Catalonia and Spain Enter Dangerous Uncharted Territory

by Don Quijones, Wolf Street:

Emotions are running high on both sides of the divide.

Today was one of the strangest days of my life. I woke up in a constitutional monarchy called Spain and will go to bed, the same bed, in a newly proclaimed republic. Catalonia’s impossible dream has finally come true, but it could be extremely short lived, and it could have very damaging long lasting consequences.

Spain’s Senate responded to the Catalan parliament’s declaration of independence this afternoon by ratifying the activation of Article 155 of Spain’s Constitution, the nuclear button everyone has been waiting for. This will allow the central government to take full rein of the region’s institutions and levers of power, including parliament, the police force, the exchequer (already done), public media, the Internet, the education system, and telecommunications — at least in theory.

There is no telling just yet how Mariano Rajoy’s government intends to stamp its authority on 2.5 million of the Catalans now in open rebellion, or for how long. Given the law’s ambiguity, there are few constraints on its application, but trying to subdue a region where most of the 7.5 million-strong population are hostile to the basic notion of direct rule from Madrid is going to be a tall order, especially if the EU, which refuses to recognize Catalonia, expects Rajoy’s government to bring Catalonia back into line through “the force of argument rather than the argument of force.”

The force of argument is not exactly Rajoy’s forte. In all likelihood, his government’s first act will be to try to arrest the Catalan president, Carles Puigdemont, suspend his ministers, and assume direct authority over the regional government. To do that, it will probably have to take full control of Catalonia’s regional police force, the Mossos d’Esquadra. But what if some officers resist? What if there are clashes between Mossos and members of Spain’s National Police Force or Civil Guard?

Right now, Catalonia and Spain are in very dangerous uncharted territory. Emotions are running high on both sides of the divide. There have already been calls for a general strike on Monday that could last for over a week. The goal is clear: to inflict as much harm as possible on the Spanish economy so that investors begin to question the wisdom of being exposed to Spanish assets. It’s a tactic Catalonia’s Vice President Oriol Junqueras warned of using during a speech in Brussels way back in 2013:

Given that Catalonia represents a quarter of all Spain’s fiscal revenues and that we have the means to mobilize two million people onto the streets of Catalonia, does anyone seriously believe that we are not capable of halting the Catalan economy for one week? If we did this, can you imagine what kind of impact it would have on Spanish GDP? Or what foreign creditors would suddenly think of Spanish debt and what that would mean for the risk premium of Spanish bonds?

Four years on, and this doomsday scenario has become a very real possibility. But how will today’s markets react?

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