Spain says it will trigger the ‘nuclear option’ to end the Catalan independence wrangle

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy.

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy.
Juan Medina/Reuters

    Spain says it will trigger Article 155 of its constitution over Catalonia this Saturday. The article, dubbed the “nuclear option,” allows Madrid to suspend Catalonia’s political autonomy. It has never been invoked. Tensions between Spain and Catalonia go back centuries.

Spain will start suspending Catalonia’s autonomy on Saturday, the prime minister’s office has said.

Cabinet ministers are expected to meet Saturday to put in place Article 155 of the country’s constitution, which allows Madrid to take control of Catalan political affairs.

The decision comes after Carles Puigdemont, the president of Catalonia, failed to clarify whether the region had declared independence after a contentious referendum that saw the region’s population vote overwhelmingly to separate from Spain.

The Spanish government had set a deadline of Monday and then Thursday for Catalonia to clarify its intentions.

Article 155 has never been invoked in the Spanish constitution’s 39-year history and has been dubbed Madrid’s “nuclear option” in the Catalonia crisis.

Though the article’s language is vague – it allows the government to “take the necessary measures” if an autonomous region “seriously undermines the general interest of Spain” – Madrid can, in theory, take control of Catalonia’s police and finances and replace its administration, Reuters noted.

The ratings agency Moody’s said Article 155 was one reason Catalonia’s independence wouldn’t take place, according to the Financial Times.

“The government will do everything in its power to restore legality and constitutional order as soon as possible, to restore peaceful coexistence among citizens and to curb the economic deterioration that legal insecurity is causing in Catalonia,” Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy said in a statement.

Catalan President Carles Puigdemont signing a

Catalan President Carles Puigdemont signing a “symbolic” declaration of independence in Barcelona, Spain.
Albert Gea/Reuters

The Catalan referendum, which took place October 1, saw turnout of 43% of the electorate, with about 2.2 million Catalans voting. Ninety percent of voters chose to leave Spain.

Thousands of police officers sent by Madrid to the region wielded batons and fired rubber bullets into demonstrators that day, leaving hundreds of people injured. The Spanish government has since apologised for the police violence.

More than a week after the vote, Puigdemont signed a “symbolic” declaration of independence but then immediately suspended it to allow exit negotiations with Madrid.

The Spanish government, which has refused to negotiate with Catalonia over its independence, views the referendum as unconstitutional. According to The Washington Post, the constitution “does not recognise the right to self-determination and establishes that sovereignty resides with Spanish citizens collectively.”

History of Catalonia’s independence

A Catalan separatist flag and the Spanish flag hanging from balconies in Barcelona.

A Catalan separatist flag and the Spanish flag hanging from balconies in Barcelona.
Gonzalo Fuentes/Reuters

Located in northeastern Spain, near the French border, Catalonia has its own language, culture, and traditions. Its tensions with Spain have existed for at least three centuries, and the region played a key role in the Spanish Civil War.

According to The Telegraph, Spanish rulers have attempted to impose the Spanish language and laws on the region since the 18th century. They finally ceded powers to the region in 1931, and the Government of Catalonia was created.

In 1938, however, during the civil war, Gen. Francisco Franco took control of the region, killing 3,500 people and forcing more into exile. After the war, the nationalist Franco regime cracked down on Catalonia’s language and institutions and curtailed its citizens’ rights.

After Franco’s death in 1975, Catalonia won back some control of its rights. Its autonomy was once more enshrined in the country’s 1978 constitution, which said the country was “indivisible” but respected territorial self-government. Catalonia was given the right to its own language and control over healthcare and education, according to Bloomberg.

Catalonia is one of Spain’s economic powerhouses, and it contributes nearly a fifth of the country’s gross domestic product, the FT noted. Its GDP per capita is higher than Spain’s, and its output is similar to those of Finland and Portugal.