Spain Vows to Enforce Law in Rebel Catalonia as Standoff Worsens

MADRID (Bloomberg News/TNS) -
Spain’s Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy leaves the conference room after delivering a statement at the Moncloa Palace in Madrid, Spain, Sunday. (Reuters/Sergio Perez)

Spain’s government will consider using all means at its disposal to uphold the law in Catalonia, the justice minister said, as he praised the police for their “exemplary” action in defense of the constitution.

“We have always said that we would use all the force of the law and all the mechanisms that the constitution and laws grant to the government,” Rafael Catala told broadcaster TVE in an interview. While images of police violence provoked alarmed reactions from some European leaders, Catala praised the security force for their “measured” response.

Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy looks to be doubling down on his response to a still-escalating crisis after secessionist leaders signaled they may declare independence within days for the region that constitutes about a fifth of Spain’s economic output. Asked if he would consider activating a constitutional clause to suspend Catalonia’s regional autonomy, Catala said the government’s duty was to “fix problems” and ensure that the rule of law prevails.

Spanish stocks and the euro fell on Monday as the country was left reeling from the previous day’s turbulent events that saw thousands of police use force to obstruct voting in the referendum ruled illegal by the constitutional court in Madrid. The clashes left hundreds of people injured, according to the regional government.

Rajoy has said he will address Parliament on the crisis and on Monday called Socialist leader Pedro Sanchez and Albert Rivera, the head of the Ciudadanos party, in for talks. Article 155 of Spain’s 1978 constitution allows the premier a final recourse option to suspend Catalonia’s semi-autonomy. Catalan President Carles Puigdemont said the day’s events showed the region had won its right to become a republic and called on the European Union to support its cause.

Spanish government spokesman Inigo Mendez de Vigo told Cadena Ser radio that the EU would never support Catalan independence because it would mean “a mess of giant proportions.”

The Catalan crisis has already been causing broader problems for Rajoy’s efforts to rule Spain as the head of a minority government that relies on support from regional parties to get legislation passed. Last week he had to pull plans to present his 2018 budget after allies in the Basque PNV party withheld their support as they criticized his stance on Catalonia.

Two million Catalans backed independence out of 2.3 million votes cast in total, government spokesman Jordi Turull said at a press conference in the early hours of Monday. Just over 5 million people were eligible to vote. Before the government crackdown began, separatist leaders said they would be comfortable declaring independence with about 1.8 million votes. The government disputes the result, saying there were no safeguards to prevent people voting more than once after it acted to take down online voting rolls.

Puigdemont’s time frame could see him announce the formation of a Catalan republic on Oct. 6, exactly 83 years since his predecessor as regional president, Lluis Companys, also declared independence. Companys was executed by the dictatorship of Francisco Franco.

Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy is wrestling with his country’s biggest constitutional crisis since Franco’s death in 1975 as Puigdemont looks to harness decades of frustration to force Catalonia out of Spain. Heading a minority government, Rajoy is fighting to maintain his authority as allies peel off in the national parliament and his officials struggle to enforce the law in the rebel region.

While a declaration of independence would have no legal force, and would most likely not be recognized by the international community, it would nevertheless constitute a historic challenge to the authority of the Spanish government and state institutions.