MADRID — Spain's prime minister on Wednesday asked the head of the secession-minded Catalonia region the question that no one can seem to answer: Did he declare independence or not?
The query reflected more than just confusion. Clarity on Catalonia’s position is critical for Spain to map out its next move — including possible harsh measures against Catalonia if it proclaims itself a sovereign nation.
The uncertainty comes after the region's president, Carles Puigdemont, told the Catalan Parliament in Barcelona on Tuesday that Catalonia had the right to be an independent country, citing a disputed referendum last week that showed strong support for secession from Spain.
But instead of an outright declaration, Puigdemont said the “effect” of independence would be delayed for several weeks to facilitate further dialogue with Madrid. He then signed a document that some perceived as formalizing a break from Spain, baffling observers in Barcelona and Madrid alike.
On Wednesday, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy accused Puigdemont of sowing “deliberate confusion.” He also asked the Catalan leader to clarify his position.
“This call — before any of the measures that the government may adopt under Article 155 of our constitution — seeks to offer citizens the clarity and security that a question of such importance requires,” Rajoy said in a speech.
Article 155 of Spain’s constitution, known as the “nuclear option,” allows Madrid to suspend Catalonia’s devolved government and take over running the region should it declare independence.
On Wednesday, the Spanish government appeared to close the door on any offer of negotiation but notably did not proceed with activating Article 155.
“I am a firm supporter of dialogue, but I should advise that it is not possible under the guise of dialogue to accept the unilateral imposition of points of view,” Rajoy said in his speech. “There is no possible mediation between democratic law and disobedience and illegality. We are not talking about different interpretations of the law.”
Spain’s Constitutional Court had ruled the independence referendum illegal, but Catalan authorities proceeded anyway. In the end, the vast majority of those who participated in the vote backed secession, but fewer than 50 percent of Catalan residents cast ballots.
The recent call for Catalan independence represents the biggest constitutional crisis in Spain since the regime of dictator Francisco Franco ended in 1975. It also highlights a rising separatist tide in a troubled European Union struggling to navigate a historic migrant crisis and continued economic malaise.
In his extended address to the Spanish parliament, Rajoy reiterated that the Oct. 1 Catalan referendum was illegal.
“Voting is a part of democracy, but a vote against democracy or outside a democracy is not democracy,” he said. “The farce that took place Oct. 1 was not democracy. It was an exercise against democracy.”
In response to Puigdemont’s request for “dialogue,” Rajoy was firm that Spain would not discuss options outside the legal parameters of its constitution.
“Without a doubt, you can dialogue in a situation like this, to improve the framework of living together, but within the framework of the existing conditions,” he said. “Never in its history have Catalonia’s citizens had more freedom. The independence movement is about to throw away the best period of Catalonia in its entire history.”
It was not clear whether or when Puigdemont would respond to Rajoy.
Puigdemont has until Monday to clarify his position, according to the Spanish government’s formal request to the regional leader. If he declines to answer or says that he has declared independence, the Spanish government will give him until Oct. 19 to rethink his position and return Catalonia to the rule of law. If that maneuver fails, Rajoy intends to start the necessary procedures to activate Article 155.
Catalan authorities said, however, that independence was inevitable and that it was up to Madrid to negotiate the best possible deal.
Josep Rull, the Catalan government’s secretary of territory and sustainability, told reporters, “It’s not time to ask questions, but to give answers.”
Likewise, in an interview on Spanish radio, Jordi Turull, a member of the Catalan Parliament, said the dialogue that Puigdemont seeks is about how — not whether — to separate from Spain.
“We want to talk about Catalan independence,” Turull said. “Our commitment is irrefutable. We don’t want to trick anyone. We want to see if it’s possible to do it in a dialogued and agreed-upon way, to see what the state proposes for Catalonia.”
In Madrid, however, the only consensus was that an independent Catalonia would never come to pass. Even leading members of the opposition joined ranks with Rajoy to condemn the push for secession.
“We cannot accept unilateral declarations. We are not going to accept that anyone breaks the law,” said Margarita Robles, a leader of the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party, the principal opposition party. “And that is why we have asked the [Catalan] government to return to the constitutional framework. In this constitutional framework we all fit.”
McAuley reported from Paris.