Spain’s prime minister Mariano Rajoy has demanded that Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont should clarify whether he has declared independence.
The request on Wednesday came with a veiled threat that the central government could limit or rescind the province’s autonomy if he has.
He said the Catalan government’s response would be crucial in deciding “events over the coming days”.
It is the first time Sr Rajoy has openly said that Article 155 of the Spanish constitution will be the next step taken by the government if Catalan authorities do not backtrack.
He said the government “wants to offer certainty to citizens” and it is “necessary to return tranquillity and calm”.
Sr Rajoy issued the demand following a special Cabinet meeting to respond to an announcement from Sr Puigdemont, that he was proceeding with a declaration of independence but was suspending it for several weeks to facilitate negotiations.
In a highly anticipated speech on Tuesday night, Sr Puigdemont said the landslide victory in a disputed October 1 referendum gave his government in the regional capital, Barcelona, the grounds to implement its long-held desire to break century-old ties with Spain.
But he proposed that the regional parliament of the wealthy region should suspend the effects of the declaration to commence a dialogue and help reduce tension, in what is Spain’s worst political crisis in decades.
The central government in Madrid has given little indication it is willing to talk, saying it did not accept the declaration and did not consider the referendum or its results to be valid.
Spanish deputy prime minister Soraya Saenz de Santamaria said the Catalan leader “doesn’t know where he is, where he is going and with whom he wants to go”.
She said Sr Puigdemont had put Catalonia “in the greatest level of uncertainty seen yet”.
Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution allows the central government to take some or total control of any of its 17 regions if they do not comply with their legal obligations.
This would begin with a Cabinet meeting and a warning to the regional government to fall into line.
Then, the Senate could be called to approve the measure.
Some 2.3 million Catalans, or 43% of the electorate in the northeastern region, voted in the referendum.
Regional authorities said 90% were in favour and declared the results valid.
Those who opposed the referendum had said they would boycott the vote.
Sr Rajoy’s government had repeatedly refused to grant Catalonia permission to hold a referendum on the grounds that it was unconstitutional, since it would only poll a portion of Spain’s 46 million residents.
Catalonia’s separatist camp has grown in recent years, strengthened by Spain’s recent economic crisis and by Madrid’s rejection of attempts to increase self-rule in the region.
The political deadlock has plunged Spain into its deepest political crisis in more than four decades, since democratic rule was restored following the dictatorship of General Francisco Franco.
AP Photo/Paul White