Catalan referendum: crisis worsens as independence declaration approaches

Spain’s constitutional crisis worsened on Wednesday, following the nation’s King TV address, when he lashed out at Catalan’s secessionist leaders, as President vowed to declare independence within days

King of Spain condemns 'illegal' Catalan independence vote (Photo: Israel International News)
King of Spain condemns 'illegal' Catalan independence vote (Photo: Israel International News)

The King said Catalan's leaders had acted "outside the law", and demanded they respect the country's constitution. There were reports that the region's President Carles Puigdemont would address Catalans from Barcelona later on Wednesday.

The Catalan police force, Mossos, said that its highest-ranking officer had been summoned by Spain's high court in Madrid to answer accusations of sedition. Spanish authorities are under the impression that Mossos did not do enough to prevent the vote from taking place.

King Felipe's rare TV speech was somewhat unexpected, as he accused pro-independence leaders of "unacceptable disloyalty" and made no mention of the nearly 900 people injured in clashes with Spain's national security forces.

The monarch went on to blame the referendum’s organisers for the chaos.

In a BBC interview recorded before the King's statement, Puigdemont said his government would "act at the end of this week or the beginning of next" to split from Spain.

This move would test the government of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy. If Madrid decides that Catalonia is acting unconstitutionally, it could invoke emergency powers to take control of the Catalan government.

The sight of Spanish forces seizing Catalan institutions would further polarize opinion in the region, which is still reeling from Sunday's police crackdown. Barcelona's city police said that some 700,000 people took part in a day of protest against the police violence on Tuesday.

Spain's Foreign Minister denied that security forces used excessive force on Sunday.

"If there was any use of force by police in any way it was because they were prevented from doing what they were asked to do," Alfonso Dastis said.


The King’s speech

During his TV address, King Felipe called the situation "extremely serious" and said the pro-independence camp had demonstrated "an unacceptable disloyalty towards the powers of the state -- a state that represents Catalan interests."

The "irresponsible attitude" of the regional government has "put the economic and social stability of Catalonia and Spain at risk," he said.

The King said that Catalan authorities had acted "outside the law" and emphasized the crown's firm support for the constitution, reiterating "commitment as King to the unity and permanence of Spain."

The King's address made it clear that he supported the stance of Rajoy, who has refused to entertain dialogue with the Catalan authorities.

Rajoy has the option of imposing direct rule on Catalonia under Article 155 of the Spanish constitution, drawn up after the Franco military dictatorship was toppled in 1975. Regions like Catalonia and the Basque country were given sweeping freedoms and control, but the constitution also protected the integrity of Spain and gave Madrid powers to seize back control if regions acted beyond the law.

Such a move would be a last resort. Puigdemont said that it would be "an error which changes everything."


The risk of independence

Declaring independence would be a gamble for Puigdemont.

Catalan authorities said that 90% of voters in Sunday's referendum backed a split from Madrid, however turnout was only 42%. The Catalan government blamed the crackdown for the low turnout and said up to 770,000 votes were lost as a result of raids at polling stations.

Alvarez retorted that an independence declaration was "tempting" for Puigdemont.

"People in the streets are calling for it ... and the central government seems unrepentant, committed to cracking down on the pro-independence movement."

He suggested Puigdemont may be trying to gain leverage from the central government. The Catalan government wants the European Union to intervene, but Madrid has rejected any suggestion of outside mediation, saying it was an internal matter.

The European Parliament will discuss the crisis later on Wednesday, but the European Commission, the EU's executive body, maintains that the issue is an internal matter for Spain.

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