Saturday, December 16, 2017

Spain is holding its breath as it waits for Catalan premier Carles Puigdemont to choose between refuting his unilateral declaration of the region’s independence last week or facing direct intervention from Madrid.

The Spanish government has given Mr Puigdemont a deadline of 10am local time on Monday to answer the question of whether or not the region has declared independence.

Mr Puigdemont gave no indication in a short speech on Sunday whether he plans to backtrack on last Tuesday’s declaration of Catalan independence, which was suspended immediately afterwards in a bid for a last-minute round of negotiations with Madrid.

Speaking at the annual homage to Catalan nationalist hero Lluis Companys, executed on General Franco’s orders in 1940, Mr Puigdemont made a somewhat vague appeal to “dignity and courage and our duty to remember, as a people that will always search for the freedom of all its citizens”.

“Our decisions will be inspired by our faith in peace, civic responsibility, calmness and also steadfastness and democracy,” he said. 

He then accused the ruling Partido Popular (PP) party of “trivializing” the death of Mr Companys, a former regional president who briefly, and unsuccessfully, declared Catalan independence in 1934 before being incarcerated.

Last week a PP spokesperson, Pablo Casado, said Mr Puigdemont could end up like Companys, although he later clarified he meant in jail, rather than Companys’ subsequent death by firing squad.

The anniversary of Companys’ death is traditionally an emotional highpoint of the Catalan nationalists’ year, beginning with torchlit overnight marches to the site of his execution in Barcelona’s Montjuic Park and culminating with the laying of wreaths at his nearby tomb.

But Mr Puigdemont’s speech was notably more low key than his rousing address at last year’s tribute to Companys, when he insisted “no courts or legal system can stop the will of the Catalan people”. 

This October, though, there is far more at stake. The Catalan premier currently faces intense pressure from inside the nationalist ranks to confirm the region’s declaration of independence, and the hard-left CUP party has threatened to withdraw its support from Puigdemont’s government if he fails to deliver on that promise.

But the European Commision president Jean-Claude Juncker has recently underlined Brussels’ opposition to Catalonia breaking away, more than 500 companies have now at least partly quit the region since the political turbulence began, and the ruling PP yesterday (Sunday) showed no sign of letting Mr Puigdemont do anything but backtrack.

“The independence movement has spent too long being ambiguous,” said a PP deputy for Congress, Javier Maroto. “Tomorrow that time is is over.”

“The only practical answer [from Mr Puigdemont] is to say ‘No’ to independence. Sometimes a well-ordered retreat represents a great victory.”

Should Mr Puigdemont’s response on Monday be one of continued defiance, however, the government will give him until Thursday to reconsider, before applying direct rule under Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution.

This would enable Madrid to call local elections, remove Mr Puigdemont from office and take control of the Catalan regional police force, whose chief, Josep Lluis Trapero, returns to a Madrid court today (Monday) together with two leading nationalist politicians on possible charges of sedition.

But there are fears, too, that using Article 155 could elevate civil unrest in Catalonia to unprecedented – and dangerously unpredictable – levels. Monday’s response from Catalonia, therefore, constitutes the polticial equivalent of “double or quits”.