People stand behind a banner during a pro-union demonstration organised by the Catalan Civil Society in Barcelona on Sunday © Reuters
Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy has said he is prepared to suspend Catalonia’s autonomy if the region declares independence in a sign that Madrid has no intention of backing down from a potential conflict with the separatists.
Mr Rajoy said he was willing to trigger Article 155 of the constitution, which enables him to take command of the local police force, dissolve the regional government and call a fresh local election, if the Catalan government tries to break away from Spain.
In an interview with El País published over the weekend, he said that ideally, “it should not be necessary to implement extreme solutions”, but “things would have to be changed” in the region, that is, Catalonia would have to drop its plans to declare independence.
“I don’t rule out absolutely anything that is within the law,” he said, when asked about Article 155. “We are going to stop independence from taking place. As such I can say to you with complete candour that it is not going to happen.”
The comments come as tens of thousands took to the streets this weekend to call for a return to political dialogue. People from both sides of the political divide dressed in white and gathered in Madrid and Barcelona to demand talks about the crisis.
But Madrid has seemingly no intention of returning to talks as long as the Catalan government keeps up its threat to declare itself independent from Spain, something the Spanish courts have ruled illegal and unconstitutional.
A Catalan declaration of independence, seen increasingly likely after a chaotic vote on independence in Catalonia on October 1, could plunge Spain into a political and constitutional crisis.
Turnout in the referendum was only about 40 per cent because many stayed home, but the overwhelming majority of those that turned out supported a split from Spain. Many in the Catalan government see this as a mandate to declare independence in the coming days.
The Catalan president Carles Puigdemont has requested to speak to the Catalan parliament on Tuesday, where he could potentially make a declaration of independence.
Some in his government, however, are pushing him to delay a declaration and return to talks or call new regional elections. Others argue he should go for a so-called “lite” version, announcing an independence that would happen at some point in the future.
Santi Vila, Catalonia’s regional chief for business, on Friday said he is pushing for “a new opportunity for dialogue” under “a ceasefire” with Spanish authorities. Mr Vila said he is against Catalonia unilaterally declaring independence at the moment and wants a committee of experts from both sides to work towards a solution to the political crisis.
Hardliners from Catalan’s far-left Popular Unity Candidacy (CUP) party, however, want a quick break with Spain. Many in the party see the break as an opportunity to create a new and better society. But their vision is at odds with those of some pro-independence moderates.
Mr Rajoy, in the El País interview, said he would not accept negotiations with the Catalan government under an “independence lite” scenario, where the Catalan government merely delays a declaration of independence. “Nothing can be constructed under the threat of blackmail,” he said.
Commenting on widely criticised police violence during the referendum on October 1, Mr Rajoy said that “some mistakes were made” but that the fundamental error had been committed by his adversaries, who have put “national sovereignty” in danger.
Mr Rajoy’s government mobilised thousands of national police to stop last week’s vote, leading to clashes with voters. In the El País interview, Mr Rajoy said the approximately 4,000 extra police shipped in to the region would stay until the conflict had been resolved.
Mr Rajoy also warned that as long as the Catalan government is set on independence, then negotiations would be hard. “It is very difficult to negotiate with someone who doesn’t have more than one objective and is unable to move a single centimetre.”