MADRID/BARCELONA (Reuters) - Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy took the first step on Wednesday toward suspending Catalonia’s political autonomy and ruling the region directly to thwart a push for independence.
He demanded that the regional government clarify whether it now considered itself independent following a speech by Catalan president Carles Puigdemont on Tuesday night.
This requirement is a necessary step before triggering Article 155 of the constitution, which would allow Madrid to suspend the region’s political autonomy.
Rajoy’s move could deepen the confrontation between Madrid and Catalonia but it also signals a way out of Spain’s biggest political crisis since a failed military coup in 1981.
The prime minister would be likely to call a snap regional election after activating the constitutional mechanism allowing him to do so.
Puigdemont made a symbolic declaration of independence from Spain on Tuesday night but then immediately suspended it and called for talks with the Madrid government.
“The cabinet has agreed this morning to formally request the Catalan government to confirm whether it has declared the independence of Catalonia, regardless of the deliberate confusion created over its implementation,” Rajoy said in a televised address after a cabinet meeting to consider the government’s response.
Without giving a specific deadline for the Catalan government to reply, Rajoy said: “The answer from the Catalan president will determine future events, in the next few days.”
It is not yet clear if and when the Catalan government would answer the requirement but it now faces a conundrum, political analysts say.
If Puigdemont says he did declare independence, the government would likely trigger Article 155. If he says he did not declare it, then far-left party CUP would likely withdraw its support to his minority government.
“Rajoy has two objectives: if Puigdemont remains ambiguous, the pro-independence movement will get more fragmented; if Puigdemont insists on defending independence then Rajoy will be able to apply Article 155,” said Antonio Barroso, deputy director of London-based research firm Teneo Intelligence.
“Either way Rajoy’s aim would be to first restore the rule of law in Catalonia and this could at some point lead to early elections in the region”.
Puigdemont had been widely expected to unilaterally declare Catalonia’s independence on Tuesday after the Catalan government said 90 percent of Catalans had voted for a breakaway in an Oct. 1 referendum that Spain had declared illegal and which most opponents of independence boycotted.
Madrid responded angrily to Puigdemont’s speech, saying the Catalan government could not act on the results of the referendum.
“Neither Mr. Puigdemont nor anyone else can claim, without returning to legality and democracy, to impose mediation... Dialogue between democrats takes place within the law,” Deputy Prime Minister Soraya Saenz de Santamaria said.
Invoking Article 155 to ease Spain’s worst political crisis in four decades would make prospects of a negotiated solution to the Catalonia crisis even more remote.
A spokesman for the Catalan government said earlier on Wednesday that if Madrid went down this road, it would press ahead with independence.
“We have given up absolutely nothing...We have taken a time out...which doesn’t mean a step backwards, or a renunciation or anything like that,” Catalan government spokesman Jordi Turull told Catalunya Radio.
Socialist opposition leader Pedro Sanchez said he would back Rajoy if he had to activate Article 155 and said he had agreed with the prime minister to open a constitutional reform within six months to discuss how Catalonia could fit better in Spain.
It was not clear how the Catalan government would respond to the offer.
Puigdemont’s speech also disappointed supporters of independence, thousands of whom watched proceedings on giant screens outside parliament before sadly leaving for home.
Financial markets, however, were encouraged that an immediate declaration of independence had been avoided.
Following Puigdemont’s speech, Spain’s benchmark IBEX share index rose as much as 1.6 percent, outperforming the pan-European STOXX 600 index. The rally pushed the main world stocks index, the MSCI’s 47-country ‘All-World’ index, to a record high.
Spain’s 10-year government bond yield -- which moves inversely to the price -- dropped 5 basis points to 1.65 percent in early trade, according to Tradeweb data.
In Brussels, there was relief that the euro zone’s fourth-largest economy now had at least bought some time to deal with a crisis that was still far from over.
One EU official said Puigdemont “seems to have listened to advice not to do something irreversible”.
The Catalan crisis has deeply divided the northeastern region itself as well as the Spanish nation. Opinion polls conducted before the vote suggested a minority of about 40 percent of residents in Catalonia backed independence.
The stakes are high -- losing Catalonia, which has its own language and culture, would deprive Spain of a fifth of its economic output and more than a quarter of exports.
Some of Catalonia’s largest companies have moved their head offices out of the region and others were set to follow if he had declared independence.