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Four months have now gone by since the Spanish senate voted to use article 155 of the constitution on Catalonia, the first time ever that this constitutional clause, allowing the Madrid government to impose its own power over any autonomous region, has been put to use. The immediate result was complete Spanish intervention in Catalonia's institutions of self-government and the dismissal of the Catalan executive. It was the day after the Catalan Parliament's proclamation of independence when the approval of 155 was published in the state gazette. Four months later, its consequences have had huge effects within the walls of the Generalitat, the institution of Catalan government, which is now in the hands of the state. Effects that are in the process of flowing on to make noticeable differences in almost every aspect of life for Catalans.

The office of the Catalan Ombudsman - the Catalan institution responsible for independently investigating administrative abuses, known in Catalan as the Síndic de Greuges - considers the application of article 155 is “abusive”. “The interpretation that the Senate and the Spanish government have made of article 155 seems contrary to other constitutional precepts”, the office observed in a report on the independence referendum, published in November. Specifically, it referred to the decisions to dissolve Parliament, call elections and dismiss Catalonia's president and government. The office has opened up six investigations in relation to the effects that direct rule from Madrid has had in different areas.

The Catalan Parliament's juridical service has made pronouncements along similar lines. In January the service presented a complaint of unconstitutionality against the application of article 155. The appeal argued that “neither the government of the state nor the senate can order the cessation of a president or an autonomous region's government, let alone assume its functions”. Likewise, it asserted that this cessation represents a penalisation, when this is not the function of article 155, and it damages the fundamental rights contained in Spain's Constitution and Catalonia's Statute of Autonomy that apply to the members of the Catalan government. Catalonia's Council for Statutory Guarantees - the Generalitat institution ensuring compliance of legal regulations - has also concluded (link in Catalan) that the use of 155 has been unconstitutional.

But the real scale of the effects of 155 on Catalonia begins to become evident thanks to the information assembled by the association ServidorsCAT, a platform for public workers of different administrations. ServidorsCAT has prepared an inventory of damage caused by the application of direct rule, and the mere arithmetic yields some staggering figures: five members of the Government are in exile, ten people are imprisoned, ten more arrested and bailed, 254 people dismissed from their jobs, 24 organizations suppressed or dissolved, 16 organizations subject to management takeover, 108 legislative proposals have expired, 12 nominations for job appointments have been made by the Spanish government, 92 cases of effects on appointments, 21 types of subsidies stopped...

Yolanda Hernández, president of ServidorsCAT, describes the current status of the Catalan government as “paralyzed” and unable to take any initiative, saying that if it still functions it is due to the sheer inertia remaining from what was already underway. She rejects the “return to the normality” claimed by the Spanish government: “If they consider that normality is to waste all our time translating reports [from Catalan to Spanish] in order for Madrid to authorize everything, they have another concept of normality”.

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Total intervention in finance

Already, two weeks before October's referendum, Spanish treasury minister Cristóbal Montoro announced the Madrid government's complete takeover of the Catalan government's accounts, after Catalan vice president Oriol Junqueras had refused to certify what his government was spending money on. Spain's law of budgetary stability, passed by Rajoy's government during the years of economic crisis, offered the perfect excuse for the state to leave the Catalan public administration without budgetary autonomy. Everything would henceforth have to be approved by Madrid, with the objective of preventing resources being destined to the referendum.

On 27th November, however, the state decided to reinforce this intervention: a de facto application of article 155 turned into a real one. Six days after the elections in which the pro-independence forces reasserted their majority on December 21st, the justification for the financial intervention was detached from the budgetary stability law and placed under the umbrella of 155. The state gazette announced the authorization of the Spanish government “to exercise the necessary competences in economic, financial, taxation and budgetary matters”.

A decision by the Spanish executive on 15th December also prevented the Catalan Tax Authority from continuing to act as a funnel for the payments of public companies to the state. Spanish Government spokesperson Íñigo Méndez de Vigo argued that this was a “formula that the Catalan institutions had created in order to materialise the Catalan Treasury” - a key area necessary under an independent state - and that such methods were not used in any other Spanish region. However, the process of tax payment had been delegated to the Catalan authority by a granting of powers, which is foreseen under the law governing Spanish taxation.

However, 155 has had many other consequences in the economic area, such as the expiry of legislative initiatives which were in process of passing through Parliament: for example, the bill against banking abuses, the proposed law taking urgent measures to incentivise protected and affordable housing rentals and a parliamentary proposal to reduce income tax in Catalonia. 

“Financial control over the Catalan government was already at a maximum, even before 155”, says Yolanda Hernández, adding that all spending, however small, is now subject to a before-and-after comparison, simply to avoid that spending is not used for illicit purposes. And this slows down the functioning of the administration: “Until they tell you that it is all correct, you can't do anything. You need authorization for everything”.

The Sixena artworks: defencelessness before the law

Probably among the best known 'victims' claimed by article 155 are the artworks of Sixena. The state used the suspension of Catalan self-government to ensure it would get payback on certain accounts pending: Spanish culture minister Íñigo Méndez de Vigo, taking advantage of the fact that he was also acting as Catalan culture minister, ordered the transfer of a series of disputed heritage artworks, which were the property of the Museum of Lleida, to Sixena, the locality in neighbouring Aragon where they originally came from. He simply went above the decisions taken by his predecessors in the job, Santi Vila and Lluís Puig, who had not returned them by virtue of their status under Catalan law.

