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Catalonia Update: Rajoy and Sánchez Respond

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More information has come in after publication of this article. After Spanish Prime Minister Rajoy had issued his clarification challenge to Catalan President Puigdemont, the Socialist Opposition Leader Pedro Sánchez held a press conference in which he confirmed his support for the course of action of the Prime Minister. He too demanded that Puigdemont state directly whether Catalonia had declared independence or not; and that if this was affirmative, he and his party would support the request for the imposition of Article 155 by the government.

In exchange for this support, Prime Minister Rajoy has agreed to the formation of a commission to study possible changes to the Spanish constitution. As Mr. Sánchez said: “In order to defend the constitution, we will have to reform it.”

What would these reforms consist of? That remains to be seen, but there are certain elements that are out of the question:

  • There will be no reform to permit secession;
  • There will be no reform to permit a referendum on secession.

As Mr. Sánchez stated, “we’re open to discuss ways of keeping Catalonia in Spain, not for helping it leave.” Also off the table – probably – is the Catalan desire for a republican form of government. Although this would be an issue that could actually find considerable support across the Spanish electorate, the monarchy is probably off the table. Though if Mr. de Borbón wanted to jump on the grenade for his people, I certainly would not be the one to hold him back.

So any discussion is really going to center on those articles of fiscal management that were included in the reformed Catalan Estatut of 2006 and subsequently struck down by the Constitutional Tribunal as being in violation of Article 138.2 of that document[1]. The special status of the Basque Region and Navarre in terms of fiscal control come from charters (fueros) that pre-date the 1978 Constitution and are preserved in that document in specific articles. For Catalonia to have similar rights therefore requires a constitutional amendment; otherwise, the deal could be challenged in court – again – and struck down – again. That is why the proposal by Minister de Guindos a few weeks ago of a Basque-like deal was not credible; it did not include a definitive offer of a constitutional amendment process.

Messrs. Rajoy and Sánchez are both keen on preventing a breach and the inevitable escalation that would follow. They have given Mr. Puigdemont a low bar to hurdle to avoid implementation of Article 155: he merely has to confirm that he has not declared independence – which is technically true. That will cost him some support among the most pro-independence elements in his base, but it will probably not have more serious consequences, such as an immediate split with his CUP partners. He will certainly argue that he is merely “calling Mr. Rajoy’s bluff” and proceeding with the amendment charade until it inevitably plays out. The CUP has demanded a “time limit” for Puigdemont’s moderation and dialogue offer: that limit can now be set at 6 months.

Is the offer genuine? It may be. Messrs. Rajoy and Sánchez loathe each other; the fact that they are willing to come together to propose such an initiative is noteworthy. It is also worth mentioning that the constitutional amendment process is the only offer of dialogue that has any credibility: any deal that did not include it wouldn’t be worth the paper it was printed on, for the reason I just mentioned. We also need to ask: what does Mr. Rajoy gain by trying to buy 6 more months? Not really much: he has had months to prepare a response, he doesn’t need more time for that. He might be trying to entrap Mr. Puigdemont by having his opponent reject this offer at dialogue and lose all hope of European support; but that seems a foolish gamble if he is insincere, since Mr. Puigdemont is much more likely to accept the negotiation than to reject it outright.

In any case, this is the smartest move the Spanish government has made with respect to Catalonia since 2011. The entirety of this period could be characterized by long interludes of apathy and neglect punctuated by intense moments of intransigent negativity, insults and threats. Long may this new wisdom grace the administration.

My impression is that the offer is genuine: everyone looked over the brink last night and blinked. Mr. Puigdemont understood how isolated a unilateral declaration of independence at this stage would leave Catalonia; Mr. Rajoy came to the realization of how close he was coming to being the man who ordered the start of the Second Spanish Civil War (or the fifth or the sixth, depending how you count them). And Mr. Sánchez realized that a Socialist Party that allowed Catalonia to secede or failed to back the government in a successful suppression of that rebellion had no future in Spain. I think that these three men saw with great lucidity a possible future of disastrous consequences and decided to take at least a half step back.

“Sincere” does not mean “easy”. Both sides will face enormous opposition forces. Mr. Puigdemont will surely lose the support of CUP as soon as negotiations proceed beyond a preliminary stage. In fact, they have already tweeted out: “The mandate is a republic, not a constitutional amendment!”

Meanwhile, Albert Rivera of Ciutadens is similarly outraged. He is insisting to the Spanish lower house as I write this that any agreement with Puigdemont is tantamount to giving in to blackmail. However, the reality is that neither CUP nor Ciutadens are needed by the majority parties for a successful negotiation. The PSOE and its Catalan subsidiary, PSC, could fill in the gap and prop up the government for the necessary steps.

A bigger obstacle to a successful negotiation is the possibility of Esquerra Republicana abandoning Junts pel Sí, the unity party with Convergéncia. That would cause the government to fall and throw everything into chaos. My reading of ERC leader Oriol Junqueras[2] is that he would be glad to do that – just after the deal was agreed to. Then he could reap the benefits of remaining the “champion of independence” without suffering the consequences of going to jail for it.

But the biggest challenge of all will be the Spanish people. Assuming the Spanish and Catalan governments hammer out an acceptable amendment in 6 months. A constitutional amendment requires approval by three-fifths (60%) of both houses of Parliament. Assuming party discipline (which is a big assumption in this case) then the Partido Popular and PSOE together have enough votes to push it through without any other support (Senate: 211/266 = 79%, Deputies: 218/350 = 62%). However, any amendment ratified by the Cortes Generales must be submitted to a popular referendum if so requested by one tenth of the members of either chamber[3]. No single party has sufficient numbers of Senators or Deputies to force a referendum on their own, but Ciutadens is close (32 deputies, 35 needed) and if they wanted to force a referendum, they’d only need to convince a smaller fringe party to join them. If the amendment goes to a popular referendum, it stands a decent chance of losing. Of course, the two governments, the main political parties and the monarchy could be expected to back the measure with urgent pleas to avoid further disunity, to start to heal the breach, etc… but many Spaniards are feeling very bitter towards the Catalans and would see no reason to “reward them for treason”. And it is entirely possible that those 2 million pro-independence Catalans will also vote “no” to scuttle the deal with the intention of forcing Puigdemont & Co to declare independence.

The immediate next step is for Carles Puigdemont to “clarify” his speech of 10 October. I assume he plays it safe, which seems to have been the whole purpose behind the “suspended” declaration anyway. Then we will be like Punxsutawney Phil, predicting at least six more months of the Procés.


Sources and Notes

[1] “The differences between the Statutes of the different Autonomous Communities may in no case imply economic or social privileges.”

[2] I believe that Mr. Junqueras is sincerely pro-independence and really would prefer a Catalan Republic – if he could get it. I believe that he is also a smart enough and experienced enough politician to realize that “getting it” is a very long shot at best.

[3] Article 167.3, Spanish Constitution of 1978

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