22 October 2017
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Mariano Rajoy's (non) strategy on Catalonia

05 October 17 | Diego Torres
Diego Torres

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Spain’s Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy is betting everything on the coercive power of the law and the state to make Catalan leaders back down from their plans to declare unilateral independence after Sunday’s chaotic referendum. So far his strategy isn’t working.

 

While signs of civil disorder are growing in Catalonia — with national police forces and Catalan unionist politicians harassed by protestors during a general strike in the region on Tuesday — the conservative leader has refused to take the initiative to tackle the crisis.

King Felipe VI on Tuesday night addressed citizens in a rare televised statement, saying the country was undergoing a crisis of “extreme gravity.”

In a sign that a negotiated solution out of the crisis is unlikely, Felipe didn’t even mention dialogue and put all the blame on Catalan separatists, whom he dubbed “irresponsible” and accused of “attempting to break the unity of Spain and national sovereignty.”

“It’s the responsibility of the legitimate powers of the state to assure constitutional order,” the king added. His statement fits in with the attitude of the Spanish government, which refuses to engage in dialogue with the Catalan government until there is an unlikely U-turn. A senior official in the government who didn’t want to be named said Madrid wanted to curb “the escalation of radicalism” and a return to the “obeisance of the law.”

“Out of the constitution and the law, there’s no possible dialogue,” Fernando Martínez-Maillo, the No. 3 in Rajoy’s conservative Popular Party, told reporters Monday.

Catalan regional President Carles Puigdemont on Sunday said Catalonia had “earned the right to be an independent state,” but on Monday he sent out mixed signals; putting on the table the possibility of international mediation while not discarding a clean break from Spain. Grassroots pro-independence organizations and the more committed secessionist politicians are pushing hard for the latter.

Rajoy’s Cabinet rejects the idea of getting help from a third party as that would undermine its position, while the European Union maintains that the Catalan crisis is an internal Spanish affair. “There’s no mediation here,” the senior government official said. “There’s only a gentleman [Puigdemont] who’s breaking the law and encouraging civil confrontation in the streets.”

The deadlock has left observers with little to do except to watch the conflict escalate. “Puigdemont is desperately seeking international mediation … to be able to stop the declaration of independence,” said a lawmaker from Puigdemont’s center-right PDeCat in the Spanish Congress who doesn’t agree with taking that step. The central government taking over the running of Catalonia, which would surely follow any declaration of independence, “would leave those of us who’re looking for a way out of the crisis without any arguments.”

At a standstill

On Tuesday, the Catalan government and pro-independence organizations called a general strike that paralyzed the region in protest at the police crackdown on Sunday. Around 700,000 demonstrated in the center of Barcelona, according to local police estimates. Several offices of the pro-Spain, liberal Ciudadanos and Rajoy’s Popular Party were surrounded by demonstrators and politicians had to be escorted out by police. National police forces deployed in the region were also harassed in some cities in Catalonia.

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