Spain moves to direct rule over Catalonia to thwart its bid for independence
Spain moved closer on Monday to imposing central rule over Catalonia to thwart its push for independence after Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont missed an initial deadline to make his intentions clear.
He now has until Thursday to back down.
The Spanish High Court, meanwhile, banned the Catalan police chief from leaving the country while he is investigated on suspicion of sedition.
In a confrontation viewed with mounting unease in European capitals and financial markets, Puigdemont failed on Monday to respond to Madrid’s ultimatum to clarify if he was declaring unilateral independence.
In a letter to Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, Puigdemont did not directly answer on the independence issue, instead making a “sincere and honest” offer for dialogue between the two men over the next two months.
In reply, Rajoy said Puigdemont’s stance had brought Madrid closer to triggering Article 155 of the constitution, under which it can impose direct rule on any of the country’s 17 autonomous communities if they break the law.
The Catalan government’s campaign to break away from Spain has pushed the country into its worst political crisis since a failed coup attempt in 1981.
Thousands of people have demonstrated in the Catalan capital Barcelona and other Spanish cities both for and against independence in recent weeks, although so far the crisis has been largely free of violence, with the exception of the October 1 independence referendum called by the Catalan government, when national police assaulted voters with batons and rubber bullets in a bid to stop the ballot. That incident highlighted distrust between national and regional forces.
A High Court judge ruled on Monday that Catalan police chief Josep Lluis Trapero would have his passport withdrawn but rejected a request from the state prosecutor for him to be held in custody while the investigation continues.
Trapero is a hero to the secessionists after his force took a much softer stance than national police in enforcing the ban on the referendum.
He has yet to be formally charged with sedition but prosecutors said he failed to order his force to rescue national police trapped last month inside a Barcelona building ringed by independence protesters.
Judge Carmen Lamela said in a written ruling that there was not sufficient evidence to detain Trapero but did not rule out doing so if more evidence became available.
Catalan authorities say voters overwhelmingly backed independence at the referendum, which had been declared illegal by Spain’s Constitutional Court.
Last Tuesday, Puigdemont stepped back from asking the Catalan parliament to vote on independence, instead making a symbolic declaration and calling for negotiations on the region’s future.
Madrid has ruled out talks unless Puigdemont gives up the independence demand. It had given him until Monday to clarify his position with a “Yes” or “No”, and until Thursday to change his mind if he insisted on a split.
Following his failure to do so, a regional broadcaster said he also planned to ignore a final deadline on Thursday.
Also suggesting that Puigdemont and his team were in no mood to follow Rajoy’s game plan, Catalan interior chief Joaquim Forn said Article 155 would not allow Madrid to remove members of the Catalan government.
The terms of Article 155 on direct rule, which has never been applied, are vague.
It says Madrid can “adopt any measure” to force a region to meet its constitutional obligations, with the approval of Spain’s lower house. The wording suggests this could include anything from taking control of regional police and finances to installing a new governing team or calling a snap election.
The Catalan government said 90 per cent of voters in the referendum backed a breakaway, but turnout was only 43 per cent as most opponents of independence in the region boycotted it.
While that points to a lukewarm endorsement of Puigdemont’s intentions, EU authorities remain concerned that the test of strength between Madrid and Barcelona might impel moves towards secession elsewhere in the bloc.
Some of the largest companies in the region, which accounts for a fifth of the national economy, have already shifted head offices elsewhere and others undertaking to follow if Puigdemont declares independence.
Investors said a political split could undermine an economic rebound in Spain, the eurozone’s fourth-largest economy.
As Spanish bonds and stocks sold off on Monday, major Cava producer Codorniu Raventos added its name to the list, saying it had moved from Barcelona to Spain’s La Rioja region due to “legal and political uncertainty.”