Senate votes, what's your prediction for what's going to happen?

Sebastiaan F.: That's a tough one. I would say that Madrid doesn't really want to apply 155. The way they've laid it out, in such an incredibly radical, overhauling way, it's practically pretty touch to actually implement. For example, just today the employees of the Catalan public television system already declared they will not obey any orders coming from Madrid. They'll obey orders coming from the Catalan parliament. I think the set of measures outlined on Saturday were meant to be a threat, a threat that is not actually possible to really implement, and therefore I think that both the threat of the declaration of independence on the side of Catalonia and the threat of a complete and entire crackdown from Madrid are still meant as part of a negotiation of some sort, forcing the other party to buckle. I think that both parties secretly hope on some kind of negotiated ... have hopes that there will be some kind of negotiated solution. The problem is a little bit that politically both have to save face in that solution, so that's going to be a very hard narrative to tell on both sides.

That's not really a prediction, I guess, but it's still hard to say what's going to happen. Should the crackdown really happen, should Madrid keep its word and the Senate approve the set of measures that were outlined on Saturday, I think in Catalonia there will be entire and utter chaos. Even, for example, the police force, the Mossos d'Esquadra, the Catalonia-wide security apparatus, will be divided in its loyalties, and will be split between obeying Catalan authority or obeying Spanish authority. The recipe is really for total chaos in all respects for civil life, public life, and security, and economics.

Aaron Maté : On that ominous note, we'll leave it there. Sebastiaan Faber, professor of Hispanic studies at Oberlin College, author of the forthcoming book Memory Battles of the Civil War. Professor, thank you.

Sebastiaan F.: Sure.

Aaron Maté : Thank you for joining us on the Real News.


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