Rajoy warns Catalonia against another independence push

Spanish PM says secessionists’ success in regional elections will not change Madrid’s stance

Supporters of former Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont celebrated election results in Barcelona on Thursday (December 21) which put the separatist block ahead of the unionists with an absolute majority in Catalonia's parliament.

 

Spain’s prime minister warned Catalan leaders not to restart their campaign for secession after pro-independence parties scored a victory in the region’s election.

Speaking the day after the poll in which pro-independence parties won an absolute majority in the regional parliament, Mariano Rajoy said the result would not lead Madrid to change its stance towards Catalonia.

Mr Rajoy also dismissed calls for a meeting with Carles Puigdemont, the ousted leader of the former Catalan government, whose Junts per Catalunya party emerged as the strongest group inside the triumphant separatist bloc. “I will not accept that anyone puts himself above the Spanish constitution and law,” Mr Rajoy said. He would continue to resist any attempt to “undermine the unity of the nation”, the prime minister added.

Catalan independence parties took 70 out of 135 seats in the legislature, delivering a firm rebuke to Mr Rajoy’s approach towards the long-running conflict with Catalonia, which declared independence from Spain after holding an illegal referendum in October. Madrid responded by dissolving the regional government and calling elections.

The election result, which saw record turnout, reignited investor concern over the tensions between Madrid and Catalonia, with Catalan bank stocks such as CaixaBank and Banco Sabadell losing more than 3 per cent of their value. Both banks moved their legal domicile out of Catalonia in October in an attempt to insulate themselves from the political fallout.

Thursday’s result was a victory in particular for Mr Puigdemont, who fled to Brussels in October to escape Spanish justice. His Junts per Catalunya did better than expected, emerging as the second-biggest party in parliament and, crucially, as the largest force inside the separatist bloc.

‘Without preconditions’

Speaking in the Belgian capital on Friday, Mr Puigdemont called on Mr Rajoy to meet him for talks “without preconditions” in any EU country outside Spain.

The deposed leader, who faces arrest should he return to Spain, said: “Mariano Rajoy has to change course and I am ready to meet him in any EU country except Spain . . . The proposal to Rajoy is a sincere one made in good faith. What needs to happen now is dialogue and politics. At the very least we have earned the right to be listened to.”

Mr Rajoy, however, made clear that he saw no need for such a meeting. The winner of the Catalan election, he said, was not Mr Puigdemont but Inés Arrimadas, the leader of the Ciudadanos party in the region. Her party won more votes and seats than any other, but few believe she can muster enough support from other parliamentary groups to be elected head of the next Catalan government.

The overall share of the pro-independence vote fell slightly compared with the last regional ballot in 2015, and analysts said that the formation of a new pro-secession government would be difficult.

PP marginalised

Thursday’s election, however, offered no consolation to Mr Rajoy and his Popular Party. The result confirmed widespread Catalan resentment at the way Madrid has handled the crisis – and left Spain’s ruling party marginalised in seventh position. Analysts pointed out that the PP has now been effectively replaced by Ciudadanos in Catalonia, a trend that could eventually be repeated in other parts of Spain.

Pablo Simón, a professor of politics at Madrid’s Carlos III University, said the PP’s defeat was unlikely to usher in a more conciliatory stance towards Catalonia. “The recent history of the Catalan independence process shows that weakness doesn’t encourage parties to change their position but to harden it,” he said. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017