The Spanish prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, has vowed to return Catalonia to the rule of law as his government prepares to announce unprecedented measures to head off the independence crisis by imposing direct rule from Madrid.
Speaking at the EU summit in Brussels on Friday, a day after he confirmed that article 155 of the Spanish constitution would be invoked to begin the process of suspending key elements of Catalonia’s self-rule, Rajoy said his government had two clear aims.
“The goal is a double one,” he said. “To return to the observance of the law – because you can’t have a part of the country where the law is not obeyed – and, at the same time, to bring about a return to institutional normality.”
Rajoy added that his response had the backing of the Spanish socialist party (PSOE) and the centrist Ciudadanos, or Citizens, party.
The Spanish cabinet is to hold an emergency meeting on Saturday to decide the precise nature of its intervention in Catalonia, which, as an autonomous region, controls its own education, healthcare and policing. Its proposals will be put before the Spanish senate next week.
Although Rajoy warns that the Catalan independence issue has reached “a critical point”, his ruling People’s party (PP) says that there is still time for the Catalan president, Carles Puigdemont, to end Spain’s worst political crisis in four decades.
On Friday, Fernando Martínez-Maillo, the PP’s third-in-command, issued another call for Puigdemont to “change course … [and] return to constitutional legality” by abandoning his push for independence before the senate meets.
Martínez-Maillo said the holding of fresh Catalan parliamentary elections, agreed with the Spanish government, would give Puigdemont a way out of the impasse.
The Catalan government, however, has said it does not view elections as the answer. “What purpose would elections here serve when we’re halfway down the road [to independence]?” the Catalan vice-president, Oriol Junqueras, said on Friday.
“We’re not here to hold elections again just so we can have the same mandate we’ve already got.”
The Catalan government insists the results of the unilateral independence referendum held on 1 October give it a clear mandate to forge ahead with the creation of a sovereign republic. It says that 90% of participants in the poll opted for independence on a turnout of about 43%.
Although Puigdemont signed a declaration of independence on 10 October, he has proposed that its effects be suspended for two months while both sides open dialogue aimed at ending the standoff.
The Spanish government, however, has said there can be no discussion until the Catalan president scraps his independence project and obeys the Spanish constitution, which is based on “the indissoluble unity of the Spanish nation, the common and indivisible homeland of all Spaniards”.
On Thursday, as a second deadline expired for the Catalan government to shelve its plans, Puigdemont accused the Spanish authorities of ignoring his appeals for negotiations and repressing the independence movement.
He also warned that the imposition of article 155 could provoke a unilateral declaration of Catalan independence, saying: “If the [Spanish] government persists in hindering dialogue and continues with its repression, the Catalan parliament could, if it deems appropriate, proceed to vote on the formal declaration of independence, which it did not do on 10 October.”
As tensions between Madrid and Barcelona continued to escalate, pro-independence Catalans protested against the decision of some banks to move their official headquarters out of the region by withdrawing symbolic amounts of cash.
By Friday morning, dozens of people were lining up at a CaixaBank branch in central Barcelona, most of them withdrawing €150 or €160 from ATMs in a nod to article 155.
The crisis engulfing Spain has been noted by some of the leaders attending the Brussels summit this week.
The British prime minister echoed previous remarks made by other European leaders, saying the UK backed the Spanish government’s actions.
“I have spoken to Mariano Rajoy this morning, as I did earlier this week, and made clear that the United Kingdom’s position is very clear,” Theresa May said. “We believe that people should be abiding by the rule of law and uphold the Spanish constitution.”
The French president, Emmanuel Macron, gave the Spanish government his “full, entire support” and said extremist forces were “feeding” on separatism as a kind of division within Europe and a creating a “factor of destabilisation”.
On Thursday, the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, offered her support to the Spanish government, adding: “We hope there are solutions found on the basis of the Spanish constitution.”
While the Catalan issue was not on the official agenda of the summit – and Rajoy has repeatedly said it is an internal Spanish matter – the Spanish prime minister described the Catalan government’s behaviour as “something that goes directly against the basic principles of the European Union”.