Catalonia independence ruled out, but more autonomy possible – Spanish FM

The political standoff between Madrid and Barcelona will not result in an independent Catalonia, but Madrid could, however, expand the region’s autonomy, Spain's Foreign Minister said after his government sacked the regional authority and ordered snap elections.

“I rule out full independence but not necessarily more autonomy, even if they are now already one of the regions with the highest powers and competencies not only in Spain, but in the world at large,” Alfonso Dastis told the Associated Press (AP).
He emphasized that the snap elections scheduled for December 21 “will be held according to the law. So the results will have to be respected afterward.”

On Friday, the simmering tensions between Madrid and Barcelona boiled over after the government of Carles Puigdemont proclaimed the independence of Catalonia from the rest of Spain, spurred on by the results of the 'Yes' referendum held on October 1. 

Madrid responded immediately; invoking Article 155 of the Spanish constitution to take over the powers of the regional government. Spain’s Prime Minister, Mariano Rajoy, then sacked Puigdemont and his government and announced regional elections for 21 December. Madrid also relieved the head of the regional police force (Mossos d’Esquadra) of his duties.

In a televised address Saturday, Puigdemont said Madrid’s decision to suspend the autonomy of the province and appoint Spanish Deputy Prime Minister, Soraya Saenz de Santamaria, as Catalonia’s provisionary head goes against the will of the people.

“It’s very clear that the best form of defending the gains made up until now is democratic opposition to article 155,” Puigdemont said as he pledged to “continue working to build a free country”.

In an interview with AP, Dastis emphasized that Puigdemont is no longer the leader of Catalonia. Spain’s FM added that the former Catalan leader can stand in the regional election, unless he is imprisoned by then for his role in inciting separatism. On Friday, Spanish prosecutors confirmed they would file charges of rebellion against Puigdemont, a crime punishable by up to 30 years in jail.

“I don’t know what kind of judicial activity will happen between now and 21 December,” said Dastis. “If he is not put in jail at that time I think he is not ineligible.” Dastis accused Puigdemont’s government of making “false promises” by saying “the economy would flourish, that everything would be fine and dandy.”

“The truth is, that is not the case,” Dastis said. Hundreds of Catalan-based companies moved their registered headquarters from Catalonia amid the political turmoil. The EU’s decision not to support the region's independence also appears to have been a factor in their decision to leave.

Noting that the Spanish government is fully aware of the criticism against Madrid’s Civil Guard while attempting to enforce the referendum ban on October 1, when nearly 900 people were injured, Dastis promised that his government will do more to limit the use of force. “We are really aware of how this was perceived. And we intend to be as careful as we possibly can to prevent any such images to be repeated in the future,” Dastis said.

READ MORE: ‘Fake pics, limited use of force’: Spanish FM downplays police violence during Catalonia vote

In a separate interview with Sky News, Dastis said it’s unlikely that the Spanish government will use force to evict Puigdemont from office should he and his cabinet return to work Monday.

“We will see when that happens, we will see even if that happens,” Dastis told Sky news. “If what you are implying is that we are going to prevent them by force to do that, I don't think we will be doing that.”

“Reality is sinking in, as it will continue sinking in. And they will realize that they cannot do something without the authority of law and they will be actually usurping authority, so I don't think it is in their interests to do something that is ineffective but will also be illegal,” he said.

The Spanish Foreign Minister expressed hope that after the resignation of Catalan police chief, Josep Lluis Trapero, Saturday, Mossos d'Esquadra, under the command of Ferran Lopez, will pledge loyalty to Madrid. Lopez is a high-ranking officer from the Catalan police who was appointed by Madrid as the new chief of the force.

“We are confident that the Mossos under the new command will behave responsibly,” Dastis said. He added that after Trapero’s resignation, “Mossos will do what they are supposed to do which is to ensure peace and law and order in Catalonia.”