But the Sixena artworks also brought to light the juridical defencelessness entailed by Spain's takeover of the reins of the Catalan government. Méndez de Vigo ordered the Generalitat to withdraw the appeal it had presented against a judge's ruling authorizing the use of force for the transfer of the works to Aragon. As the Catalan government is in the hands of the Spanish authorities, it cannot juridically defend itself against the Spanish state, as any Spanish autonomous administration can do ordinarily, when not subject to article 155.

There have been other cases like this. For example, the inability of the Catalan government to present its own claims in the case against the police violence during the independence referendum, preventing a defence being made of public interests on the issue of compensation for the cost of goods destroyed or in the investigation of those responsible for the events of that day. Nor was it able to present appeals against the suspension of the Catalan law that created an agency for cybersecurity in Catalonia.

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Foreign network dismantled

The Catalan government's diplomatic network abroad has been totally dismantled. As part of the severe measures taken under article 155, the network, known as Diplocat, was dissolved and eleven Catalan government offices abroad were closed, resulting in the sacking of many employees and the rescission of a number of office rental contracts. Only the Brussels office remains open, even though its head representative, Amadeu Altafaj, was dismissed.

The action of dismantling these offices, which were mainly devoted to the internationalization of Catalan companies, has had a very high price. The rescinding of long-term rental contracts led to severe penalty payments in many cases. For example, the rental contract on the offices in Poland sets out a penalty payment of four years' rent for a premature winding-up of the contract.

Yolanda Hernández, of ServidorsCAT, underscores the damage that was done by the destruction of Diplocat. “There were people that had been working in Diplocat for 25 years: previously, it had been known as Patronat Catalunya-Món and Patronat Català pro Europa, it was not a new thing”, she explains. Some of the offices abroad had been opened even before the year 2000.

Social policies

According to Hernández, the area most affected by the application of 155 is the social services sector, “the weakest link in the chain”. The ServidorsCAT spokesperson explains that a paralysis in the initiative of a government translates into a lack of action on social policy. “For example, there is no pressure for legislative action on housing issues, which is currently so necessary”, she says. As many as 400 projects connected with such areas as social services, disadvantaged groups and immigration have also been frozen.

Around twenty different lines of subsidies have been blocked. One of them is the temporary programme established for assistance to unaccompanied minors. “This blockage hurts the children who do not receive the attention they need. It also harms many professionals - in fact, 235 are affected - whose employment has been left hanging”, according to the association's inventory of damages. There is also a blockage preventing the recruitment of different types of social workers serving youth, old people, and those afected by disability and mental illness.

Immigrant communities, some of which are among society's most disadvantaged groups, are also highly affected by article 155. Among the thirty programmes affected by Madrid's direct rule, are projects to improve employment prospects for immigrants, refugees and those returned from abroad, support for Catalans who have emigrated, and projects dedicated to combatting discrimination, racism and ideologies of hatred.

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Historical memory and LGBTI

The application of article 155 has gone way beyond the dismissal of the Catalan government and the dissolution of Parliament. So much so, that according to its 2017 annual report, the Catalan Ombudsman's office has opened up six official investigations - which are currently in process - for violations of rights in different areas.

For example, a programme running from 2016 to 2019 for coordination and cooperation between the Catalan government and the Barcelona city council in the areas of employment, social affairs and families has been paralysed. It is a project valued at 52.3 million euros.

In the area of historical memory, currently under consideration is the suspension of compensation payments to former political prisoners from the Spanish Civil War and the Franco era. The plan for excavations of mass graves may be affected too. Also under examination is a possible freeze on the decree to develop the National LGTBI Council - the organ for public participation regarding rights and duties for the collective of lesbians, gays, transexuals, bisexual, and intersex - and the budget allocations made by the Catalan Agency for Cooperation and Development, in the area of foreign aid.

The Catalan Ombudsman's office is also studying the “possible violation of the constitutional and statutory framework” through Madrid's intervention in the Catalan government's finances, which “represents de facto suspension of the self-government of Catalonia”.

New threats

The list of effects that article 155 has had, detailed by ServidorsCAT, does not stop there: there are also economic opportunities lost, international projection damaged, alteration of the management organs for public sector bodies, and more. There have been threats to take the intervention even further and to use Madrid's direct rule to wipe out major areas of social consensus - for example, the Catalan educational model - an action which could not be achieved by parliamentary means.

The Spanish Government and the PP have warned that the investiture of a president who is currently in prison, such as Jordi Sànchez, would not normalize the situation, implying that the appointment of such a president would mean a continuation of the application of 155, with another senate vote to approve its re-implementation. Others have gone still further: for example, Catalan PP leader Xavier Garcia Albiol, who has suggested that the investiture of such a president should even lead to an increase in the intensity of 155.

“I don't know how it can intensify. The next step is for the Spanish government to appoint all Catalan ministers and high ranking officials”, says Yolanda Hernández, pointing out that the decree of approval of article 155 is clear: it has to be withdrawn when a new government is formed. Prolonging the situation, she observes, could have severe consequences: “Until now we have been hanging on thanks only to our momentum, but the time will come, when that will take us no further, and there will be nothing left”.

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