Spain calls on Catalan leader to clarify ‘independence declaration’

Regional election looking likely as Madrid considers response to announcement

Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy in parliament on Wednesday. “If Puigdemont respects legality then a period of illegality and uncertainty will come to an end,” he said. Photograph: Javier Lizon/EPA

Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy in parliament on Wednesday. “If Puigdemont respects legality then a period of illegality and uncertainty will come to an end,” he said. Photograph: Javier Lizon/EPA

 

Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy has called on the Catalan president to clarify whether or not he issued a declaration of independence earlier this week, in what is seen as a likely first move towards introducing direct rule in the region.

The Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont told his region’s parliament on Tuesday that there was a “mandate allowing for Catalonia to become an independent state in the form of a republic”. Many – although not all – observers saw this as a unilateral declaration of independence, although it was immediately followed by Puigdemont’s proposal that it be suspended “for several weeks” to allow for possible mediation to resolve the dispute with the Spanish state.

Puigdemont and his allies also signed a document that established “the Catalan republic, as an independent and sovereign state”, although it had no legal framework.

On Wednesday, Rajoy accused Puigdemont of sowing “deliberate confusion” with his address and called on him to abandon the independence drive once and for all. “If Puigdemont respects legality then a period of illegality and uncertainty will come to an end,” Rajoy said. “It’s important that we return to calm and tranquillity.”

The prime minister said that requesting clarification from the Catalan leader – with a five-day deadline – was a prerequisite if he is to trigger article 155 of the constitution, which would allow Madrid to suspend the region’s autonomous powers and introduce direct rule.

Fear of response

One of the reasons for the ambiguous nature of Puigdemont’s announcement was his concern that it would draw an immediate, dramatic response from the Spanish government. But although the implementation of article 155, which has never been used before, appears to be on its way, Rajoy’s request for clarification has now put the pressure back on the Catalan president.

Meanwhile, there is speculation regarding the effect that Tuesday’s declaration will have on the stability of the Catalan government.

The governing Junts pel Sí coalition is backed by the anti-capitalist Popular Unity Candidacy (CUP), which caused Tuesday’s announcement to be delayed as it haggled over the content of Puigdemont’s speech moments before it was delivered.

Afterwards, its representatives were clearly disappointed, with Quim Arrufat saying the party had initially expected a strident proclamation of the Catalan republic. Its relationship with the governing coalition, he said, had been hurt after “the script was changed”. The most radical pro-independence party in mainstream politics, the CUP is giving Puigdemont a month or so to see if his mediation proposal pays off.

His previous appeals for mediated negotiations saw little progress. The Spanish government refused to sit down, claiming it was being blackmailed by the possibility of an independence declaration. In addition, European Union members, some of which have taken Madrid’s side in the dispute in recent days, are reluctant to step on Rajoy’s toes and wade into the crisis.

On Wednesday, Rajoy told Congress he could be willing to discuss with Catalan authorities issues such as finances and public services. But pressure from his own Popular Party (PP) and voters mean he is loath to broach the possibility of organising a Scotland-style, negotiated referendum, which is the holy grail for the independence movement.

Tusk intervention

While worries about a recent exodus of Catalan businesses from the region may have played a part in preventing Puigdemont from making a more strident declaration, international considerations appear to have been key. Just hours before his fateful speech, European Council president Donald Tusk made a direct plea to the Catalan leader to step back from the brink and not make “dialogue impossible”.

“We’re a radically pro-European movement,” a senior figure in one of the main civic groups pushing for secession told The Irish Times. This source does not expect the Spanish government ever to sit down and negotiate. “The day they do that, they’re dead, electorally speaking,” he said.

Many supporters of independence have been left deflated by Tuesday’s events, but they appear willing, for now, to give Puigdemont the benefit of the doubt, knowing that Europe is watching.

Nonetheless, the likelihood of a snap regional election has increased. Even if the disgruntled CUP does not withdraw its support for the Catalan government, if Rajoy triggers article 155, he could call an election from Madrid, trusting it might weaken pro-independence parties’ fragile control of the parliament.

For now, the Spanish government reaction to Puigdemont’s speech appears to be lending it a weight it lacked when delivered, reflecting how Catalonia’s separatists and Spain’s unionists have fed off each other throughout this conflict.

Lola García, a columnist at La Vanguardia newspaper, noted that “the great irony is that his declaration of independence […] will only be such a thing if Rajoy deems it as such and acts accordingly.”