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Spain asks Catalonia: Did you declare independence, or not?

Pro-independence supporters rallied in Barcelona Tuesday. The region’s leader called for dialogue with Madrid.

Francisco Seco/Associated Pres

Pro-independence supporters rallied in Barcelona Tuesday. The region’s leader called for dialogue with Madrid.

BARCELONA — Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy took a tentative step on Wednesday toward seizing administrative control of Catalonia, but he asked the region’s leader to first clarify whether he had actually declared independence from the rest of Spain following an unusual series of events the night before.

In a short news conference, Rajoy called on Carles Puigdemont, Catalonia’s leader, to confirm whether he had declared independence, given what the Spanish prime minister called “the deliberate confusion” generated by the comments and actions from Puigdemont and other Catalan leaders on Tuesday.

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Pending a response from the Catalan government, Rajoy said that he was initiating a request for his government to invoke Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution — a broad, forceful tool that has never been used in modern Spanish democracy.

The article would allow Madrid to suspend Catalan lawmakers and take charge of the region’s autonomous administration, although Rajoy’s move does not commit him to an emergency intervention and he set no deadline for a response by the Catalans.

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“It is urgent to put an end to the situation that Catalonia is living,” Rajoy said. “The government wants to offer certainties to Spaniards and Catalans.”

Rajoy, whose remarks came after an emergency Cabinet meeting earlier in the day about how to address the situation in Catalonia, addressed the Spanish Parliament later in the day.

While Puigdemont is facing a fight for his own political survival — hard-line separatists have denounced his failure to deliver a clear message of independence — Rajoy appears to have consolidated his power base in Madrid, where he has been in charge of a minority government since late 2016.

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Spain’s main opposition Socialist party expressed support for Rajoy as he discussed using Article 155, an idea it has been more reluctant to endorse in the past.

Pedro Sánchez, the Socialist leader, told a news conference that his party also supported Rajoy in his demands “to clarify and get out of the quagmire in which Mr. Puigdemont has put Catalan politics.”

In return, Sánchez said that he had reached an agreement with Rajoy to form a commission on changing the constitution because “the Spain of 2017 is not the same as that of 1978,” when the document enshrined Spain’s return to democracy.

The commission is not expected to complete its preliminary report for six months, however, so its work is likely to have little influence on the conflict with the Catalan separatists.

Rajoy is under intense pressure from his own lawmakers to stop Catalan secessionism in its tracks, but he is also aware that strong reprisals against the region’s leader, Puigdemont, could galvanize the independence movement.

The comments on Wednesday represented the first formal response to the events of the previous evening, when Puigdemont appeared to declare independence from Spain in an address to the Catalan parliament, before immediately suspending that decision to allow for more “dialogue” with Madrid.

Further muddying the waters, Puigdemont and separatist lawmakers later signed a declaration of independence, a process set in motion after a highly disputed referendum on Oct. 1 that went ahead despite being suspended by the Spanish Constitutional Court.

Most Madrid-based newspapers and television morning talk shows ridiculed Puigdemont’s speech on Tuesday and described his call for negotiations with Madrid as an act of desperation.

The headline in the newspaper El Mundo described the night’s events as “farce and blackmail.” Susanna Griso, a news anchor on the television channel Antena 3, said the Catalan parliamentary session swung “between tragedy and comedy.”

Spanish legal experts said that Puigdemont and his separatist lawmakers had violated the constitution by signing a declaration of independence, and speculated that the move would almost certainly compel Rajoy to intervene forcefully in Catalonia.

“Let’s be clear: A region doesn’t have the competence to declare any kind of independence,” Ignacio Gordillo, a former prosecutor for Spain’s national court, told Antena 3. “You cannot negotiate with criminals.”

Rajoy, who has stood firm against the separatists, has a battery of potential emergency measures available to him: not just Article 155, but also a national emergency law that his government enacted in 2015.

However, he also has a long record as a cautious politician who has stayed on the front line of Spanish politics for two decades by steering clear of difficult decisions and letting rivals dig themselves into holes instead. He said on Wednesday that he would “continue to act with prudence” and put the onus on Puigdemont to explain himself.

Article 155, which requires Senate approval, would allow Rajoy to suspend, for as long as he believes necessary, the political institutions of Catalonia, including its regional government and Parliament. His government could also take over the leadership of the region’s autonomous police force and its public broadcaster.

Separately, public prosecutors could open criminal proceedings against Puigdemont and his government. On Monday, Pablo Casado, the spokesman for Rajoy’s governing party, warned that Puigdemont could be imprisoned for insurrection.

Still, Ignacio González Vega, spokesman for a Spanish association of judges, warned on Wednesday that “a political issue cannot be resolved only by applying laws.” He also told Antena 3 that Rajoy “will have to step in with a lot of sensitivity, because these measures are very serious.”

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