The Spanish government has given Catalan leaders until Thursday to back away from claiming independence or face the possibility of direct rule from Madrid.
Carles Puigdemont, the Catalan regional president, refused to clarify whether he declared independence from Spain last week, missing a Monday morning deadline set by the central government. Mr Puigdemont instead called for dialogue.
Soraya Sáenz de Santamaría, Spain’s deputy prime minister, said Mr Puigdemont now had until Thursday to change his stance or the government would “take the next steps”. She mentioned article 155 of the constitution, which allows them to suspend autonomy, take direct command of the region and even call new regional elections.
Ms Sáenz de Santamaría reiterated previous comments that the dialogue called for by Mr Puigdemont was impossible as long as the Catalan administration insisted on pushing ahead with independence, which is illegal under the constitution.
“No one is denying him the chance for dialogue, but dialogue has to be carried out within the law,” she said, adding that Mr Puigdemont needed to give a clear answer. “Puigdemont still has the solution in his hands. He needs to answer yes or no.”
Mariano Rajoy, Spain’s prime minister, wrote to Mr Puigdemont on Monday saying that he would be “solely responsible” for the implementation of article 155.
“Never in all of its history have the citizens of Catalonia enjoyed more liberties or more political and financial autonomy,” Mr Rajoy wrote. He also called on the Catalan leader to use the “hours that remain” to give a clear answer over independence.
In a previous letter, Mr Puigdemont defied calls by the Spanish government to provide a yes-or-no answer, saying that the declaration was “in suspension”, urging talks.
“Our offer for dialogue is sincere and honest,” he wrote. “During the next two months, our main objective is to have this dialogue and that all international, Spanish and Catalan institutions and personalities that have expressed the willingness to open a way for dialogue can explore it.”
He added that together they could all find an “agreed solution”.
The tensions between Madrid and Barcelona have escalated since more than 2m people voted in a referendum on independence on October 1, most of them favouring independence. Catalonia has more than 5.3m eligible voters. Under a law passed by the Catalan parliament in the weeks before the referendum, the parliament would declare independence within 48 hours of a yes vote.
Analysts and politicians in Spain believe the application of article 155 is increasingly likely. The article has never been used and would take the country into uncharted constitutional waters.
Article 155 allows the central government to take any “necessary measures” to ensure compliance of a rogue autonomous region. But it does not mean that all a regional administration’s powers have to be taken over at once.
The government could, for example, start to squeeze the region’s financing first to put pressure on the government. The ousting of the whole government and the calling of new elections could come much later.
Meanwhile, Spain’s High Court said on Monday it had ordered that two leaders of Catalan separatist organisations be remanded in custody while they remain under investigation on suspicion of sedition.
Prosecutors have alleged that Jordi Sanchez, the head of the Catalan National Assembly (ANC), and Jordi Cuixart, head of Omnium Cultural, were key to planning the October referendum.
Earlier, Catalan police chief Josep Lluis Trapero appeared before the court on to be questioned over whether his force, the Mossos d’Esquadra, deliberately failed to enforce a court ruling to prevent the independence referendum.
Mr Trapero has been put under formal investigation for sedition after allegedly failing to order the rescue of Civil Guard police who were trapped inside a Catalan government building in Barcelona by tens of thousands of pro-independence protesters.
State prosecutors on Monday asked the court to detain Mr Trapero, as a precautionary measure as he testified in the investigation. The court declined to hold him but took away his passport and said that he must appear before a judge every 15 days.