Spain will move to impose direct rule on Catalonia this weekend, after the region’s leader refused to drop his bid for independence.
A statement from the Prime Minister’s office Thursday said the government would invoke Article 155 of the constitution, giving it the power to suspend Catalonia’s autonomy and take over the running of its institutions.
Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy said the move would be taken at a special cabinet meeting at which lawmakers would decide on measures to “restore the constitutional order” in Catalonia.
The move to scrap Catalonia’s autonomy – considered Madrid’s “nuclear option” in the standoff – came after Catalan president Carles Puigdemont ignored the 10 a.m. deadline by which to abandon his campaign to secede.
Rather than backing down, Puigdemont said the region could formally declare independence if Madrid did not engage in talks – something the Spanish government has repeatedly refused to entertain.
“Despite all our efforts and our will for dialogue, the fact that your only answer is canceling our autonomy indicates that that you do not understand the problem and do not wish to talk,” he wrote.
Puigdemont also accused Madrid of the “repression” of separatist leaders, after two were taken into custody earlier this week.
Madrid’s move is a marked escalation in the crisis which has roiled Spain – and divided Catalans – since Catalonia’s leaders held a banned independence referendum earlier this month.
Catalonia, a prosperous region in northeast Spain with a population of about 7.5 million people, has long been home to a secessionist movement.
But despite the referendum result, it is not clear that a majority of Catalans favor independence.
Catalan officials said more than 90 percent of voters backed independence – but only 42 percent of eligible voters took part. Many Catalans who favor remaining part of Spain boycotted the vote, which had been declared unconstitutional by a Spanish court.
Earlier this month, hundreds of thousands of people marched through Catalonia’s capital, Barcelona, opposing independence.
Exactly what will happen next remains unclear, with fears of clashes between demonstrators and national police if the latter mobilize for a government takeover.
Pro-independence leaders were reportedly holding emergency meetings Thursday to plan their next move, which could involve mass demonstrations.
This is the first time Article 155 has been invoked, and the process by which Madrid would assume full control of Catalonia – potentially dismissing the regional government, seizing control of its finances and police force, and holding new elections – remains unclear.
Any measures would require the approval of Spain’s parliament, however, and would not be effective until early next week. Spain’s opposition Socialist party says it will support the government, but any suspension of Catalonia’s autonomy should be for a limited period only.
Puigdemont has twice failed to respond to Madrid’s ultimatums to clarify whether he had declared independence or not.
In an ambiguous post-referendum speech, he said Catalonia had “earned the right” to independence and signed a symbolic declaration – but that he was suspending its effects to allow time for talks with Madrid.