In Depth

Catalonia independence: what are Madrid’s options?

In Depth: Foreign minister says parliament will debate separation despite court order

Catalonia's parliament will defy a Spanish court ban and meet to discuss an independence declaration, a regional government official said today - escalating the biggest crisis Spain has faced in a generation.

Raul Romeva, Catalonia's foreign affairs minister, told the BBC that the parliamentary debate will go ahead despite a Constitutional Court ruling yesterday that Monday's session be suspended.

“Parliament will discuss; parliament will meet,” Romeva told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. “It will be a debate and this is important.”

The crisis, he added, would be resolved through political and not judicial means.

A parliament spokesman told CNN that Catalan President Carles Puigdemont plans to hold a new session on Tuesday to debate the “current political situation”.

Madrid's Constitutional Court warned yesterday that any Catalonian parliamentary session convened in defiance of its order would be “null” and that political leaders could face criminal charges.

It is “not the first time that the Catalan government has ignored the Constitutional Court’s rulings, not least its order to suspend the referendum itself”, says The Guardian.

The decision to hold parliamentary talks came as the Catalan chief of police, Josep Lluis Trapero, appeared before a judge in Madrid on suspicion of sedition against the state. Catalonia’s autonomous police force, Mossos d'Esquadra, is accused of not doing enough to protect Spanish national police from protesters nor to prevent Sunday's referendum from going ahead, CNN says.

While Enric Millo, Madrid's most senior representative in Catalonia, offered the Spanish government's first apology today for the violence during Sunday’s independence referendum, he also blamed the region’s political leaders for going ahead with the vote, says The Guardian.

The developments leave Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy with a political, social, economic and public relations crisis.

So, what are Madrid’s options as Catalonia continues its push for independence?

Dialogue

Puigdemont has already called for mediation with Spain over independence - a call backed by some European leaders, including Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel, who tweeted: “Violence can never be the answer!”

Spain has maintained a hard-line stance, however, refusing to recognise the vote and calling the referendum illegal. But that may change, with a shift in sympathies in Madrid following televised and online images of widespread police brutality.

“For months now the media in Madrid have taken a hard-line course against the Catalan independence referendum” says Deutsche Welle. “The Spanish government's response to the vote on Sunday inspired a change of heart.” 

As for the European Union, reports The Independent, MEPs have already signalled that they won’t intervene in an internal Spanish affair, leaving the ball in Rajoy’s court.

The constitutional option

Rajoy has other options, but all of them carry risk.

Many analysts believe that Catalonia’s unilateral declaration of independence could force Madrid to invoke Article 155 of the 1978 Spanish Constitution, which would suspend the autonomy of Catalonia, the Financial Times reports.

Albert Rivera, head of the business-friendly Ciudadanos party, believes Article 155 should be used to block any declaration of independence. In interviews with Spanish media, the Barcelona-born politician said the clause could be invoked temporarily, even if only for a few hours, to call fresh regional elections.

“That way all the Catalans would get to vote, not just a part,” Rivera said.

Arrests

Another high-stakes option includes the arrest of more Catalan politicians, including Puigdemont. Police arrested about a dozen officials prior to Sunday’s vote, and Spain’s chief prosecutor has said he has not ruled out arresting Puigdemont on charges of civil disobedience, abuse of office and misuse of public funds in relation to the referendum.

Further arrests are “likely to prove highly risky in Catalonia given the enduring tensions and the violence that marred Sunday’s vote”, says The Guardian.

More autonomy

Spain could opt to give Catalonia more autonomy in return for the region remaining part of Spain. After all, it was a Constitutional Court ruling in 2010 that inadvertently led to Sunday’s independence referendum, The Atlantic reports.

Back then, the court struck down Barcelona’s attempts to place the Catalan language above Spanish in the region. It also ruled that regional powers over courts and judges were unconstitutional; and said that “the interpretation of the references to ‘Catalonia as a nation’ and to ‘the national reality of Catalonia’ in the preamble of the Statute of Autonomy of Catalonia have no legal effect”.

A bit of leeway could go a long way to ending the tension.

Succession

Perhaps the most effective, and least likely, option would be for Rajoy to allow Catalonia to become an independent state immediately.

“To the casual observer, Catalonia looks like it has already got many of the trappings of a state,” says the BBC. But Catalonia’s hefty public debt raises questions about “whether Catalonia would be able to stand on its own two feet”.

According to the BBC, the Catalan government owes €77bn (£68bn), or about 35% of GDP, including €52bn (£46bn) in debt to Madrid.

There are also questions about whether Spain would want an independent Catalonia to pay a percentage of the Spanish national debt.

“If Spain chose to,” the BBC says, “it could make life difficult for an independent Catalonia.”

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