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Europe

Spain in uncharted territory as Catalonia direct rule looms

media Catalan regional government president Carles Puigdemont signs a document about independence on 10 October AFP

The Spanish government is holding a meeting Saturday to start the process of taking direct control of the region of Catalonia, whose leaders claim they have a mandate to declare independence from Spain. That would be an unprecedented move.

The Spanish cabinet will discuss invoking article 155 of the Spanish constitution, which says the Spanish Senate can give the government powers to use “necessary methods” to force a regional government to “comply with the obligations of the constitution” to protect the interests of Spain.

Spain's 17 autonomous regions each have their own parliaments and a certain degree of self-governance, within the limits of the national constitution.

Article 155 is based on an article in the German constitution. Neither Spain nor Germany has ever used its provisions.

Carlos Flores, a professor of constitutional law at the University of Valencia says Article 155 gives the government quite a wide range of discretion, though it does not touch on autonomy.

“The right to self-governance of the territories is enshrined in the constitution. It cannot be suppressed,” he told RFI.

He anticipates the government intervening in Catalonia in only certain areas. “My perception is that it will be a minimalist intervention: that the government will take control over television, which at this point is viciously partial; security, which at this point is not reliable; and the budget.”

Support for independence, he says, is waning in Catalonia since this month's referendum organised by the regional government and declared illegal by the national government, which saw 90.18 percent support for independence but on a 43 percent turnout.

Josep Costa, a lawyer, and political science professor at Barcelona's Universitat Pompeu Fabra, disagrees.

The way the government violently reacted to the independence referendum riled people up in favour of independence, he says, and the government is now using the constitution to push down the will of the people:

“They’re trying to manage a political problem through an article that is not really for this purpose,” he told RFI. “The Catalan government is just implementing what a vast number of Catalans voted for them to do. This is a huge problem but it’s not a matter of constitutional law. This is not a legal problem.”

Regional elections possible in January

On Friday a member of the opposition Socialist Party (Psoe) said it agreed with the ruling party that there would be a new regional election in Catalonia in January 2018, although the government had not publicly said there wold be and has not confirmed the claim since.

And it is also something the government cannot impose.

“Calling the election is the exclusive responsibility of the president of the Catalan government,” explains Flores. That means either the government replaces the president, which could be seen as unconstitutional, or the Catalan government itself decides to call a poll.

“Politically that’s unlikely,” he said. The region's ruling party, the Democratic Convergence of Catalonia, “is in a very bad political situation, and polls are predicting a backlash. This party may become third or fourth political force in parliament, so it’s quite unlikely that the nationalist parties in government will be willing to do Hara Kiri at this point.”

Where is the EU?

Whatever the government proposes on Saturday, it is likely to further inflame tensions with Catalonia.

Some wonder why the European Union is not taking a stronger stance to help resolve the conflict.

Some leaders, like French president Emmanuel Macron, are openly supporting the Spanish central government. Ahead of this week's European Summit he said itwould be “marked by a message of unity around member states amid the crises they could face, unity around Spain".

But most of the EU’s work has been behind the scenes, which Susi Dennison, director of European Power programme at the European Council of Foreign Relations, says makes sense.

The EU “can’t be a mediator”, she told RFI, because it’s partial.

“Since the national government of Spain is a member of the EU council, what the EU can say publicly is to be interpreted in that sense, that Spain is a member of the club,” she says. “So in that sense, the EU’s power is better deployed in that quiet, diplomatic style rather than out loud in public statements.”

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