Pressure is building on Catalonia’s hardline secessionist leaders, from moderates and business leaders in the restive north-east Spanish region, to pull back from the brink and to refrain from issuing a declaration of independence later on Tuesday.
Carles Puigdemont, the region’s president, and other secessionist leaders have vowed to announce a breakaway state after last week’s controversial plebiscite, which was declared illegal by the government and courts in Madrid.
But an exodus of businesses, including two of Spain’s leading banks, a major telecommunications company and a construction group, as well as a massive weekend protest in Barcelona by 350,000 Catalans opposed to separation, is starting to take its toll among moderates, who are alarmed at the prospects of economic collapse and civil unrest.
They are calling for a pause and for more efforts to open up negotiations with the center-right government of Mariano Rajoy, who is under pressure from his party to maintain a strong line with the secessionists. Barcelona’s mayor, Ada Colau, argued Monday night against declaring independence, saying it would threaten Catalonia’s “social cohesion.”
She called for urgent negotiations, warning that Spain faced its “greatest institutional crisis” since its return to democracy following the death of Gen. Francisco Franco in 1975. “We cannot allow ourselves to jeopardize either social cohesion or Catalan institutions,” she said.
She added: “The results of 1 October cannot be used as a guarantee for the declaration of independence. But they do represent an opportunity to open dialogue and international mediation.”
The secessionists’ coalition, Together For Yes, commands only a thin majority in Catalonia’s regional government and it isn’t clear whether a majority will approve an independence declaration. The far-left Popular Unity Candidacy (CUP) is urging Puigdemont to honor the result of the disputed referendum, pointing out that under the referendum law the regional parliament passed ahead of the plebiscite, the legislature pledged to do so.
Puigdemont is set to reveal his plans later Tuesday in an address to the regional parliament — his first comments before the legislature since the referendum a week ago that saw an overwhelming majority of Catalans vote for secession. The turnout, though, was under 50 percent and opinion polls have suggested consistently that more Catalans want to stay with Spain than breakaway.
He had originally promised to make a unilateral declaration of independence within 48 hours of a victory for the secessionist campaign, but held off doing so, calling instead for talks with the Madrid government.
But even senior members of Puigdemont’s own more moderate Catalan European Democratic Party are urging caution, including Ramon Tremosa, a member of the European Parliament. He is counseling following Slovenia’s strategy when it broke away from the then Yugoslavia. Slovenia announced secession but suspended implementation pending negotiations with its Yugoslav neighbors and European powers.
“Nobody can recognize internationally an independence that has not been achieved,” he said. “We know from the experience of Slovenia and other countries that this experience may take weeks or months,” he added.
But inching Catalonia closer to breaking away may well invite as firm a response from Madrid as an open declaration of independence. Spanish prime minister Rajoy is expected by analysts to invoke Article 155 of the constitution, which allows the central government to take control of an autonomous region, if it fails to “fulfill the obligations imposed upon it by the constitution or other laws, or acts in a way that is seriously prejudicial to the general interest of Spain.”
Article 155 has never been invoked before and it risks angering even more secessionist Catalans, who are still furious at the Spanish national police’s efforts to disrupt the October 1 referendum, which saw officers raiding polling stations, beating voters and firing rubber bullets at crowds. Thousands of Guardia Civil and national police who were deployed by Madrid to stop the vote have remained in the region.
At the weekend Rajoy warned he would do everything in his power to prevent Catalonia from breaking away. In an interview with Spain’s El País newspaper. “We are going to prevent independence from occurring… I can tell you with absolute frankness that it will not happen,” he said.
Pedro Sánchez, leader of the opposition Socialists, said Monday his party will support the government against any unilateral attempt to dismember the country.
How Catalonia’s own regional police force, the Mossos d’Esquadra, responds in the coming days, either to a declaration of independence or imposition of direct rule, remains unclear. The force was accused of behaving passively when it came to shuttering polling stations with national police unions accusing it of “clear disobedience.”
The force’s commander, Josep Lluís Trapero, is being investigated for sedition by Spain’s national court.