BARCELONA — The escalating confrontation over Catalonia’s independence drive took its most serious turn Saturday as Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy of Spain announced that he would remove the leadership of the restive region and initiate a process of direct rule by the central government in Madrid.
It was the first time that Spain’s government had moved to strip the autonomy of one of its 17 regions, and the first time that a leader had invoked Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution — a broad tool intended to protect the “general interests” of the nation.
The unexpectedly forceful moves by Rajoy, made after an emergency Cabinet meeting, thrust Spain into uncharted waters as he tried to put down one of the gravest constitutional crises his country has faced since embracing democracy after the death of its dictator, General Francisco Franco, in 1975.
The steps were immediately condemned by Catalan leaders and risked further inflaming an already volatile atmosphere in the prosperous northeastern region, where thousands braved national police wielding truncheons to vote in a contentious independence referendum on Oct. 1, even after it was declared illegal by the Spanish government and courts.
“There’s nothing soft or limited about what he announced today,” Josep Ramoneda, a political columnist and philosopher, said of Rajoy.
“We’re entering a very delicate phase, in which an independence movement that appeared to be running out of options might now draw instead on a collective sense of humiliation at seeing Catalonia being forced under Madrid’s control.”
Fueled by economic grievances and a distinct language and culture, aspirations for an independent state in Catalonia have ebbed and flowed for generations.
But the current confrontation has presented a vexing quandary not only for Spain but the entire European Union, pitting democratic rights and demands for self-determination against the desire to preserve the sovereignty and territorial integrity of an important member state.
Rajoy took the bold steps with broad support from Spain’s main political opposition, and will almost certainly receive the required approval next week from the Spanish Senate, where his own conservative party holds a majority.
He did so despite repeated appeals for dialogue and mediation by Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont, whose independence drive has been shunned by wary EU officials.
Rajoy said the Catalan government had never offered real dialogue but had instead tried to impose its secessionist project on Catalan citizens and the rest of the country in violation of Spain’s Constitution.
He said his government was putting an end to “a unilateral process, contrary to the law and searching for confrontation” because “no government of any democratic country can accept that the law be violated, ignored and changed.”
Rajoy said he planned to remove Puigdemont and the rest of his separatist administration from office. The central government was also poised to take charge of Catalonia’s autonomous police force and the Catalan center for telecommunications.
Rajoy did not ask to dissolve the Catalan Parliament, but instead said that the president of the assembly would not be allowed to take any initiative judged to be contrary to Spain’s Constitution for a period of 30 days, including trying to propose another leader to replace Puigdemont.
Rajoy said that his goal was to arrange new Catalan elections within six months, so as to lift the measures taken under Article 155 as soon as possible.
It’s unclear, however, how such elections would be organized or whether they would significantly change Catalonia’s political landscape, let alone help to resolve the territorial conflict.
Puigdemont led a mass demonstration of 450,000 people in Barcelona, the region’s capital, on Saturday afternoon.
In a televised address late Saturday, he said he would convene Parliament next week to discuss the response to Rajoy; he did not rule out using the session to declare independence. He accused the Spanish government of trying to “eliminate our self-government and our democracy.”
Several Catalan separatist politicia warned that Rajoy’s announcement would escalate rather than resolve the conflict.
Josep Lluís Cleries, a Catalan senator, said Saturday that Rajoy’s decision showed that “the Spain of today is not democratic, because what he has said is a return to the year 1975,” referring to Franco’s death. Rajoy, he added, was suspending not autonomy in Catalonia but democracy.
Oriol Junqueras, the region’s deputy leader, said in a tweet that Catalonia was “facing totalitarianism” and called on citizens to join the Barcelona protest Saturday.
Significantly, Iñigo Urkullu, leader of the Basque region, which also has a long history of separatism, described the measures as “disproportionate and extreme,” writing on Twitter that they would “dynamite the bridges” to any dialogue.
Faced with Madrid’s decision to remove him from office, Puigdemont could try to preempt Rajoy’s intervention and instead ask Catalan lawmakers to vote on a declaration of independence in coming days — as he had threatened to do earlier this month.
Puigdemont could also then try to convene Catalan elections, on his own terms, to form what he could describe as the first Parliament of a new Catalan republic.
Should Puigdemont resist Rajoy’s plans, Spain’s judiciary could separately step in and order that he and other separatists be arrested on charges of sedition or even rebellion for declaring independence.
Rebellion carries a maximum prison sentence of 30 years.