Madrid rejects Catalan leader’s invitation to negotiate

Spanish government moves closer to taking direct control of region

A woman walks past a pro-independence graffiti in a street in Barcelona on Monday. Photograph:  Gonzalo Fuentes/Reuters

A woman walks past a pro-independence graffiti in a street in Barcelona on Monday. Photograph: Gonzalo Fuentes/Reuters

 

The Spanish government has dismissed an invitation to negotiate with the president of Catalonia, moving a step closer to suspending the region’s autonomous powers in a bid to halt its drive towards independence, while two pro-independence leaders have been jailed on charges of sedition.

Prime minister Mariano Rajoy had issued a deadline of Monday morning to Catalan president Carles Puigdemont to clarify whether or not he had declared independence on October 10th.

In an address to his region’s parliament that day, Mr Puigdemont said that the results of an independence referendum had created a “mandate allowing for Catalonia to become an independent state in the form of a republic”, before then saying he was suspending the effects of his declaration to allow for negotiations with Madrid.

But the Catalan leader’s response to Mr Rajoy’s inquiry, delivered just over an hour ahead of the deadline of 10am local time on Monday, did not tackle the question directly or even mention the word “independence”. Instead, Mr Puigdemont requested “a meeting that allows us to explore preliminary agreements” on the Catalan dispute and he suggested a timeframe of two months for talks to take place.

“My government’s priority is to seek intensively the route of dialogue,” he added.

Within 90 minutes Mr Rajoy replied, “deeply regretting” that the Catalan president had failed to clarify his position on the independence declaration.

“Prolonging this situation of uncertainty only benefits those who want to destroy civil peace and impose a radical project that impoverishes Catalonia,” the prime minister said in a letter, confirming that he is following the procedure leading to the implementation of article 155 of the constitution.

The clause, which has never been used before, is seen as a tool allowing the central government to suspend the powers of rogue regional administrations.

Thursday ultimatum

The Spanish government has said Mr Puigdemont must reverse any decision moving towards independence by this Thursday, otherwise it will put article 155 into effect.

Triggering it requires the approval of the Senate, where Mr Rajoy’s Popular Party (PP) has a majority. He also has the backing of the opposition Socialists and Ciudadanos to use it.

Socialist Party spokesman Óscar Puente described Mr Puigdemont’s failure to clarify the independence declaration issue as “unacceptable”.

“Article 155 is not desirable for anyone, except a few,” he said. “But we wonder if Puigdemont leaves us any alternative.”

While it is still not clear how exactly the Rajoy administration would use the article, it is widely believed that once implemented, the government would call a regional election in Catalonia.

The PP’s leader in the region, Xavier García Albiol, said on Monday that he would like “to ban electoral manifestoes that are not within the bounds of legality”, suggesting that pro-independence parties could face severe restrictions if there are elections.

There is also a possibility that Mr Puigdemont’s administration will be unable to govern for much longer anyway if the anti-capitalist Popular Unity Candidacy (CUP), which wants a more strident expression of sovereignty from him, withdraws its support.

As the political tensions flared up again, there was a reminder of the economic impact of the territorial crisis, when Cava wine producer Codorníu announced it was moving its legal base out of Catalonia to La Rioja. More than 500 companies have made similar moves in recent weeks, including Gas Natural Fenosa, lender CaixaBank and property firm Colonial.

Also on Monday, two pro-independence civic leaders, Jordi Sánchez of the Catalan National Assembly (ANC) and Jordi Cuixart of Ômnium Cultural, were jailed without bail on charges of sedition, for their alleged role in the build-up to the October 1 referendum. The head of the Catalan regional police, Josep Lluís Trapero, also facing charges of sedition, was released pending trial.