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Spanish prime minister says Catalan government’s powers will be returned to Madrid, as tensions rise between supporters and opponents of independence
Stephen Burgen in Barcelona
Spain was plunged into political crisis on Saturday after the prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, announced that he was stripping Catalonia of its autonomy and imposing direct rule from Madrid in an attempt to crush the regional leadership’s move to secede.
The decision, which prompted anger across Catalonia, has escalated Spain’s deepest constitutional crisis since the restoration of democracy in 1977. Observers say the move could resurrect the spectre of Basque nationalism, and have repercussions across a Europe facing the rise of separatist movements.
After an emergency cabinet meeting on Saturday morning, Rajoy said he was invoking article 155 of the constitution to “restore the rule of law, coexistence and the economic recovery and to ensure that elections could be held in normal circumstances”. The speaker of the Catalan parliament, Carme Forcadell, called the measures a “de facto coup d’etat”.
Pending almost certain approval in the senate on Friday, direct rule will be imposed next weekend. Citing the Catalan government’s “conscious and systematic rebellion and disobedience”, Rajoy said Carles Puigdemont’s government would be stripped of its powers and its functions would be assumed by the relevant ministries in Madrid.
The Catalan president will not be empowered to call elections, which Rajoy said he hoped would be held within six months. “We are not ending Catalan autonomy but we are relieving of their duties those who have acted outside the law,” he said.
Rajoy did not go into details of how article 155 would be applied but a government statement said: “A series of measures will be introduced regarding sensitive issues such as security and public order, financial management, taxation, the budget and telecommunications.”
In an address on Catalan television on Saturday night Puigdemont, speaking in Catalan, Spanish and English, described the move as the worst attack on Catalonia’s institutions since General Franco’s dictatorship between 1939 and 1975, under which regional autonomy was dissolved.
He said: “We cannot accept these attacks. Those who have scorned the Catalans now want to govern us. I will ask parliament to decide how to respond to these attacks on democracy and to act accordingly.”
Over recent years the Catalan government has been creating the structures of a parallel state in readiness for independence. It has expanded the inland revenue department, as well as other parts of the regional administration, and established “embassies” in a number of foreign capitals. Under article 155, it is likely that all of this will be dismantled.
The Catalan vice-president, Oriol Junqueras, accused the government of “totalitarianism” and a spokesman for the leftwing Podemos party, Pablo Echenique, said that Rajoy wanted to “humiliate” Catalonia. Echenique tweeted: “The most corrupt party in Europe, which has 8.5% of the vote in Catalonia and is going to govern it. A terrible day for any democrat.”
Barcelona’s mayor, Ada Colau, called the move “an attack on everyone’s rights and freedoms”.
Rajoy has the support of most of the opposition, King Felipe and the EU, whose leaders gave him their backing at Friday’s Council of Europe meeting.
On Friday Felipe, who already faces criticism for his apparently partisan support of the government over the illegal Catalan referendum, said: “Spain has to confront the unacceptable attempt at secession by a part of the national territory.”
Recent government actions – the police violence aimed at thwarting the independence referendum, jailing the leaders of the two main pro-independence organisations, the threat to imprison the popular Catalan chief of police, and now article 155 – all serve to reinforce the secessionists’ narrative of repression and colonisation by an anti-Catalan Spanish regime.
Nevertheless, Rajoy put the blame on Puigdemont, saying he lacked the stature to deal with the situation. “This would probably never have happened if a different person with similar ideas had been in charge. But this is what happens when you put yourself in the hands of radicals,” he said, a reference to the anti-capitalist CUP party that props up the centre-right Catalan government.
While Rajoy insists that article 155 does not imply suspending autonomy, this is not how the move will be seen in Catalonia and 450,000 people took to the streets of Barcelona on Saturday to demonstrate against direct rule.
Puigdemont and other members of his government attended the rally amid fears that the hitherto peaceful movement could turn violent. Direct rule is a recipe for civil disobedience and hugely increases the scope for conflict. The thousands of Spanish civil guards and national police drafted in for the referendum are still stationed in Catalonia.
The deadline for Puigdemont to clarify whether he had declared independence passed last Thursday. The Catalan president declined to answer yes or no and threatened to issue a unilateral declaration of independence (UDI) if the government invoked article 155. Spain’s attorney general said that if Puigdemont declared UDI he would be charged with “rebellion”, a charge that carries a maximum 30-year sentence.
Puigdemont says Catalonia has earned the moral right to declare UDI after some 90% voted yes to independence in the unofficial referendum. However, only 43% of voters turned out, roughly equivalent to the percentage of Catalans who favour independence, according to opinion polls. There is still time for Puigdemont to call an election, in which case article 155 would be suspended, so long as he also disavows UDI.
A poll published in El Periódico newspaper on Saturday showed there is 68% support for fresh elections. However, his PdeCAT party has not benefited from the independence push and continues to slump in opinion polls. Junqueras said: “We’re not here to hold elections again just so we can have the same mandate we’ve already got.”
Article 155 has never been invoked and the decision could trigger the unravelling of the 1978 constitution that established the 17 autonomous communities that make up Spain. The constitution was devised specifically to accommodate Basque and Catalan national aspirations.
The other 15 communities – including some that have no historic identity – were effectively invented to avoid the impression that the Catalans and Basques were getting special treatment. Many now believe that this federation of 17 regionsis obsolete and that the constitution needs an overhaul.
As well as the friction between Barcelona and Madrid, the atmosphere within Catalonia is also becoming fraught, with growing tension between supporters and opponents of independence, with tolerance of opposing views giving way to acrimony and many people reporting they have fallen out with friends and family over the issue.
Like Brexit for Britain, the independence drive has begun to resemble a collective act of economic self-harm, with big firms moving their headquarters out of the region as instability puts the brake on investment and business confidence. The association of small businesses reports that 1,300 have moved their legal HQ out of Catalonia. Tourism, which accounts for 400,000 jobs, is down by around 20% – a loss to the region of more than €1bn – and one Barcelona restaurant owner said the industry was facing “an economic tsunami”.
Rajoy, whose government was only last week encouraging firms to leave, ended Saturday’s press conference with an appeal to businesses to stay in Catalonia.
Barely two weeks ago, tens of thousands of secessionists gathered outside the Catalan parliament to hear Puigdemont declare independence, only to suspend it seven seconds later.