Spanish PM tightens screws on Catalonia

Catalan President Carles Puigdemont (in front) arriving at a demonstration in Barcelona yesterday organised by pro-independence movements, following the imprisonment of two of their leaders - Jordi Sanchez and Jordi Cuixart.
Catalan President Carles Puigdemont (in front) arriving at a demonstration in Barcelona yesterday organised by pro-independence movements, following the imprisonment of two of their leaders - Jordi Sanchez and Jordi Cuixart.PHOTO: REUTERS

MADRID • In the latest escalation of a conflict that has captured Europe's attention for weeks, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy yesterday vowed to sack Catalonia's leaders and to hold a fresh round of elections "within the next six months".

Madrid's announcement came after an emergency Cabinet meeting, where government ministers debated how best to respond to the Oct 1 Catalan independence referendum, which Spain's constitutional court had declared illegal.

Mr Rajoy said he would ask the Senate to take the unprecedented step to invoke Article 155 of Spain's 1978 Constitution, which allows the central government to suspend the region's autonomy.

But he was quick to insist on the distinction that Madrid was not seizing control of Catalonia, merely demanding new leadership. "This is not a suspension of home rule but the dismissal of those who lead the regional government," he said.

The separatists in Catalonia, led by regional President Carles Puigdemont, staged a chaotic referendum despite the fact that Madrid had declared it illegal.

In a speech shortly after the Oct 1 vote that confused observers in Barcelona and across Spain, Mr Puigdemont first declared independence, then "suspended" the secession process, saying that Catalonia was willing to begin talks with the central government.

Also, Catalonia's calls for the European Union to mediate the dispute have not been answered, with most continental leaders tacitly backing Madrid.

HE SPURNED DIALOGUE

He was invited to the conference of regional presidents, and he didn't want to go. Dialogue is not that others have to accept a decision you already made. It is not imposing your decision to break the law.

SPANISH PRIME MINISTER MARIANO RAJOY, of Mr Carles Puigdemont.

Yesterday, Mr Rajoy vehemently disputed the notion of "dialogue" with a campaign that his government still considers as outside the rule of law.

"The president of the generalitat was invited to discuss his position in the Spanish Parliament, but he refused," Mr Rajoy said of Mr Puigdemont.

"He was invited to the conference of regional presidents, and he didn't want to go. Dialogue is not that others have to accept a decision you already made. It is not imposing your decision to break the law."

Catalonia, with its own language and culture, already enjoys considerable autonomy, with control of its own healthcare, education and regional police.

Mr Rajoy said Article 155 would be invoked "to restore institutional legality and normality". The measure, however, has never been used and is untested as a tool.

After Mr Rajoy's Cabinet outlines its plan to take control of Catalonia, Parliament must approve the measures. A vote in the Upper House is expected this week.

Catalonia's officials immediately rejected Madrid's announcement, with Mr Josep Lluis Cleries, a spokesman for the Catalan Parliament, calling Mr Rajoy's speech "a suspension of democracy".

The decision to invoke Article 155, he added, represented "a true coup d'etat against the people of Catalonia".

Mr Puigdemont's spokesman said the separatist leader was to respond later last night.

WASHINGTON POST, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 22, 2017, with the headline 'Spanish PM tightens screws on Catalonia'. Print Edition | Subscribe