MADRID/BARCELONA • The Catalan authorities must drop a bid for independence by Thursday, the Spanish government said, moving closer to imposing direct rule over the region after its leader missed an initial deadline to back down.
In a confrontation viewed with a mounting sense of unease in European capitals and markets, Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont failed yesterday to respond to an ultimatum from Madrid to clarify if he had declared independence.
Plunging Spain into its worst political crisis since an attempted military coup in 1981, Catalan voters backed a breakaway in a referendum on Oct 1 that Spain's Constitutional Court said was illegal. On that basis, Mr Puigdemont made a symbolic declaration of independence last Tuesday, but immediately suspended it and called for talks with Madrid on the region's future.
Madrid had given him until 10am local time yesterday to clarify his stand on independence with a "yes" or "no", and until Thursday to change his mind if he insisted on a split - saying it would suspend Catalonia's autonomy if he chose secession. Deputy Prime Minister Soraya Saenz de Santamaria said after the deadline passed that Mr Puigdemont had not answered the question and had to do so by Thursday.
"Mr Puigdemont still has the opportunity to start resolving this situation, he must answer 'yes' or 'no' to the declaration," she said.
In a letter to Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy made public yesterday, Mr Puigdemont did not directly answer the independence issue, instead making a "sincere and honest" offer for dialogue between them over the next two months.
In reply, Mr Rajoy said Mr Puigdemont's stance had brought Madrid closer to triggering Article 155 of the Constitution, under which it can impose direct rule on any of the country's 17 autonomous communities if they break the law.
However, the terms of Article 155 on direct rule, which has never been applied, are vague. It says that when a region does not meet its constitutional obligations or other laws, or goes against the general interest, the government "can adopt any measure needed to force those obligations to be met" once receiving approval from Spain's Lower House.
The wording suggests that would include anything from taking control of the regional police and finances to installing a new governing team or calling a snap election.
Separately, the state prosecutor has asked for Catalonia's police chief - under formal probe for sedition - to be held in custody without bail, a legal source said yesterday.