MADRID – Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy demanded Wednesday that the leader of Catalonia clarify whether he has declared the region’s independence, issuing a veiled threat that the central government could limit or rescind Catalan autonomy if he has.
Rajoy said Catalan president Carles Puigdemont’s response would be crucial in deciding “events over the coming days.”
The prime minister’s remarks marked the first time that Rajoy has openly said that invoking a section of the Spanish Constitution that allows the government to assert control over regions would be the next step, if Catalan authorities don’t backtrack.
The central government “wants to offer certainty to citizens” and that it is “necessary to return tranquility and calm,” he said following a special Cabinet meeting.
Rajoy issued the demand in response to Puigdemont’s announcement that he was proceeding with a declaration of independence, but suspending the move from taking effect for several weeks to facilitate negotiations.
Opposition Socialist leader Pedro Sanchez said Spain’s two main political parties have agreed to renegotiate laws governing autonomy amid Catalonia’s independence bid.
He said a deal was reached with Rajoy to open talks in six months on reforming the constitution that would allow changes to the current setup governing Spain’s 17 regions, including Catalonia.
Sanchez said his party wanted the reform to “allow for Catalonia to remain a part of Spain,” and that the Socialists were backing Rajoy’s call for clarification from Puigdemont.
In a highly anticipated speech Tuesday night, Puigdemont said the landslide victory in a disputed Oct. 1 referendum gave his government in the regional capital, Barcelona, the grounds to implement its long-held desire to break century-old ties with Spain.
But he proposed that the regional parliament suspend the effects of the declaration to leave room for dialogue and to help reduce tensions surrounding Spain’s worst political crisis in decades.
The central government in Madrid has given little indication it is willing to talk, saying it didn’t accept the declaration and didn’t consider the referendum or its results to be valid.
Spanish Deputy Prime Minister Soraya Saenz de Santamaria said late Tuesday that the Catalan leader “doesn’t know where he is, where he is going and with whom he wants to go.”
Puigdemont had put Catalonia “in the greatest level of uncertainty seen yet,” she said.
Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution allows the central government to take some or total control of any of its 17 regions if they don’t comply with their legal obligations. This would begin with a Cabinet meeting and a warning to the regional government to fall into line. Then, the Senate could be called to approve the measure.
About 2.3 million Catalans – or 43 percent of the electorate in the northeastern region – voted in the referendum. Regional authorities say 90 percent were in favor and declared the results valid. Those who opposed the referendum had said they would boycott the vote.
Rajoy’s government had repeatedly refused to grant Catalonia permission to hold a referendum on the grounds that it was unconstitutional, since it would only poll a portion of Spain’s 46 million residents.
Catalonia’s separatist camp has grown in recent years, strengthened by Spain’s recent economic crisis and by Madrid’s rejection of attempts to increase self-rule in the region.
The political deadlock has plunged Spain into its deepest political crisis in more than four decades, since democratic rule was restored following the dictatorship of Gen. Francisco Franco.
On the streets of Barcelona, residents were following the developments closely on Wednesday.
“They both keep on repeating the same things,” resident Alicia Gallego said, referring to Rajoy and Puigdemont.
“The best would be if they could sit down and make some clarity and decide something, maybe a bit more autonomy. I don’t know. I am not a politician,” she said. “But it is clear that this must have a more reasonable solution.”
Another Barcelona resident, Jose Alfaro, said he does not expect any decisive developments to happen any time soon.
“There is enough time to reopen dialogue. Now we are starting a new chapter,” he said. “We have to wait and see. I don’t think that in the short term something will happen.”