Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont has refused to clarify whether he has declared Catalonia independent from Spain, paving the way for the central government to follow through on promises to assume control of the region.
Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy last week gave Mr Puigdemont until Monday 10am to clarify his position on independence or risk the region facing the use of Article 155 of the Spanish constitution. The article is a so-called “nuclear option” that allows Madrid to dissolve the regional government and call fresh elections in Catalonia. The central government can also take over the local police force and television channels.
But in a letter seen by the FT on Monday, Mr Puigdemont defied calls by the Spanish government to provide a yes-or-no answer, saying that the declaration was “in suspension,” while calling for talks.
“Our offer for dialogue is sincere and honest,” he wrote. “During the next two months, our main objective is to have this dialogue and that all international, Spanish and Catalan institutions and personalities that have expressed the willingness to open a way for dialogue can explore it.”
He added that together they could all find an “agreed solution”.
The tensions between Madrid and Barcelona have escalated since more than 2m people voted in a referendum on independence on October 1, most of them favouring independence. Catalonia has more than 5.3m eligible voters. Under a law passed by the Catalan parliament in the weeks before the referendum, the parliament would declare independence within 48 hours of a Yes vote.
Mr Puigdemont’s comments in the letter were similar to those he made in a speech in the Catalan parliament last week, where he also announced the “suspended” independence of the region and called for dialogue.
However, the Spanish government has consistently rejected calls for talks as long as the Catalan administration insists on pushing ahead with independence — which is illegal under the country’s constitution.
Madrid says it cannot negotiate an illegal act. “Dialogue between democrats takes place within the law,” said Soraya Sáenz de Santamaría, the deputy prime minister, last week.
Analysts and politicians in Spain believe the application of Article 155 is increasingly likely. The article has never been used and would take the country into uncharted constitutional waters.
Article 155 allows the central government to take any “necessary measures” to ensure compliance of a rogue autonomous region. But it does not mean that all a regional administration’s powers have to be taken over at once.
The government could, for example, start to squeeze the region’s financing first to put pressure on the government. The ousting of the whole government and the calling of new elections could come much later.
Mr Rajoy had previously said that after the Monday deadline, Mr Puigdemont would have until Thursday to change his mind to prevent Article 155 of the constitution being triggered.
Meanwhile, Catalan police chief Josep Lluis Trapero was due to appear before Spain’s High Court on Monday to be questioned over whether his force, the Mossos d’Esquadra, deliberately failed to enforce a court ruling to prevent the independence referendum.
Mr Trapero has been put under formal investigation for sedition after failing to order to rescue Civil Guard police who were trapped inside a Catalan government building in Barcelona by tens of thousands of pro-independence protesters.