Spain threatens to take over Catalonia’s government as constitutional crisis looms

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BARCELONA — Spain’s central government announced Thursday it would quickly move to take control of the autonomous Catalonia and restore “constitutional order” after the region’s president refused to back away from a push for independence.

Facing a deadline imposed by Spain’s central government to answer the question whether Catalonia was declaring independence or not, the regional president replied Thursday that Madrid should stop threatening to seize control of the autonomous region but instead agree to dialogue.

Catalonia’s president Carles Puigdemont answered Spain’s demand for clarity by sending a second letter to Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, stating that Catalonia’s suspension of its declaration of independence remains in force.

But Puigdemont then added a threat of his own: if Madrid did not agree to talks, and continued its “repression” of the region, then the Catalan parliament would meet to vote on a formal declaration of independence. 

The Catalan government’s decision to effectively decline to respond to Madrid’s ultimatum brings Spain to the brink of a constitutional crisis.

As the deadline for Catalonia to renounce its independence bid approached, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy called on Catalan’s leader to “act sensibly.” (Reuters)

The central government in Madrid on Thursday quickly responded that it would begin the legal procedures to implement Article 155 of the Spain’s 1978 constitution, which allows it to seize control of the regional government, finances and police. Madrid announced a meeting of ministers for an “extraordinary” session on Saturday to approve the measure.

Such a move would be unprecedented in Spain’s 40 years since the end of the Francisco Franco dictatorship.

People in Catalonia — and around Spain — braced themselves for what comes next. 

Pro-independence activists in Catalonia went into rushed meetings Thursday to organize mass demonstrations, distribute instructions for peaceful civil disobedience and plan to surround government buildings.

There was widespread anxiety in Barcelona over possible clashes between national police, sent to enforce a takeover, and pro-independence demonstrators.

The chief of Catalonia’s regional police, Josep Luis Trapero, has already been questioned by prosecutors over his alleged failure to protect federal forces sent into the region. Two other pro-independence activists have been jailed under suspecion of sedition. Puigdemont called them “political prisoners.” 

Rajoy has threatened that if Catalonia declares independence he will seek permission from the upper house of parliament, where his party has a majority, to enact Article 155 of the 1978 Spanish Constitution, an untested move.

No government has ever invoked the article, which allows the central government to take control of the autonomous government in Catalonia, a wealthy state in northeast Spain with a population of 7 million, with their own language and culture.

Catalonia already enjoys substantial control over its own affairs, with the regional government holding sway over health care, education, media and local police.

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