Spain Is Dealing With an Unprecedented Political Crisis

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Protesters, including one holding a sign demanding the release of Catalonian independence leaders Jordi Sanchez and Jordi Cuixart. Photo: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Spain’s political crisis sharpened dangerously this week, as the Spanish government prepares for the unprecedented step of triggering Article 155 of its still-young constitution. The move would revoke Catalonia’s status as an autonomous region, bringing it under direct control of the central government in Madrid. This is probably not going to go over all that well in Catalonia, which just held a contentious referendum for independence and has a long history of agitating for separation from Spain.

This is the latest development in a fraught few weeks for Spain. On October 1, Catalonia voted for independence from Madrid by about 90 percent — though turnout was a little over 40 percent. The Spanish government maintains the referendum was illegitimate and illegal (its top courts agreed); it also doesn’t want to lose its largest regional economy. Voting Day across Catalonia was bloodied by aggressive crackdowns by the Spanish government, which tried to deter people from the going to the polls. Nevertheless, on October 10, Catalonia’s regional president, Carles Puigdemont, declared independence — but with a twist. In a somewhat confusing speech, he vowed Catalonia “will become an independent state in the form of a republic,” but then asked everyone to wait a couple of months before becoming independent and to hold talks with the central government in Madrid.

The Spanish government responded by giving Puidgemont a hard deadline of Monday to confirm, or deny, that Catalonia was breaking away from Spain. Puigdemont’s reply: a request for a meeting with Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy, indicating they might be able to work this out with international mediators. But he skirted a definite answer on the whole independence thing.

Catalan regional government president Carles Puigdemont. Photo: Pau Barrena/AFP/Getty Images

Spain delivered another ultimatum — with a deadline set for this Thursday, at 10 a.m. local time — to get a definite “yes” or “no” on independence. This time the stakes were higher, as many expected the Spanish government to opt for its “nuclear option” — invoking Article 155 for the first time ever — if it didn’t like Catalonia’s response. Puigdemont sent another letter, saying its independence was suspended, for now, while also threatening independence if the Spanish government “persists in impeding dialogue and continues its repression.” Prime Minister Rajoy replied by scheduling an emergency cabinet meeting Saturday where officials “will approve measures to be put before the senate to protect the general interest of Spaniards, including the citizens of Catalonia, and to restore constitutional order in the autonomous community.” In other words, Article 155.

Spain is now in uncharted territory. Article 155 would allow Madrid to take control of Catalonia’s regional government, finances, and police — though it’s unclear exactly how far the central government would intervene. Madrid could take a more short-term and limited approach, something the opposition Socialist Party, which appears ready to back Rajoy on the measure, has advocated. Of course, Rajoy could take the hard-line tack, says the New York Times:

Using constitutional powers, Mr. Rajoy could appoint a caretaker administration in Catalonia. Mr. Puigdemont, on the other hand, could face sedition charges and ultimately a long prison sentence for presenting a unilateral declaration of independence that violates Spain’s Constitution.

Should Rajoy go to that extreme — coming down hard on Puigdemont and his government — he runs the risk of isolating moderates in Catalan, and escalating tensions with secessionist forces. There’s also fear of civil unrest, or a repeat of the violent clashes on the day of the referendum vote. Two Catalan pro-independence leaders have been jailed over allegations of sedition, which already sparked large protests this week in Barcelona and beyond. Catalonia had been divided on the independence question, but the very wealthy Catalonia, which has its own language, is unlikely to want to sacrifice their autonomy for good.

Throughout all of this, the European Union has has stayed largely on the sidelines, encouraging dialogue, but not much else. On Thursday, European Council president Donald Tusk made clear the E.U. wouldn’t directly step in. “There is no room, no space for any kind of mediation or international initiative or action,” he said. However, European leaders, including Germany’s Angela Merkel and France’s Emmanuel Macron, have called for Spanish unity, backing Madrid in this escalating crisis.

Spain Is Dealing With an Unprecedented Political Crisis