Spain threatened on Wednesday to suspend Catalonia’s autonomy if it follows through on its threat to break away as an independent country.
Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has vowed to do everything in his power to prevent Catalan secession following a banned referendum in the region, which remains deeply divided over independence.
He held an emergency cabinet meeting after Catalonia’s President Carles Puigdemont announced on Tuesday that he had accepted the mandate for “Catalonia to become an independent state.”
Rajoy asked the Catalan leader to clarify whether he had actually declared independence, which could trigger moves by Madrid to suspend the region’s semi-autonomous status.
The Catalan crisis is Spain’s most serious political emergency since its return to democracy four decades ago.
World leaders are watching closely and uncertainty over the fate of the region of 7.5 million people has damaged business confidence. Puigdemont said the referendum had given him a mandate for independence but immediately asked regional lawmakers to suspend the declaration to allow for negotiations with the central government.
“The cabinet agreed this morning to formally ask the Catalan government to confirm whether it declared independence,” he said in a televised address after emergency cabinet talks.
“The answer from the Catalan president will determine future events, in the next few days,” Rajoy said.
“The government wants to offer certainty to Spaniards, especially Catalans. It wants to avoid the confusion that has been generated by Catalan authorities.”
Rajoy could choose to trigger constitution article 155, which allows Madrid to impose control over its devolved regions — a move many fear could lead to unrest.
The leader of the opposition Socialist Party, Pedro Sanchez, said meanwhile that his side and the government had agreed to study a possible constitutional reform” to try to end the crisis.
The debate would focus on “how Catalonia remains in Spain, and not how it leaves,” Sanchez told reporters.
While separatist leaders say 90 per cent of voters opted to split from Spain in the October plebiscite, less than half of the region’s eligible voters actually turned out.
The drive to break Catalonia away from Spain has raised concern for stability in a European Union still coming to terms with UK’s shock decision to leave the bloc.
The EU on Wednesday urged “full respect of the Spanish constitutional order,” with European Commission vice-president Valdis Dombrovskis saying the bloc was following developments “closely”.