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What if Article 155 doesn’t work in Catalonia?

It is not clear whether measures to restore order in region will be effective after their Senate approval

Articulo 155
Spanish PM Mariano Rajoy and Catalan premier Carles Puigdemont. AFP

“It was difficult to announce [Article 155], but implementing it is impossible.” This admission from a high-ranking Spanish official highlights the uncertainty felt by Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy regarding the effectiveness of a measure he hopes will restore constitutional order in the breakaway region.

The main problem for Rajoy is the fact that the Spanish state is practically non-existent in Catalonia

Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution allows Madrid to intervene in the internal affairs of the country’s autonomous regions. Rajoy has said he will use the measure to sack the Catalan regional premier and his deputy, as well as department heads, before calling regional elections within the next six months.

But the obscure provision has never been applied before. And it is not clear whether Article 155 will work once it receives Senate sign-off: both because of the active or passive resistance sure to be put up by the Catalan government, and because of the short time frame (six months) involved. Then there is the precarious position of the Spanish government in a hostile territory where Spanish legality must be restored.

1. Active resistance. The resistance offered by Carles Puigdemont and his team may be more or less theatrical, but removing and substituting these officials is relatively straightforward. The real problem is the resistance that could be offered by other public servants, from the top brass to the rank and file. Journalists at the regional television station TV3, Catalunya Ràdio, and the Catalan News Agency, have already stated they won’t comply with their new managers. Town halls and educational institutions – the teaching union UTSEC has said it plans to reject Article 155 – and even fire departments are following the same line: the latter say they do not recognize the legitimacy of an “invading state.” The position of 17,000 officers with the Catalan regional police force, the Mossos D’Esquadra, remains to be clarified. Disobedience has no place in a police force and almost all unions have said signaled they will be loyal to any new chief appointed by Madrid. But the precedent of the October 1 referendum – when many feel the Mossos failed to carry out their duties in preventing people from casting their ballot in a vote deemed illegal by Madrid – does not bode well for this optimism. It must also be noted that relations between the Mossos on the one hand, and the Spanish National Police and the Guardia Civil on the other, are very strained.

2. Passive resistance. It wouldn’t take huge demonstrations or revolts to sabotage the plans for Article 155. The Catalan administration has 200,000 employees and has spent four decades working towards becoming a self-sufficient system. Spain’s deputy prime minister, Soraya Sáenz de Santamaría, has said she wants to see disobedient civil servants dismissed or sanctioned, but there are many ways to paralyze the region without committing outright crimes, just as it is impossible to organize mass punishment. This is not because the Catalan administration would come to a standstill in a period of upheaval, but because the human resources aren’t there to replace hardline individuals in a workforce that is implicitly or explicitly disloyal. Article 155 would sink in hostile territory.

3. The time factor. Pressure from the opposition Socialist Party (PSOE) and Ciudadanos was instrumental in forcing Rajoy to promise that the time frame for Article 155 would be six months. This was done to ensure that the intervention would be brief, thus providing reassurance to people in Catalonia and in Spain. But the short time frame also makes the creation of a parallel or imposed administration even less viable. The substitution of top officials alone would require complex administrative processes. The only way to apply Article 155 in six months, with regional elections as the goal, would be if it found in Catalonia a loyal administration, ready to effect changes efficiently. And the reality is exactly the opposite.

4. The non-existence of the Spanish state in Catalonia. The main problem for Rajoy is the fact that the Spanish state is practically non-existent in Catalonia already. This is a structural problem. Just 9% of public service workers in Catalonia are with the national administration. That’s against 16% in Valencia, 19% in Andalusia and 39% in Madrid. As Andrés Betancor, of Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona, explains, the presence of the Spanish state in the region is “purely residual and nominal” and limited to the Tax Office and Social Security. The current crisis has seen national reinforcements brought in, including 5,900 law enforcement officers. But the fact that some of these have had to be housed in cruise ferries rented for the purpose shows how precarious the national presence in Catalonia really is.

5. The precariousness of the Spanish state. The power of the Spanish state is more mythical than actual. Beyond the Catalan crisis, the state is undergoing a crisis of authority and function. This is because of the shift of powers to the regions and a policy of privatization – the state no longer supplies gas, power or telephone services – as well as the existence of a demotivated “analogue” workforce tempted by the private sector. In this context, the state can’t activate a rescue plan in Catalonia without the rest of the country, and its own administration, suffering for it. That’s despite the fact that sending extra police to Catalonia poses no risk to the rest of Spain.

English version by George Mills.

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