Mariano Rajoy mulls ′nuclear option′ on Catalan autonomy | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 11.10.2017
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Mariano Rajoy mulls 'nuclear option' on Catalan autonomy

Spain's Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy wants Catalan leaders to spell out whether independence has been declared, implying that he would limit the region's autonomy if that is the case. Santiago Saez reports from Madrid.

Spanien olizei beschlagnahmt Material für katalanisches Referendum (Getty Images/AFP/J. Lago)

The showdown predicted on the day of the referendum is turning increasingly nasty

Wasting little time following Catalonian leader Carles Puigdemont's speech before parliament regarding the region's independence, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has demanded clarity on the issue. Following an emergency cabinet meeting, Rajoy criticized Puigdemont for creating even more confusion and said he had asked Catalan leaders to confirm whether they had indeed declared independence "which is a requirement for any measure the government can adopt under Article 155 of the constitution."

Triggering Article 155 would suspend the region's autonomy and give Rajoy the power to call new elections in the northeastern region.

Read more: Catalonia: Mariano Rajoy to formally ask Puigdemont about independence status

Effectively, Catalonia's independence lasted for just a few seconds following regional President Carles Puigdemont's declaration on Tuesday. Immediately afterwards he asked the Catalan Parliament to leave the bill without effect for the time being in order to "open a door to negotiation."

The nationalist leader's words have done little to appease the central government in Madrid, the opposition in Barcelona, and the pro-independence group CUP, which has supported his government since December 2015. The game of chicken is not over.

imeline of Catalonia's history

Anna Gabriel, leader of the far-left, pro-independence party CUP, told the Catalan Parliament that "maybe we have lost an opportunity" to "declare the Catalan Republic." Gabriel pointedly asked if it would be possible to negotiate with "a state that keeps on threatening and persecuting us [and] that shamelessly displays police force and incites terror."

Read more: Mixed feelings in Barcelona after suspension of Catalan independence 

Afterwards, CUP spokesman Quim Arrufat said his group's MPs would not attend the parliamentary sessions until the declaration of independence comes into effect. This is a relevant issue, as the Catalan government has been working with the support of the anti-capitalist party since December 2015. "The chain of trust that linked us to the [Catalan] government has been damaged today," said Arrufat.

Suspension of autonomy?

Federico Santi, an analyst at the London-based Eurasia Group, a political risk consultancy, told DW that he didn't expect Rajoy to take the nuclear option of triggering Article 155. "It makes more sense for Rajoy to hold on to this power, after Puigdemont's speech fell short of an unilateral declaration of independence," said Santi, who expects more financial and legal pressure on the Catalan president and his allies in the next days and weeks. "They may use [Article 155] selectively, but I would be frankly surprised if they used it fully."

In the wake of the scenes of police violence against demonstrators following the referendum on October 1, the government of Catalonia may be trying to hold on to its image of remaining open and willing to talk, says Santi. "It's one of the reasons why they didn't go for the unilateral declaration of independence. They've had the upper hand since Sunday. They were winning the media debate, particularly outside of Spain. They have put the burden of the response on the central government, and if they overreact they'll be the bad guys again."

Economic impact on Spain

Planeta, one of the largest editing groups in Spain, announced that it would be moving its headquarters from Barcelona to Madrid after Puigdemont's speech was over. The publisher joins the ranks of other large companies that have abandoned Catalonia since the independence vote, such as the banks La Caixa and Sabadell.

Juan Torres Lopez, chair of Applied Economy at the University of Seville, told DW that, if Catalonia were to declare independence, the situation would descend into "chaos." "We've seen CUP leaders saying that they would impose capital controls, and a politician who announces that only shows his own ineptitude, ignorance and lack of capacity to lead any country." For Torres Lopez, secession isn't likely to happen. "I think the chances that a Catalan Republic is actually proclaimed are zero."

However, the economist warned that the ongoing uncertainty would take a toll. "All these moments of instability are not for free," he said, adding that there could be a "slowdown in activity in Catalonia." Sectors like tourism and industrial activity would be among those affected, according to the professor, who said that the rest of Spain would also feel the impact.

"Catalonia represents 20 percent of the national GDP, so it will affect us too."

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