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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 13 December 2018

Spanish PM gives Catalonia 8 days to drop independence bid

Mariano Rajoy shows little willingness to negotiate and has threatened to remove the autonomy Catalonia already has

Spanish PM delivers a veiled warning to Catalonia leader over independence REUTERS/Sergio Perez
Spanish PM delivers a veiled warning to Catalonia leader over independence REUTERS/Sergio Perez

Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy has given the Catalan government eight days to drop an independence bid, failing which he would suspend the region's political autonomy and rule the region directly.

If he carries out his threat, Catalonia stands to lose all the autonomy it already has, which will only deepen the confrontation between Madrid and the northeastern region but also signals a way out of Spain's biggest political crisis since a failed military coup in 1981.

Mr Rajoy would probably call a snap regional election after activating Article 155 of the constitution that would allow him to sack the Catalan regional government.

The Spanish prime minister at first delivered his threat in veiled manner, demanding to know if Catalonia’s leader Carles Puigdemont had declared independence during a speech on Tuesday in which he promised to follow the people’s will following the October 1 referendum but backed off from immediate secession from Spain.

“The cabinet has agreed to require formally to the Catalan government to confirm whether it has declared or not independence,” Mr Rajoy said in a televised address following an emergency cabinet meeting. “The answer from the Catalan president will determine future events, in the next few days.

“This call — ahead of any of the measures that the government may adopt under Article 155 of our constitution — seeks to offer citizens the clarity and security that a question of such importance requires,” Mr Rajoy said.

It was the first explicit reference from Mr Rajoy to triggering Article 155, which would allow the government to end Catalan’s autonomy and take control of the country’s wealthiest region, including its budget.

He later told the Spanish parliament the Catalan government had until Monday, October 16 at 0800 GMT to answer. If Mr Puigdemont was to confirm he did declare independence, he would be given an additional three days to rectify it, until Thursday, October 19 at 0800 GMT. Failing this, Article 155 would be triggered.

It is not yet clear if the Catalan government will answer the requirement but it now faces a conundrum, analysts say.

If Mr Puigdemont says he did proclaim independence, the central government will step in. If he says he did not declare it, then the far-left party CUP would probably withdraw its support for his minority government.

"Rajoy has two objectives: if Puigdemont remains ambiguous, the pro-independence movement will get more fragmented. I f Puigdemont insists on defending independence then Rajoy will be able to apply Article 155," said Antonio Barroso, deputy director of the London-based research firm Teneo Intelligence. "Either way, Rajoy's aim would be to first restore the rule of law in Catalonia and this could at some point lead to early elections in the region."

The effect of Mr Rajoy’s statement was to put the pressure back on Mr Puigdemont to explain his proposals for independence that have plunged Spain into its deepest political crisis for four decades.

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Read more:

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The stakes are high — losing Catalonia, which has its own language and culture, would deprive Spain of a fifth of its economic output and more than a quarter of exports.

But Spanish media speculated that any triggering of article 155 without a response from Mr Puigdemont could lead to an immediate declaration from pro-independence parties in the Catalan parliament. Violent clashes marked Madrid’s last attempts to intervene in the region to prevent the October 1 poll.

The central government had shown few signs of a willingness to talk and Mr Puigdemont’s drive for independence has been hit by a series of setbacks.

A number of major businesses announced they were relocating outside of Catalonia for fear of the impact of leaving Spain and the European Union, while the EU refused to get involved in negotiations.

Mr Puigdemont told lawmakers in Barcelona on Tuesday evening that any outright declaration could be delayed for weeks to allow for negotiations with Spain. But the European Union’s executive said Wednesday that it remained firmly behind Mr Rajoy in his handling of the crisis and repeated its call for “full respect of the Spanish constitutional order”.

At European Union headquarters in Brussels, there was relief that Spain, the eurozone's fourth-largest economy, now had at least bought some time to deal with a crisis that was still far from over. One EU official said Mr Puigdemont "seems to have listened to advice not to do something irreversible".

German chancellor Angela Merkel — who faces her own separatist difficulties in Bavaria — said that any declaration of independence in Catalonia would be illegal and would not be supported by Germany.

Former British diplomat Carne Ross — who advised the Catalan government for two years to September 2015 — said that the region could only legitimately declare independence based on a vote agreed by Madrid, and that would depend on securing the support of other EU countries.

He said it was clear that the declaration of independence did not have the clear support of the population. Hundreds of thousands of people — dubbed the silent majority — turned out on the streets of Barcelona earlier this week to protest against the move to separate Catalonia from Spain.

“I don't think it is right to declare independence when you don't have that clear majority. And as things currently stand, Catalonia does not have that clear majority,” Mr Ross said.

The crisis appears to have drawn a concession with the two main political parties agreeing to renegotiate the laws governing the autonomy of the country’s 17 regions, including Catalonia, according to the leader of the opposition. The talks would start in six months and would “allow for Catalonia to remain a part of Spain,” said Socialist party leader Pedro Sanchez.

The drive for independence has increased in recent years in Catalonia. The leaders of the region — a wealthy net donor to the nation’s finances — has been critical of the government’s handling of the 2008 financial crisis and of Madrid’s rejection of attempts to increase self-rule for the region.