The Spanish government is this weekend finalising plans to intervene in the devolved government of Catalonia.
It follows the expiry of a deadline on Thursday, imposed by prime minister Mariano Rajoy, for Catalan regional president, Carles Puigdemont, to clarify if he had declared independence or not for Catalonia in the regional parliament last week and, if so, to rectify the situation.
In his answer to Rajoy, which came just before the 10am deadline on Thursday, Puigdemont made it clear that the regional parliament didn’t vote on a declaration of independence when it last met on 10 October and threatened Madrid with an imminent formal vote if it didn’t enter into talks.
“If the repression and lack of dialogue persists, the Parlament [regional parliament] could go ahead, if it sees it as appropriate, and vote on a formal declaration of independence,” the letter stated.
Focus shifts back to Madrid
This meant that the focus of the constant ‘tit for tat’ between Madrid and Barcelona switched back to Mariano Rajoy to decide, with ministers, how exactly to respond, using Article 155 of the Constitution to temporarily suspend some or all of the devolved elements of Catalonia’s regional government.
Rajoy had given Puigdemont until last Monday to make his original statement on whether he considered Catalonia to be independent or not, which Puigdemont sidestepped in his longer answer on Monday, and then a further three days until this Thursday to rectify.
An official statement from Madrid, which came soon after Puigdemont’s Thursday morning letter to Rajoy, said that the Catalan president had failed to meet the conditions of returning Catalonia to normal “constitutional order” by Thursday and, as such the national government would press on with its plans.
“On Saturday the Cabinet will meet in a special session and approve the measures that will be taken to the Senate with the aim of protecting the overall interests of the people of Spain, including those in Catalonia, and restore constitutional order to that autonomous community,” the statement said.
It wasn’t clear to what extent Article 155 will be used. The clause in the 1978 post-Franco constitution has never been invoked before and gives central government powers to intervene in the affairs of Spain’s devolved regions if the interests of the country are threatened - although it doesn’t actually suspend the devolved status.
The country’s three main national political parties: Rajoy’s ruling conservative Partido Popular (PP), the Socialist PSOE, and centrist Ciudadanos have been coordinating behind the scenes in Madrid over the last week what the extent of the use of Article 155 will be, in a rare display of unity.
Observers have variously suggested that it could involve taking control of just the regional police and security forces and the region’s treasury, or keeping Puigdemont in place but without regional politicians heading their departments and employing technocrats instead controlled from Madrid.
Speaking after another meeting with the government on Thursday, a PSOE spokesperson said that the measures should be, in their view, “as brief as possible and very limited”.
Commentators also said that, if Article 155 is applied, the regional parliament could be temporarily suspended and new elections called after a “cooling off period”.
Madrid is mindful to avoid taking steps that could lead to street protests or violence following the uncomfortable images from the recent banned referendum of police confronting voters, which were focussed on by international media.
Tensions with the Catalan nationalist movement were further increased this week when two independence leaders, the two ‘ Jordis’, were refused bail in an ongoing sedition case.
Within the separatist parties in Catalonia there was disagreement about what to do next faced with the imminent use of Article 155 by Madrid.
The more moderate PdeCat party called on Rajoy to make a last effort to negotiate with them. Meanwhile members of the left-wing ERCand anti-system CUP urged Carles Puigdemont to summon parliament so the pro-separatist majority could formally declare independence first, ahead of Article 155 being used.
There were also calls from Madrid for the regional government to call elections in Catalonia to avoid the use of Article 155, a move which the ruling coalition has so far rejected.
All eyes on the Senate next
After Saturday’s cabinet meeting in Madrid, the measures the government will adopt will need to be debated by the Senate, Spain’s upper house, which could take a week. The PP already holds a majority here but can also expect the support of PSOEand Ciudadanos in a vote.