Catalonia leader to address his government as Spain’s crisis reaches eerie climax

Special police are ready to raid the government to arrest Carles Puigdemont, whose own police force currently stands in their way.

Anti-secession demonstrators challenge Catalan Mossos d'Esquadra regional police officers at the end of a march in downtown Barcelona, Spain on Sunday. CREDIT: AP Photo/Francisco Seco
Anti-secession demonstrators challenge Catalan Mossos d'Esquadra regional police officers at the end of a march in downtown Barcelona, Spain on Sunday. CREDIT: AP Photo/Francisco Seco

More than a week on from a referendum on independence that was besieged by national police and marked by street clashes, the regional government of Catalonia is preparing a formal announcement on next steps for Tuesday evening.

Carles Puigdemont, head of the Catalan regime empowered by Spain’s national constitution as a co-equal autonomia along with 16 other provinces in the country’s federal system, will address the regional parliament shortly after one Eastern Standard Time. The speech was pushed back an hour from its originally scheduled time, without explanation. Predictions of what he will say are scarce, but observers agree his remarks will likely chart one of two courses — with national leaders in Madrid poised to send in special police brigades to arrest Catalan leaders if Puigdemont should declare plans to secede.

Just 2.2 million Catalans voted last Sunday, out of nearly 8 million residents. Separatist sentiment has always run high there, but informal polling suggests the “leave” camp is far from a majority of the region’s populace — and even among those sympathetic to the cause of self-determination, the paucity of recorded votes signals a lack of legitimacy for any actual secession bid.

Objections to independence and concerns about what it would mean were on full display over the weekend. Several major companies who have maintained their formal headquarters in Catalonia shifted their mailing addresses to other jurisdictions to hedge against the financial, legal, and economic uncertainties of a crisis that has been at boiling point for months. And hundreds of thousands of Catalans who oppose secession took to the streets Sunday in the largest demonstration for unionist sentiment inside of Catalonia in years.

On Monday, meanwhile, European leaders finally weighed in formally on the crisis. After Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy sent national police into the streets to prevent voting on October 1, with bloody results, reporters and political pundits inside Spain called for the international community to rebuke Madrid’s heavy-handed tactics.

Instead, on Monday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron, and European Union president Sebastian Juncker all came out in opposition to Catalan secession. Rajoy’s stance — that Puigdemont’s referendum was illegal and his apparent intention to declare Catalonia independent after the votes were counted is grounds for revoking Catalan sovereignty, arresting the region’s elected leaders, and preserving national unity by force if necessary — now has support from key regional allies.

Pressure on Rajoy from European leaders was perhaps the last remaining hope for both independentist Catalans and neutral or unionist Spaniards disgusted by police tactics on the day of the vote. Spain’s King Felipe VI put both feet down in Rajoy’s corner last week, in a rare national address on evening television where he decried Catalan leaders’ actions, said the union will be preserved, and insinuated that further flouting of the constitutional system and courts in Catalonia would force Madrid to escalate.

Reconciliation remains possible, but the road to it is narrow. While it is almost impossible to imagine Puigdemont reversing course entirely on Tuesday night, speculation is rampant that Madrid’s response will hinge on the narrowest details of his word choice. The words “dialogue” and “international mediation” are almost certain to appear in some form. If Puigdemont expresses a desire to meet with Madrid leaders to negotiate new terms between an autonomous but nationally-integrated Catalan region of Spain, he might make space for Rajoy to call off the dogs. If he calls for mediation and debate about how Catalonia shall make itself a separate state — or if Rajoy decides his comments come close enough to such a demand — then confrontation is likely.

All this assumes he doesn’t make a formal move for independence in his remarks directly, which would all but force Rajoy to send in the special police troops already massing in Barcelona. Spain’s National Police “has elite officers deployed in Catalonia who are prepared to join a raid if Catalan police try to shield Mr. Puigdemont,” the Independent reported. The paper’s sources also say Puigdemont plans to use the phrase “declaration of independence,” but the phrase “will probably be qualified or hedged in some way.”

If it all feels like a high-stakes game of chicken, that’s because it is — and has been for some months now. Where previous ruling coalitions in Madrid have barely tolerated independence referendums in Catalonia in prior years, Rajoy opted to take a hard line from the jump this time. Party officials were arrested in Barcelona in the weeks before the vote. The prime minister’s policy has crowded out any therapeutic effects from a vote. Past editions of the referendum have allowed pent-up separationist angst to vent and produced a corresponding decline in independentist sentiment in Catalonia, experts who researched past referendums say.

Now, the stage is set for fireworks. One of Catalonia’s special indulgences from Madrid, in acknowledgment of the harmful antagonisms between Spain’s two primary power centers over the decades, is a standalone regional police force independent from the national Guardia Civil. As Puigdemont readies to address his government Tuesday, that Catalan force — the Mossos d’Esquadra — is formed up around the exterior of the Catalan government complex, looking at their Spanish counterparts from across barricades.

UPDATE
Puigdemont declared that the referendum result makes Catalonia independent, but did so while suspending the process of independence and calling for open, mediated talks with Madrid over how to proceed. The speech confused many observers, creating greater uncertainty over exactly where matters stand. But as of the close of the general session, following Puigdemont’s own speech and lengthy denunciations of it from rival parties in the regional government, the Catalan leader had not been arrested and the central government had not yet invoked constitutional provisions that allow the state to disband regional government charters or declare a martial law-like state of emergency.

This piece has been updated to reflect a delay in the timing of Carles Puigdemont’s speech, as well as the content of his remarks and initial reactions to it.