A single article of the Spanish Constitution — Article 155 — is viewed as the “nuclear option” for Madrid to impose its will on the Catalan government should the separatists decide to make a unilateral declaration of independence this week.

The article in the 1978 document empowers Spain’s central government to take any “necessary measures” to ensure compliance of a rogue autonomous region, for example ousting officials, calling fresh local elections or taking control of the local police.

For investors spooked by the push for succession after last week’s independence referendum, Article 155 is a comfort blanket. The rating agency Moody’s has cited it as one reason why independence would never happen.

But in Madrid, there is a growing fear that what seems an atomic constitutional weapon in theory will turn out to be much less fearsome in practice, because the Spanish state could struggle to enforce the measures.

“The big fear is that we will use 155 to take control of the Mossos [the local Catalan police] and oust the government, but they will simple refuse to obey us,” says one senior politician based in Madrid in the ruling Popular party.

Concern has been building following the failure of the Spanish state to deliver on a promise to prevent an illegal vote on independence on October 1. Despite enormous police pressure, the Catalan separatists held a vote. Two-thirds of the region’s mayors defied the Spanish courts to help its organisation. More than 2m people cast ballots, and thousands risked criminal charges by working as volunteers or hiding ballot boxes in their houses.

Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution

1. If a self-governing community does not fulfil the obligations imposed upon it by the constitution or other laws, or acts in a way that is seriously prejudicial to the general interest of Spain, the government, after having lodged a complaint with the president of the self-governing community and failed to receive satisfaction therefore, may, following approval granted by an overall majority of the Senate, take all measures necessary to compel the community to meet said obligations, or to protect the above-mentioned general interest.

2. With a view to implementing the measures provided for in the foregoing paragraph, the government may issue instructions to all the authorities of the self-governing communities.

It was widespread defiance that the Spanish government and police found hard to counter. Groups such as the ANC, a powerful pro-independence civic organisation, could summon thousands of people in an instant, willing to surround crucial buildings.

Many of these people feel that Catalan law already has primacy over Spanish law. “I don’t feel Spanish,” says 18-year-old Alex Xifra at a recent pro-independence rally in Barcelona. “I am a Catalan citizen, not really a Spanish one.”

Analysts and politicians say that Madrid might require a large force on the ground if it were to use either the police or army to impose the law, forcibly remove senior government officials and call elections. On October 1 the 17,000-strong Catalan police force defied court orders to close voting stations. There is a chance that at least some of them could do it again.

“We are in a crazy situation,” says Pablo Simon, professor of political science at Carlos III University of Madrid. “Everything is headed towards 155, but Madrid will need to enforce it, and we simply do not know how the Mossos are going to behave.”

While Madrid has superior force, the October 1 vote also showed the limits of the national government’s ability to turn this into power on the streets if it does not win the difficult public relations battle as well. Images of Spanish police dragging young and old people away from polling stations were beamed around the world, bringing a hostile reaction that prompted them to withdraw.

“If there is one lesson from the vote [on October 1] it is that force alone does not work in the internet age,” said one senior politician in Madrid. “One knitting old lady can stop a whole line of tanks.”

To trigger Article 155 is simple enough. Madrid would have to notify Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont that he must come back within the law and drop the independence bid. If Mr Puigdemont rejected this, Spain’s government would simply have to make a request to the country’s upper house of parliament, the Senate, where the ruling Popular party has a comfortable majority.

One MP said the government could apply Article 155 in “three or four days”.

With hundreds of thousands in Barcelona protesting against the Catalan’s government’s threat to declare independence, Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy was resolute at the weekend that he was ready to use Article 155 and any other legal measures to halt the independence threat, despite the risks of open defiance or even unrest in Catalonia as a result.

“We are talking about the unity of our nation,” he told El País in an interview. “Be sure that this battle is going to be fought and is going to be won, because it is a fair battle, it’s a legal battle and it is what the immense majority of Spaniards want.”

But Federico Santi, analyst at Eurasia Group, says the government may not be able to implement 155 in full — removing the Catalan government from office — without “unacceptable levels of violence”.

Others have been more extreme still. A note by analysts at Citi last week said that triggering Article 155 could lead to a “civil rebellion, with possible wide disruptions and violent confrontations . . . A move by the regional police force to ally with the pro-independence parties could significantly escalate the situation.”

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