Catalonia declares independence as Spain threatens direct rule

In Depth: The Spanish constitutional crisis deepen as Catalan MPs vote to split from Madrid

Pro-independence Catalans celebrate outside their parliament in Barcelona in October 2017
(Image credit: Pau Barrena/AFP/Getty Images)

The Catalan regional parliament declared independence from Spain today, just as the Spanish senate voted to impose direct rule on the region, setting the stage for a direct conflict between Barcelona and Madrid.

Mariano Rajoy, the Spanish PM, is expected to hold a cabinet meeting to decide his next steps, the BBC reports. That could include firing Catalan regional President Carles Puigdemont and his cabinet and ordering the Spanish government to take control of the region's finances, police and publicly owned media.

Senators in Madrid gave Rajoy the go-ahead this afternoon to curtail Catalan parliamentary powers under Article 155 of the Spanish constitution, the Associated Press reports.

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As the dramatic day unfolded, thousands gathered outside the regional parliament in Barcelona. Catalan politicians approved a resolution late in the day to establish a new republic, independent from Spain.

Some MPs broke out into the Catalan anthem, says Bloomberg, while anti-independence members left the chamber in protest, boycotting the vote.

“We constitute the Catalan Republic, as an independent and sovereign country, under the rule of law,” said the preamble to the resolution, read out by speaker Carme Forcadell. The resolution passed with 70 votes in favour, ten against and two abstentions.

Rajoy reacted almost instantly on Twitter, asking Spaniards to be “calm” and insisting that “legality will be restored in Catalunya”.

EU Council President Donald Tusk said “nothing changes” after the independence declaration and urged Spain not to use “argument of force”.

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What happens next?

Catalan lawmakers “now face prosecution for sedition and even rebellion,” says The New York Times.

“The Spanish state has practically no other alternative, other than to dissolve Catalonia's institutions - a measure not included in Article 155 and that would likely be unconstitutional - if independence is declared,” Josep Costa, associate professor in political theory at Barcelona’s Pompeu Fabra University, told The Local.

But another academic said that dissolution cannot be a permanent. “One important thing about article 155 is it's designed to always be applied temporarily,” said Joan Vintró, lawyer and lecturer on constitutional law at the University of Barcelona. “You can't dissolve Catalan autonomy without changing the Spanish constitution.”

By invoking Article 155, “you don't solve the problem, you impede the independence process,” he wrote.

Whatever happens, the crisis looks likely to drag on. Even if Madrid forces fresh elections in Catalonia, “you could end up back in the same place as it's entirely possible the pro-independence parties end up in the majority again”.

How did it come to this?

Spain's constitutional crisis began on 1 October, when 90% of Catalan voters voted for the region to split from Spain and become an independent state, on a turnout of 43%. Nearly 900 people were injured in violent clashes between voters and Spanish police at polling stations, CNN reported.

Puigdemont denounced the police response and continued the region’s campaign for independence, signing a declaration of independence on 10 October. The Spanish government said the vote and the declaration were illegal.

Puigdemont temporarily suspended the document’s effects for both sides to have an open dialogue. However, he claimed the Spanish government only sought to hinder dialogue and threaten the suspension of autonomy, The Guardian said.

On 19 October, Spain said it would impose direct rule on Catalonia, suspending the region’s autonomy. Madrid said Puigdemont’s defiance and failure to confirm whether independence had been declared required it to invoke article 155 of the Spanish constitution, which allows the government to take “all measures necessary to compel” a region in case of a crisis, the BBC reports.

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