Catalonia’s Independence Leader Seeks Mediation to Resolve Standoff

Catalonia’s Independence Leader Seeks Mediation to Resolve Standoff


However, Soraya Sáenz de Santamaría, Spain’s deputy prime minister, defended the monarch and instead said that Mr. Puigdemont was taking Catalans on “a journey to nowhere,” along which “every step he takes provokes greater unrest.”

Speaking on Spanish television minutes after Mr. Puigdemont’s address, Ms. Sáenz de Santamaría said Mr. Puigdemont lived “not only outside the law but also outside reality.” Because of Mr. Puigdemont, she said, “never have Catalonia and Spain endured a fracture like that which we are living now.”

Even though he did not discuss his independence plans on Wednesday evening, Mr. Puigdemont is still expected to submit the results of last Sunday’s referendum — which he has said passed overwhelmingly — for a vote of approval by the region’s parliament, in which separatist lawmakers have a fragile majority, making passage likely, but not certain.

Spain’s government, with the support of Spanish courts, has declared Catalonia’s referendum illegal, and a move by Mr. Puigdemont to push for a declaration of independence would likely provoke an even broader crackdown by Madrid.

Madrid has left a large contingent of Spanish national police in Catalonia after they tried to block the referendum, clashing violently with voters who believe that the region, one of Spain’s most prosperous, is entitled to a separate state because of its distinct language, history and culture.

Mr. Puigdemont could be suspended from office by Madrid and face sedition charges. For hard-line separatists, however, Mr. Puigdemont would almost certainly be seen as a traitor if he failed to make the result binding, even though only about two-fifths of the Catalan electorate cast ballots.

In deciding how to respond, the Spanish government was given ample cover on Tuesday by Felipe. In a televised address to the nation, he condemned the Catalans’ “inadmissible disloyalty” to Spain’s unity and constitution.

The Catalan separatists had “put themselves completely on the sidelines of the law and democracy,” King Felipe said, and were threatening Spain’s economic and social stability with their “irresponsible conduct.”

The monarch made no reference to Sunday’s referendum, the strike and street rallies that followed, or the violent crackdown by the national police to suppress the vote. He also made no mention of possible dialogue with separatists.

King Felipe’s tough words were mostly welcomed by Spanish politicians as a strong defense of the constitutional order, as well as a mandate for Prime Minister Rajoy to take every emergency measure needed to stop Catalan separatism in its tracks.

But Irene Montero, a lawmaker from the far-left Podemos Party, said that she was very disappointed that King Felipe left out “millions of Spaniards” who believed in a negotiated settlement with Catalan separatists.

“I would have hoped that he would have defended civil rights and the need for dialogue,” Ms. Montero said on Spanish national television on Wednesday morning.

Faced with the threat of a Catalan republic, Felipe reacted as a monarch not willing to lose part of his territory, Ernesto Ekaizer, a newspaper columnist, said on Catalan television.

“The speech was one-way,” Mr. Ekaizer added, to allow “Mr. Rajoy to reestablish legality” in Catalonia.

Madrid’s administrative seizure of Catalonia could also have ripple effects in other parts of Spain that have a long history of political and cultural separatism. It also threatens to stir a fierce backlash in Catalonia, even though separatists have so far always fallen short of a majority of votes in regional elections.

The standoff is raising concerns among the business community, with Spain’s main stock market index losing almost 3 percent on Wednesday — its biggest one-day fall since last year’s British referendum on leaving the European Union.

Under Article 155 of Spain’s Constitution, which has not been previously used, Mr. Rajoy’s government can seize full administrative control of Catalonia.

The Constitution does not detail how far the crackdown could stretch or for how long. But the emergency measures at Mr. Rajoy’s disposal could range from the suspension of Catalonia’s politicians and its regional Parliament to the suspension of the Catalan autonomous police, as well as the Catalan television and radio broadcaster.

Mr. Rajoy could then appoint a new political leadership in Catalonia, for as long as he deems necessary, before calling new regional elections. The Spanish government’s current delegate in Catalonia is Enric Millo, but separatists this week demanded his resignation for condoning the police crackdown on voters, which left hundreds injured.

It is also unclear how far Mr. Rajoy would want to apply Article 155 in a climate of street protests. Perhaps the most sensitive issue would be how Madrid would deploy the Spanish police to substitute for officers of the Mossos d’Esquadra, Catalonia’s autonomous police force.

Adding to last weekend’s tensions among Spain’s security forces, a judge from Spain’s national court on Wednesday summoned Josep Lluís Trapero, Catalonia’s police chief, for questioning over why he had not stopped protesters from surrounding a government building filled with Spanish police officers two weeks ago, after the police had detained government officials.

Chief Trapero could himself be charged with sedition.

Given Mr. Rajoy’s legal powers to stop the separatists from violating Spain’s Constitution, Mr. Puigdemont must consider whether to provoke Mr. Rajoy into a full seizure of Catalonia — or try instead to declare independence first, which could alienate more moderate separatists who are concerned about escalating the conflict.

Any declaration of independence would have to be voted on first in the Catalan Parliament, where separatist parties since 2015 have formed a coalition, which holds 72 of the 135 seats.

Mr. Puigdemont is calling for international mediation, but European Union officials have instead limited themselves to demands for internal Spanish dialogue.

On Wednesday, Frans Timmermans, the vice president of the European Commission, said that Catalonia’s regional government had “chosen to ignore the law” when organizing the referendum and that Spain had used “proportionate force” to stop the vote.

“Let me be clear: Violence does not solve anything in politics,” Mr. Timmermans told the European Parliament in Strasbourg. “It is never the answer, never a solution.” But “it is a duty of any government to uphold the rule of law and this does sometimes require proportionate use of force,” he said, while also adding that it was “time to talk.”

Mr. Rajoy, meanwhile, is in charge of a minority government and is under pressure from the Ciudadanos Party — his ally in the national Parliament and a party founded to oppose Catalan secessionism — to remove Mr. Puigdemont as soon as possible.

While unlikely to smooth relations between Madrid and Barcelona, the capital of Catalonia, King Felipe’s intervention could also have helped rally Spain’s opposition parties around Mr. Rajoy at a time when the Socialists have been ambivalent about how far the crackdown on Catalonia’s government should stretch.

On Wednesday, Margarita Robles, the parliamentary spokeswoman of the Socialist Party, told Mr. Rajoy to take full responsibility for his handling of Catalonia. Mr. Rajoy is “paid to govern, not to look into the rearview mirror to see what the opposition does,” she said.



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