Catalan premier Carles Puigdemont on Thursday sent a new letter to Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy threatening to declare independence. In response, Madrid confirmed its plans to activate emergency powers that will temporarily suspend elements of self-rule in the region.
In his letter, Puigdemont’s wrote that “if the state government persists in hampering dialogue and continuing with its repression,” the regional assembly may, “if it deems it opportune, vote on the formal declaration of independence that was not voted on October 10.”
A democracy cannot accept blackmail
Albert Rivera, Ciudadanos
The letter conveys the message that Puigdemont plans to carry on with his secessionist plans while admitting that independence was not, in fact, declared on Tuesday of last week, when he delivered a confusing speech in the regional assembly that most took to be a symbolic breakaway from Spain.
That event triggered a series of formal written exchanges between Madrid and Barcelona in which the former demanded clarification of Catalonia’s status, while the latter skirted the issue and demanded talks instead.
In line with his strategy throughout the crisis, Puigdemont insisted that his government is open to dialogue but keeps getting stonewalled by Madrid.
“Despite all our efforts and our openness to dialogue, for the only reply to be a suspension of self-rule indicates a lack of understanding about the nature of the problem, and a refusal to talk.”
But by ignoring the ultimatum given by Madrid to drop plans for secession, which expired at 10am on Thursday, this latest letter opens the door to the full activation of Article 155 of the Constitution, a provision that allows the central government to take direct charge of Catalan affairs.
This would be an unprecedented step in the democratic history of Spain, a highly decentralized country where the regions – particularly Catalonia, Galicia and the Basque Country – enjoy extensive powers of self-rule.
On Thursday morning, government spokesman Iñigo Méndez de Vigo confirmed that the Cabinet will hold an extraordinary meeting on Saturday to approve the specific measures to be rolled out in the coming weeks, following meetings this week with representatives from the opposition Socialist Party (PSOE) and Ciudadanos. The fourth major group in Spanish Congress, Podemos, is not supporting the move: its leader, Pablo Iglesias, said on Thursday that triggering Article 155 before Catalonia declares unilateral independence would be “a democratic step backwards.”
Triggering 155 procedures now would be “a democratic step backwards”
Pablo Iglesias, Podemos
Following the Cabinet meeting, the measures will move to the Senate, which has to approve them.
The PSOE’s organization secretary, José Luis Ábalos, said that his party wants the activation of Article 155 to be “very, very limited” and to last “the shortest period of time possible,” but warned that “democracy and the rule of law cannot yield before this inadmissible threat.”
“A democracy cannot accept blackmail. We didn’t accept blackmail on 23-F (February 23, 1981, the date of a failed coup in Spain) and we won’t accept blackmail now,” said Ciudadanos leader Albert Rivera.
What is Article 155?
It is unclear how far the central government and its allies are willing to go down a road that nobody has explored since the Constitution was signed into law in 1978.
Article 155 only contains a generic statement about the possibility of using “the necessary measures” to compel regional authorities to obey the law when the latter are acting outside of it.
In a release, the central government said that it had taken note of “Puigdemont’s refusal to honor the official request dated October 11.” As a result, the government said it would follow the procedures set out in Article 155 of the Constitution “to restore the law in Catalonia’s self-government.”
Puigdemont, whose Junts pel Si (Together for Yes) coalition won the 2015 election with 48% of the popular vote, also ignored Madrid’s suggestion that holding a snap election in the region could prevent the application of Article 155.
The Catalan premier reportedly discussed the idea with his Democratic Party of Catalonia (PDeCat) and their coalition partner, the Catalan Republican Left (ERC) but it was rejected. The coalition only holds 62 seats in the 135-seat parliament, and relies on the small, anti-capitalist CUP party for legislative support.
The radical CUP wants Puigdemont to declare full-blown independence straight away, while the more conservative PDeCat – the new name for the former Convergència, which ruled Catalonia uninterruptedly from 1980 to 2003 with a different partner – is taking things more slowly. The previous Catalan premier, Artur Mas, who championed independence while in office, recently told the Financial Times that Catalonia may not be ready for complete independence yet.
In the meantime, around 800 companies have already changed their registered corporate addresses to locations outside Catalonia, out of fear that an independence declaration could affect their business. These include highly symbolic firms such as Cava maker Freixenet and the lenders Caixabank and Sabadell.
Rhetoric of repression
Rajoy and his team are aware that triggering Article 155 will lend new arguments to the separatists, who are already talking about “political prisoners” following this week’s decision by the Spanish High Court, the Audiencia Nacional, to send two prominent pro-independence leaders to jail without bail in connection with a sedition investigation. This move prompted a mass demonstration in Barcelona.
Puigdemont’s letter alludes to this, saying that “repression has been increased, leading to the imprisonment of the president of Òmnium Cultural and the president of National Catalan Assembly (ANC), two bodies with an accredited civic, peaceful and democratic history.”
English version by Susana Urra.