Spain Moves Toward Activating 'Nuclear Option' on Catalonia Crisis

Prime minister asks Catalan leader to clarify whether or not his government has declared independence, in first step to suspend Catalonia's political autonomy

Spain's Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy speaks at a press conference in Madrid, October 11, 2017.
Spain's Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy speaks at a press conference in Madrid, October 11, 2017. Paul White/AP

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy on Wednesday took the first step towards activating article 155 of the Spanish constitution, a so-called nuclear option that would allow him to suspend Catalonia's political autonomy and take over the region. 

The Spanish cabinet convened earlier on Wednesday to decide its response to Catalan moves to declare independence, the country's worst political crisis in four decades.

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The fraught situation became even more confused on Tuesday night when Puigdemont made a symbolic declaration of independence from Spain but then immediately suspended it to allow for talks with the Madrid government.

"The cabinet has agreed to require formally to the Catalan government to confirm whether it has declared or not independence," Rajoy said in a televised address. 

Supporters of an independent Catalonia in Barcelona on October 10, 2017.
JORGE GUERRERO/AFP

"The answer from the Catalan president will determine future events, in the next few days," he also said, adding he would keep acting in a "cautious and responsible" way. 

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This formal requirement is needed to trigger the article 155, though the constitution does not establish any specific time frame for the answer. 

A declaration of independence had been widely expected after the Catalan government said 90 percent of Catalans voted for a breakaway in an October 1 referendum that Spain had declared illegal and which most opponents of independence boycotted.

But Spain responded angrily to Puigdemont's speech, saying the Catalan government could not act on the results of the referendum.

"Neither Mr. Puigdemont nor anyone else can claim, without returning to legality and democracy, to impose mediation... Dialogue between democrats takes place within the law," Deputy Prime Minister Soraya Saenz de Santamaria said on Tuesday. 

Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy spoke to other political parties on Tuesday to seek the greatest possible support for the government's response. 

Puigdemont's speech also disappointed supporters of independence, thousands of whom watched proceedings on giant screens outside parliament before sadly leaving for home. 

Financial markets, however, were encouraged that an immediate declaration of independence had been avoided. 

Although Puigdemont's climbdown appeared to lessen the immediate risk of a head-on confrontation between the Catalan and Madrid governments, Spanish media said it was still possible Rajoy could take strong measures, including possibly suspending Catalonia's autonomy and forcing new regional elections. 

The Catalan government said if Madrid invoked this option, using Article 155 of the Spanish constitution, it would press ahead with independence. 

"If the government implements 155, it means there is no willingness for dialogue...and so obviously we would have to be consistent with our commitment to the people of Catalonia," Catalan government spokesman Jordi Turull told Catalunya Radio. 

"We have given up absolutely nothing ... We have taken a time out ... which doesn't mean a step backwards, or a renunciation or anything like that," he said.