Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy opened up to a possible reform of Spain’s regional system on Wednesday (11 October), while threatening to suspend Catalonia’s autonomy if the region’s leaders confirmed Wednesday’s declaration of independence.
After an emergency cabinet meeting in the morning, Rajoy gave the Catalan government five days to “confirm whether or not it has declared independence.”
On Tuesday evening, Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont signed a document proclaiming Catalonia’s independence, but he said he would suspend its implementation and asked Rajoy to negotiate.
“The answer from the Catalan president will determine future events, in the next few days,” Rajoy said in a TV address.
The answer will determine whether he triggers Article 155 of the constitution, which would allow him to suspend the autonomy of Catalonia.
Later in the afternoon, Rajoy told the Congress of Deputies, the lower chamber of parliament, that “no mediation is possible between the democratic law and the disobedience and illegality.”
He said that Catalonia’s independence “will not be recognized by Europe, and everyone now knows that it will have serious consequences.”
He said that “no European constitution recognizes the right to self-determination” and that Catalonia’s independence was “contrary to any standard of international law”.
But Rajoy also recognized the need for dialogue “in a situation like this one.”
“The framework of the living together can be improved, but in the framework of the existing institutions,” he said, opening the door to a reform of the 1978 Spanish constitution.
“It is not a perfect law and it can be modified,” he noted.
Rajoy got support from the leader of the opposition, Pedro Sanchez.
“We go with the president of the government in his request for clarification and get out of the swamp in which the president [of the Catalan government Carles] Puigdemont has put Catalan politics,” the leader of the Socialist Party said on Wednesday.
Sanchez also agreed with Rajoy to “activate” a parliamentary committee to evaluate Spain’s regional autonomy system and start a debate on constitutional reform after a six-month cooling off period.
Rajoy is trying to “pass the ball to the Catalan government” by asking whether independence was really declared, said Jaume Lopez, a professor of political science at Barcelona’s Pompeu Fabre University.
“This way, Rajoy tries to make the implementation of the article 155 automatic,” he told EUobserver.
The Spanish and Catalan leaders “are mutually passing the ball to position themselves without entering into the question of how to solve this,” he said.
“By offering negotiations they are talking about the context but not the question itself,” he pointed out.
Constant contact with Rajoy
The EU reacted cautiously to the latest developments in the crisis.
The college of EU commissioners discussed the issue “briefly” during its weekly meeting on Wednesday morning, its vice president Valdis Dombrovskis said.
He told reporters that the EU executive “is following closely the situation in Spain and reiterates its earlier call for full respect of the Spanish constitutional order.”
He added that the commission’s president Jean-Claude Juncker was “in constant contact” with Rajoy.
In Berlin, German foreign minister Sigmar Gabriel said “a solution can only be found through talks on the basis of the rule of law and within the framework of the Spanish constitution”.
“A unilateral declaration of Catalonian independence would be irresponsible,” he warned.
The EU reaction had “the effect of cold water” for Catalans, Lopez said. On Tuesday, European Council president Donald Tusk had called on Rajoy to “look for dialogue” because “the force of arguments is always better than the argument of force.”
“Yesterday it seemed like the EU opened up a bit, but now it has gone back to what it was a few days ago,” Lopez, the political analyst, said.
“Tusk’s message was in part used to justify the suspension [of independence], in order to answer what appeared to be a conditional request with possible positive effect,” he said.
But calls from Puigdemont for the EU to get “deeply involved” and facilitate a dialogue fell flat.
“This will have its effect on the public opinion about sovereignty,” Lopez said.
In Brussels, even the most critical voices of the Spanish leader have refrained for calling for an EU mediation.
Marina Albiol, an MEP from the Spanish United Left party said that the EU should “decide on which side” it is – “the side of dialogue or the side of violence” – but that it had only “the possibility to force dialogue”.
“I have no illusion, nor hope. I don’t believe that EU institutions are neutral,” said Miguel Urban, another MEP, from the radical-left Podemos party.
Their leader in the GUE/NGL group in the European Parliament, German MEP Gabi Zimmer, insisted that “the EU cannot tell member states which kind of constitution they should have”.
“There is no clear answer to what to do,” she said, rejecting comparisons with previous situations in Scotland, the Basque country, or Kosovo. “We have to find individual solutions.”
In Barcelona, Puigdemont said that he was ready for a “dialogue without conditions”.
He said representatives of the Catalan and Spanish government should sit together to choose a mediator.
“Catalan supporters of independence were divided,” by Puigdemont’s stopping short of declaring independence, political scientist Lopez said.
He noted that “the unity of the separatists does not just depend on Puigdemont and his government but also on the reaction of the [central] state.”
“An implementation of article 155 will only unite them again,” he said.
Eric Maurice & Helena Spongenberg (Brussels & Barcelona) / EUobserver