The Spanish Constitution was drawn up in 1978 and ratified overwhelmingly in 1979, and was originally hailed as a remarkable work of common sense and sobriety over emotion and frustration, mainly because the country managed to overcome a civil war and nearly forty years of dictatorship, not to mention all the differences that come with them, and set up a monarchical democracy in a relatively peaceful manner. It wasn’t easy. Not only were there opposing political positions whose spirits needed to be curtailed and there were historical regions each with their own objectives to contend with. It is said that the Founding Fathers sagaciously wove together a document that satisfied all of those factors. Spain was ready to move on, they felt.
But from the start of the charter, the very delicate reality of Spain becomes apparent. The second article of the preliminary section is a surgically worded statement that avers that the constitution is based “on the indissoluble unity of the Spanish Nation, the common and indivisible homeland of all Spaniards; it recognizes and guarantees the right to self-government of the nationalities and regions of which it is comprised and the solidarity among them all.”
I don’t know about you, but there is a bookful of topics to debate just in this 40-word clause alone. And this may be the crux of the problem. In the authors’ desire to be all-inclusive and yet concise and clear cut at the same time, the final product left many scratching their heads and wondering just what exactly it was saying. Or trying to say. The “indivisible” part was pretty straightforward. This is what many pro-unity point to when they naysay the Catalans’ right to independence. Or anyone’s for that matter. Honest Abe would have concurred. The use of “indissoluble” merely reinforces that notion. But in the second half, after that momentous semi-colon, things get rather messy. All of a sudden, there are mentions of self-rule and nationalities. What does nationality mean here? It sounds to me like an official admission that certain regions are essentially nations with a nation. As you can imagine, the authors and advisors bickered endlessly about this, and this was what they came up with. And a vast majority signed on.
Moving on, much of what you find in the constitution reflects values and structures that are present in many Western deomocratic government set-ups. You have your traditional judicial, legislative and executive branches, checks and balances, a bill of rights, and whatnot. There is also a section which deals extensively with the geographic-political make up of the nation. Spain has 50 provinces, many of which clump together to form regional units known as Comunidades Autónomas which in reality are the historical and cultural regions of this land. These regions are granted the right to self-rule in many areas, so much so that many argue the current political framework of Spain is a de facto federal state without actually being called one. But the matter, as usual, is more complex. The central government generally comes to agreements with the different regions on a case to case basis. Its a practice that goes back to medieval times, which may sound quaint and so very Old World, but from a practical standpoint, was a questionable and risky way to run the country. Many of the agreements are known as estatutos, and they are sometimes modified if the central government conforms. This has been another point of contention.
What appears to be a whole slew of provisions made to allow greater freedom to the 16 comunidades autónomas in the country is not carte blanche to do whatever they want. There are limits, even extreme ones, and most severe comes in the form of a rule known as articulo 155. This terse clause clearly states that if a comunidad autónoma should fail to meet its obligations as outlined in the constitution, or should act in a way that severely detriments the general interests of Spain, the central government reserves the right to remove the powers of self-government until order has been restored. Just what constitutes a violation of those obligations is left wide open to interpretation, but we can safely say that unilaterally declaring independence from the nation is probably as good as reason as any for the national government to step in and take over.
Just how, was another matter. Article 155 had never been activated in the forty years of democracy, though a threat to use it against the Canary Islands for very different reasons, did take place in the 1980s. So most people were in the dark as to what was going to happen next. Except for maybe hypothetical extreme cases where immediate action was required, the process is subject to protocol. First the regional president must received formal notification and be given time to react or respond. If the situation remains unchanged, the primer minister then presents the request to activate the article to the senate, a house which, contrary to its importance in the United States, is a relatively unimportant legislative body in Spain. This was perhaps its most important intervention in four decades of existence. The senate was controlled by Rajoy’s PP party and so any proposal was sure to be passed.
The first thing Rajoy did was give Puigdemont five days to clarify if he had in fact decared independence or not. If so, then he was given an extra two days to rectify. Should nothing come of that, the senate would vote on the issue two days later. If it seems as if the national government was acting too slowly and fearfully, there are those who back that argument. Some felt Rajoy should have enacted Article 155 months before or, at the very latest, once the Oct. 1 referendum was announced. Some believe Spain would not have been in this position had it acted earlier. Now it was too little too late. At this point, the one positive part of the hesitation was that it also allowed for a few more days of room for a possible solution to arise.
It wouldn’t and it didn’t.