Catalonia's Moment of Truth Arrives as Spain Weighs Response
(Bloomberg) -- The Catalan government’s determination to break from Spain faces its moment of truth, with the region’s president, Carles Puigdemont, risking immediate arrest if he goes too far down the path of independence.
Puigdemont is due to address the Catalan parliament in Barcelona on the outcome of an Oct. 1 referendum ruled illegal by the Constitutional Court. While the president has said the majority who voted for full autonomy must be heeded, Spanish police are prepared to seize him if he makes a unilateral declaration of independence, according to two people familiar with the central government’s plans.
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Tension was rising in Barcelona ahead of Tuesday’s address. The start of the speech, scheduled for 6 p.m., was delayed for about an hour as parliamentary authorities met. News website Independiente reported that Puigdemont’s coalition ally had rejected the text of his speech.
Outside, Catalan police insisted that they are in charge of parliament’s security and its perimeter, and regional police vans were guarding the assembly’s main entrance. No final decision on action has yet been taken, but Spain’s National Police force has elite officers deployed in Catalonia who are prepared to join a raid if the Catalan police try to shield Puigdemont, said one of the people.
Spanish stocks and bonds dropped amid the threat of a showdown. With Puigdemont’s core supporters demanding he make good on the vote for independence, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has dismissed the ballot as meaningless and vowed to defend the unity of Spain using all means at his disposal.
“This is going to be a historical day regardless of the consequences,” Alejandro Quiroga, professor of Spanish history at the University of Newcastle, said by phone. “The tension has reached such a point that something has to happen and if the Catalan government wants to declare independence, now is the best time, while it’s still got international attention.”
With uncertainty over the outcome of Spain’s worst political crisis since the death of the dictator Francisco Franco, attention will focus on the form of words Puigdemont deploys. According to a person familiar with his plans, the president is likely to use the words “declaration of independence,” but they will probably be qualified or hedged in some way.
“They’re still in time to reflect, to take the right decision,” Spanish Deputy Prime Minister Soraya Saenz de Santamaria said in the Senate in Madrid. “What the people of Catalonia need is reflection, peace and calm, and not fracture and ruin.”
Rajoy has insisted all along that he’ll use only proportionate force in relation to the separatist government in Barcelona. Even so, prosecutors have been exploring charges of sedition against other separatist leaders including Jordi Sanchez, head of the biggest pro independence campaign group. Sedition carries a jail term of up to 15 years.
The National Police and the Civil Guard have sufficient officers in place to overcome any resistance they might meet, according to one of the people familiar with the Madrid government’s preparations. Both people asked not to be named discussing confidential plans.
A government press officer declined to comment other than to say that any such decision would have to be ordered by a judge.
The uncertainty hanging over Spain hit government bonds and stocks. The benchmark stock index closed down 0.9 percent, while 10-year yields were up 2 basis points to 1.69 percent.
The IBEX has lost 2.3 percent since the vote in defiance of the Constitutional Court, and Catalan companies including lender CaixaBank SA and Abertis Infraestructuras SA are moving their legal bases out of the region.
With the risk of turmoil rippling out beyond Spain, European leaders are keeping a close watch on developments. French President Emmanuel Macron and the European Union have backed Rajoy, as has German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who reaffirmed her support for Spanish unity in a call with the prime minister at the weekend. She and Rajoy also discussed ways to strengthen dialogue between Madrid and Barcelona.
Catalan secessionists have meanwhile opened a second-front in their campaign against the government in Madrid, reaching out to the opposition Socialists with an offer to forge a coalition to oust Rajoy, according to two people with knowledge of the backroom efforts.
Rajoy has vowed to use all the legal means at his disposal to prevent Catalonia seceding, and has deployed thousands of National Police in cruise ships in the Port of Barcelona. Catalan police ignored orders to seize ballot boxes ahead of the referendum.