February 02, 2017
Will it come to the use of force in Catalonia?
El Mundo leads today with the headline "Rajoy ready to prevent the referendum by force". The story is that the Spanish government has warned the separatist Catalan regional government of the possibility of "drastic or coercive" measures. Sources within the Prime Minister's office tell El Mundo that this means invoking Article 155 of the Spanish constitution which allows the Spanish government to "force" a regional government to meet its constitutional obligations by directly instructing regional officials. This requires a previous admonition by Rajoy to the respective regional premier that the region is acting against the constitution and the national interest, and he has followed this up with a vote in the senate authorising the government to act. It could come to this if the Catalan government went ahead with plans to call an independence referendum by September, which they have said will happen unilaterally if necessary.
The Spanish government is determined to prevent a repetition of the mock referendum of November 2014 when, after a constitutional court injunction stopping the vote, the regional government allowed grass roots groups to hold the vote anyway at the usual polling places (public schools, mostly) and with access to the voter rosters. Four former members of the Catalan government await trial for their involvement, including the former regional premier Artur Mas, who will appear before the high court of Catalonia next week. To prevent another mock vote, the Spanish government would have no choice but to order the police to seal the voting venues. There are a two options for this. One would be to use the Guardia Civil (a paramilitary force not unlike the French Gerdarmerie or the Italian Carabinieri) which would look like a military invasion and would risk having the Guardia Civil face off with the Catalan regional police, the Mossos d'Esquadra. The other option would be for the Spanish government to command the Mossos directly. This would require invoking Article 155, which El Mundo writes Rajoy is ready to do if it comes to that. This risks having the Mossos split as they would be receiving contradictory orders from Madrid and Barcelona. But it would not look like an invasion.
How did it come to this? At the weekend the radical left separatist CUP finally agreed to support the regional government's budget for 2017, on condition that a referendum is held by September. They threaten to let the Catalan government fall otherwise. And this week there have been reports that the regional government is considering to bring the referendum forward to before the summer, which has alarmed Spanish centralists who want to avoid a vote at all cost.