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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 22 June 2018

Spain to start suspending Catalonia’s autonomy on Saturday

The government is to trigger on Saturday the article 155 of the constitution, which allows it to take direct control over a region in exceptional circumstances

A clock on City Hall in Sant Jaume square, in front of the regional government headquarters the Generalitat, is seen at ten o'clock, the final deadline set by Spain's government for Catalan President Carles Puigdemont to retract an ambiguous declaration of independence. REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes
A clock on City Hall in Sant Jaume square, in front of the regional government headquarters the Generalitat, is seen at ten o'clock, the final deadline set by Spain's government for Catalan President Carles Puigdemont to retract an ambiguous declaration of independence. REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes

The crisis in Spain has risen to a new level as the government declared that it will move ahead with the suspension of Catalan's autonomy, after the region's leader, Carles Puigdemont, refused to drop his claim to independence.

"The Spanish government will continue with the procedures outlined in article 155 of the Constitution to restore legality in Catalonia's self-government," the Prime Minister's office said in a statement, referring to an article that allows for Madrid to take direct control over a region in exceptional circumstances.

In an unprecedented move since Spain returned to democracy in the late 1970s, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy said he would hold a special cabinet meeting on Saturday at which he plans to begin activating article 155.

The decision was taken minutes after Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont threatened to unilaterally declare independence from Spain unless Madrid agreed to talks.

“If the central government persists in blocking dialogue and continues its repression, the Catalan Parliament may proceed, if it considers it appropriate, to approve a formal declaration of independence,” Puigdemont said in a letter to Rajoy on Thursday.

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Puigdemont’s letter came in response to an ultimatum from Madrid to renounce his claims to independence by 10 a.m. on Thursday.

The Catalan leader said that his request for a face-to-face meeting had been ignored, and that Spanish “repression” of Catalonia was being stepped up with the jailing of two separatist activists on Monday.

“My request for the repression to end has not been met either,” Puigdemont said. “On the contrary, it has increased.”

In an address to the regional parliament in Barcelona last week, the Catalan president said that an Oct. 1 referendum held in breach of the Spanish constitution gave him the right to declare independence, but that he was suspending the drive for full autonomy in favour of dialogue.

The decision by Rajoy’s government to directly intervene is bound to further inflame the conflict over the future of Spain’s biggest regional economy. Spanish stocks and bonds dropped on the news.

At Saturday’s emergency cabinet meeting, the government is expected to specify how it will take control over Catalonia. The measures would then have to be approved through the Senate.

Catalans would consider the application of Article 155 an "invasion" of the region's self-government. However, Spain's central authorities have portrayed it as an undesired yet necessary move to restore legality after Puigdemont's government pushed ahead with the banned referendum.

More than 40 percent of Catalonia's 5.5 million eligible voters cast ballots in the referendum as police used violence to try to enforce a court order to stop it.

Puidemont retaliated angrily to the government’s threat to take direct control over the region on Thursday, saying: "That suspending our autonomy is the only response to all our efforts and our willingness to enter dialogue shows there is no understanding of the problem or willingness to talk."

Madrid responded by accusing Puigdemont's government of "deliberately and systematically seeking institutional conflict" and vowing to move ahead with Article 155.

As the accusations flew, Rajoy headed to Brussels for a summit with other EU leaders, where German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron offered him vocal support.

"We back the position of the Spanish government," Merkel said as she arrived, while Macron told reporters the summit would be "marked by a message of unity" with Madrid.