Section 155: the obscure legal provision that could take Spain into uncharted waters

Socialists no longer opposed to application of obscure constitutional provision that could effectively curtail self-government in Catalonia

The Socialist Party standing committee, pictured on Monday.
The Socialist Party standing committee, pictured on Monday.Álvaro García

In a telltale sign of how the conflict over the Catalan independence referendum is escalating, the Spanish Socialist Party (PSOE) is no longer ruling out the application of an obscure constitutional provision that could effectively curtail self-government in the northeastern region.

Section 155 of the Spanish Constitution is on everyone’s lips these days, although it has never actually been invoked. And nobody ever expected it to be. Tucked away toward the end of the 1978 charter, it was introduced at a time when Spain was coming out of a long dictatorship and there was a spirit of cross-party cooperation to ensure that the country would never again descend into civil strife.

The government could in theory at least start running Catalonia’s affairs from Madrid

The country was structured into “autonomous regions” with broad powers of self-rule. Regional parliaments were created (or restored following the prolonged hiatus) and regional charters drafted. Regions with a distinct language and heritage, such as the Basques and the Catalans, got their own police forces and public broadcasters.

But if Section 155 is finally invoked, the central government will be free to adopt “the necessary measures” to compel regional authorities to obey the law. Nobody knows exactly what these measures would be, but in theory, the government could start running Catalonia’s affairs directly from Madrid.

Section 155 does not mean dissolving the regional bodies, but it does mean adopting measures to force these bodies to obey the law.

Catalan regional premier Carles Puigdemont at a pro-independence rally in Girona.
Catalan regional premier Carles Puigdemont at a pro-independence rally in Girona.ALBERT GEA (REUTERS)

“What does applying 155 mean?” asked sources in the PSOE leadership. “To theorize about it in public will only embolden the separatists.”

Whatever it means, until now it was an unthinkable scenario. As recently as July, the Socialist speaker in Congress, Margarita Robles, stated that “Section 155 would never be a suitable solution and we would never support it.”

In September 2015, then-foreign minister José Manuel García-Margallo, of the Popular Party (PP), said in a television interview that  “it is obvious that there is a possible juridical reaction (to the secessionist drive), which would be to suspend their autonomy, but that is an atomic bomb.”

As recently as July, the Socialist speaker stated “Section 155 would never be suitable and we would never support it”

But given the events of recent weeks, with the Catalan government openly defying the Constitutional Court and its rulings – and passing its own pro-referendum laws in violation of the Constitution itself – the unthinkable is becoming possible.

“All scenarios are open,” said high-ranking sources within the PSOE in a conversation with EL PAÍS. While invoking 155 is still seen as an “undesirable” option, party leaders will decide whether to support such a move or not “in light of the circumstances,” said Óscar Puente, the spokesman for the party’s executive board.

But on Tuesday, the PSOE expressed impatience at not knowing what the Rajoy administration is planning to do.

“The government should not hide behind robes or try to pass the hot potato along to the PSOE,” said Robles. The Socialists feel that Rajoy may be trying to make the main opposition group partly responsible for triggering a highly controversial legal mechanism that could translate into a suspension of home rule in Catalonia.

The Mariano Rajoy administration has made no official decision on the matter yet. The prime minister has instructed aides to keep “a cool head” in the face of growing disobedience by Catalan separatist officials, despite growing pressure from unionist hardliners for him to “bang his fist on the table.” The Popular Party leader is aware that a big show of force would play into the secessionists’ hands and could spark a wider conflict.

On the other hand, Rajoy has clearly stated that “the referendum is not going to happen” and that he is ready to do whatever is necessary to that end. For now, Madrid’s strategy has been to undermine the logistics of the ballot by seizing voting material and prohibiting all public officials from cooperating in any way.

This has already resulted in unprecedented images of Civil Guard officers searching Catalan newsrooms, in what one expert recently described as “vintage Falangism.”

While this does nothing to improve relations, many in Madrid feel that the central government is still not doing enough to stop the secessionists in power from flouting national laws and creating their own parallel legal world. Last week, regional premier Carles Puigdemont starred in a rally to officially start the referendum campaign. It was a banned rally for an illegal referendum, but it went ahead uneventfully, with no action taken by Madrid.

But as October 1 draws closer, Rajoy may finally feel that he has no choice but to act in a decisive manner and hope for the best. If so, the PP would like to have the support of the Socialist Party and Ciudadanos – Podemos, the other main player in Spanish politics, is siding with the pro-independence movement.

Asked about their thoughts on the PSOE’s greater openness to the possibility of invoking 155, the conservative party’s vice-secretary for communications, Pablo Casado, said that it was “opportune” for the Socialists “to open up to the non-demonization of any constitutional provision.” Even if nobody knows exactly what that provision means.

What is Section 155?

Section 155 of the Spanish Constitution states:

If a Self-governing Region does not fulfill the obligations imposed upon it by the Constitution or other laws, or acts in a way that is seriously prejudicial to the general interest of Spain, the Government, after having lodged a complaint with the Premier of the Self-governing Region and failed to receive satisfaction therefore, may, following approval granted by the overall majority of the Senate, take all measures necessary to compel the Region to meet said obligations, or to protect the above-mentioned general interest.

With a view to implementing the measures provided for in the foregoing paragraph, the Government may issue instructions to all the authorities of the Self-governing Regions.

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