BARCELONA, Spain — Spain’s constitutional crisis deepened Wednesday after the nation’s king lashed out at Catalan’s secessionist leaders in a TV address and the region’s President vowed to declare independence within days.
The King said Catalan’s leaders had acted “outside the law”, and demanded they respect the country’s constitution. Catalan President Carles Puigdemont will give a televised address to Catalans on Wednesday evening, a regional government spokesman said.
Both sides appeared set on a collision course after Sunday’s banned independence vote went ahead in the face of a violent police crackdown.
The Catalan police force, Mossos, told CNN that its highest-ranking officer had been summoned by Spain’s high court in Madrid to answer accusations of sedition. Spanish authorities believe Mossos did not do enough to prevent the vote from taking place.
King Felipe’s rare TV speech was unexpectedly hardline — he accused pro-independence leaders of “unacceptable disloyalty” and made no mention of the nearly 900 people injured in clashes with Spain’s national security forces.
Instead, the monarch blamed the referendum’s organizers for the strife.
In a BBC interview recorded before the King’s statement, Puigdemont said his government would “act at the end of this week or the beginning of next” to split from Spain. A Catalan government spokesman told CNN that the President would go before the Catalan Parliament Monday, pending agreement of other political parties.
A unilateral declaration of independence would severely test the government of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy. If Madrid decides that Catalonia is acting unconstitutionally, it could invoke emergency powers to take control of the Catalan government.
The sight of Spanish forces seizing Catalan institutions would further polarize opinion in the region, reeling from Sunday’s crackdown. Barcelona’s city police said 700,000 people took part in a day of protest against the police violence Tuesday.
Spain’s Foreign Minister denied that security forces used excessive force on Sunday. “If there was any use of force by police in any way it was because they were prevented from doing what they were asked to do,” Alfonso Dastis told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour.
King’s hardline speech
In his TV address, King Felipe called the situation “extremely serious” and said the pro-independence camp had demonstrated “an unacceptable disloyalty towards the powers of the state — a state that represents Catalan interests.”
The “irresponsible attitude” of the regional government has “put the economic and social stability of Catalonia and Spain at risk,” he said.
The King said Catalan authorities had acted “outside the law” and emphasized the crown’s firm support for the constitution, reiterating “commitment as King to the unity and permanence of Spain.”
The King’s address made it clear that he supported the stance of Rajoy, who has refused to entertain dialogue with the Catalan authorities.
Rajoy has the option of imposing direct rule on Catalonia under Article 155 of the Spanish constitution, drawn up after the Franco military dictatorship was toppled in 1975. Regions like Catalonia and the Basque country were given sweeping freedoms and control, but the constitution also protected the integrity of Spain and gave Madrid powers to seize back control if regions acted beyond the law.
Such a move would be a last resort. Puigdemont told the BBC it would be “an error which changes everything.”
Pablo Guillen Alvarez, an economist and associate professor at the University of Sydney, said article 155 gave Madrid wide powers. “The central government can run the police, the schools, hospitals in lieu of the Catalan government, and the Catalan government couldn’t legally do any thing against it,” he said.
Declaring independence would be a huge gamble for Puigdemont. While there was broad support for holding the referendum, support for independence is not overwhelming in Catalonia.
Catalan authorities said 90% of voters in Sunday’s referendum backed a split from Madrid — but turnout was only 42%. The Catalan government blamed the crackdown for the low turnout and said up to 770,000 votes were lost as a result of raids at polling stations.
Alvarez said an independence declaration was “tempting” for Puigdemont. “People in the streets are calling for it … and the central government seems unrepentant, committed to cracking down on the pro-independence movement.”
He suggested Puigdemont may be trying to gain leverage from the central government. The Catalan government wants the European Union to intervene, but Madrid has rejected any suggestion of outside mediation, saying it was an internal matter.
The European Parliament will discuss the crisis later on Wednesday, but the European Commission, the EU’s executive body, maintains that the issue is an internal matter for Spain.