Catalan rebels say Spain will live to regret hostile power grab
(Bloomberg) Catalan separatists say Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy doesn’t know what he’s getting himself into as he moves to quash their campaign for independence.
As the government in Madrid prepares to deploy its most powerful legal weapons, three leading members of the movement in Barcelona said Rajoy isn’t equipped to achieve his goals and risks a damaging entanglement in hostile terrain. They reckon they have enough support among the Catalan civil service and police to thwart Spain’s plan.
Rajoy’s cabinet meets in Madrid on Saturday to consider specific measures to reassert control over the rebel region, a process set out in the Spanish Constitution that’s never yet been tested. Among the top priorities is bringing to heel the Catalan police force and deciding what to do with President Carles Puigdemont. The plan still needs approval by the Senate, so it could be another two weeks before Spain can take any action.
"This is a minefield for Rajoy," said Antonio Barroso, an analyst in London at Teneo Intelligence, a company advising on political risk. "The implementation on the ground is a risk for him when the government may face some regional civil servants who don’t cooperate."
The three Catalan officials -- one from the parliament, one from the regional executive and one from the grass-roots campaign organisation -- spoke on condition of anonymity due to the legal threats against the movement.
It all comes down to Article 155 of the constitution, a short passage that gives the legal green light for Spain to revoke the semi-autonomy of Catalonia. Foreign Minister Alfonso Dastis said at a press conference in Madrid on Friday that it would be applied in a "prudent, proportionate and gradual manner."
The problem for Rajoy is that the separatists already proved with their makeshift referendum on October 1 that they can ignore edicts from Madrid with a degree of success. That means he will need to back up his ruling with people on the ground, and it didn’t work as planned the last time around.
The Catalan police force, the Mossos d’Esquadra, ignored orders to shut down polling stations before the illegal vote on October 1. After Rajoy sent in the Civil Guard, images of Spanish police beating would-be voters were broadcast around the world.
Mossos Police Chief Josep Lluis Trapero is a local hero, his face worn on T-shirts at separatist demonstrations. When he returned this week from an interrogation in Madrid, where he’s facing possible sedition charges, staff greeted him with hugs and applause.
How the rank-and-file would respond to their boss’s ouster is just one of the questions hanging over Rajoy and his ministers as they gather on Saturday.
"If the government decides to intervene in the management of Mossos, which isn’t a scenario we want, we hope they do something surgical," said Valentin Anadon, a spokesman for the Catalan police’s largest trade union. "The government wants to restore stability, so they don’t need to go into the internal structure of the force."
To be sure, Rajoy has the Spanish police on his side, as well as the army in the final instance. And the central government has already imposed strict controls on payments by the regional administration since last month, restricting the flow of Catalan government subsidies to sympathetic media organizations and civic groups.
But the three separatist activists said that Madrid is likely to meet resistance every step of the way if they parachute in outsiders to run the Catalan administration. That will make it difficult to change the editorial line of public television and radio channels that have been instrumental in drumming up support for independence.
One person familiar with the government’s plans said that Madrid could withhold the salaries of regional officials to force them to comply.
Then there’s the situation on the streets.
Separatist campaign groups have drawn up plans to disrupt the Spanish economy, already forecast to grow more slowly because of the standoff in Catalonia. Hundreds of companies have already shifted their domiciles out of the region.
In a signal to Madrid of their potential, protesters fired warning shots. They shut down all the major highways connecting Barcelona with the rest of Spain for several hours. On Friday, they called on supporters to withdraw symbolic quantities of cash from Catalan banks.