Commentary. Stripping a local government of their autonomy guaranteed by the Constitution, and suspending the sovereign democratic process by calling for “repeat elections” run from afar, opens up an abyss of illegitimacy under Spain's institutions.

The Balkan precipice

They will say that the application of Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution, a decision reached on Saturday by Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy to stop the declaration of Catalan independence, is a “moderate option” — it is in fact impossible to revoke autonomy as such, but “only” the mandates of the local government and Puigdemont. They will say this is a “soft” option, since everything is pushed back to the Senate vote next week and to new elections in six months. But in fact we are on the brink of a precipice, and the way down is anything but “soft.”

The decision to take over de facto the powers of the Catalan Generalitat and of the forms of self-government of the province is a wound against the whole of the Spanish democracy, which is based on the recognition of local autonomies. This is what Podemos is shouting from the rooftops, with good reason, but unfortunately ignored.

It is a decision that reveals that the only path taken by the government in Madrid is that of repression and not of dialogue. Because stripping a local government of their autonomy guaranteed by the Constitution, and suspending the sovereign democratic process by calling for “repeat elections” run from afar, opens up an abyss of illegitimacy under Spain’s institutions. And it will have as an immediate consequence a further worsening of the already tense atmosphere, after the police violence during the referendum vote, the arrests of the two Jordis, the accusations against the Mossos (now under outside rule), with an increase in the manifestations of separatism. And it also makes clear who bears the original responsibility for this crisis.

It belongs not only to the separatists, often irresponsible, who accelerated their push for separate national sovereignty, but also to the Spanish state centralism and the social and economic problems that are far from being solved, as even the International Monetary Fund recently pointed out.

This is the crisis of the Moncloa Pact of 1978, which had the merit of leading Spain onto a new democratic path out of the grim darkness of the Franco dictatorship, with a role for the monarchy that was actually positive, as guarantor of the restricted role of the military (which had been responsible for the coup).

But what remains of this monarchy after almost 40 years, reduced to corrupt dregs by the scandals that have made it famous, despite the change from King Juan Carlos to King Felipe? To have a full democracy, is it not the time to decide on a republican statehood, freely chosen by its citizens?

And is it not clear enough that this is a crisis among the leadership of the People’s Party, which has managed to add two percent to the GDP, but only at the cost of so much job insecurity, just as in Italy? Or that a very different attitude should come from the opposition, the Socialist PSOE of Pedro Sánchez, than the compromise-inclined one they have shown so far — an opposition which, as we are coming to the brink, should ask for special elections in Madrid as well, but instead, just like Ciudadanos, are hitching their wagon to those with the upper hand, promising openness, perhaps preparing to join the government themselves.

And who can forget that behind the conflict with Barcelona lies the outrageous initiative of Rajoy’s People’s Party to have the Constitutional Court strike down Catalonia’s special status in June 2010, in a narrowly-contested vote, despite it having been approved by the parliaments in both Barcelona and Madrid? The problem lay in the part of the preamble that read: “Catalonia is a nation.”

That was the opening of Pandora’s box, radicalizing the independence movement, whose numbers were swelled by that decision, in a “nationalist” direction, also connected to the fact that in 2008, with the outbreak of the global economic crisis, processes of further centralization to Madrid were set in motion. Many of the big banks, which, at that time, due to favorable decisions by the government, moved their administrative headquarters away from Catalonia, were saved during this same period by the providential intervention of central governments. Today, the financial powers (just as in Greece, just as everywhere) pay fealty to the central governments, thus shattering the tenuous unity of the Catalan separatist front. The latter is partly made up of a competitive bourgeoisie, hand in glove with the Spanish economy, and a social-radical wing, represented by the CUP and others, which has actually thought about a “constitutional process” for a “Republic that is a guarantor of social rights, feminist, friendly towards immigration, centered on people and not money,” but without taking into account the real balance of power and those in Catalonia who do not want independence.

It’s not a “small homeland,” therefore, but rather one “dependent” on centralized power, meaning both the Spanish state and the “real” European Union, reduced to an equilibrium between only two nations, Germany and France.

As for the European Union, what has it done in this crisis? The same E.U. that, when it was comfortable to do so, has recognized small countries, even ones proclaimed on ethnic grounds, as in the case of the former Yugoslavia, the division between the Czechs and Slovaks, and the implausible nation of Kosovo. Without giving signs of direct interference, the E.U. should have become the stage for real and possible dialogue, at least after the secessionist disaster of Brexit. Instead, it eventually sided with Rajoy’s PP, stronger than a European leadership consisting itself of popular parties of the center-right. They are good for nothing but applause, as King Felipe received at the Princess of Asturias Awards a few days ago. One of those applauding him was Tajani, the President of the European Parliament, whose background is royalist enough.

Now we are faced with the Balkanizing precipice of an Article 155 that has never before been applied, disruptive to Catalonia but also to stability and peace in Spain. And in Europe.

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