Spain tells Catalan premier to discuss sovereignty in Congress, not Madrid City Hall

Deputy Prime Minister Sáenz de Santamaría issues an invitation to Carles Puigdemont

Spain’s central government has moved to pre-emptively spoil an event scheduled for this coming Monday in Madrid, where Catalan premier Carles Puigdemont was going to present his proposal for an independence referendum in his region. The separatist leader has been asked to speak about his plans at Madrid City Hall. In response, the central government on Friday officially asked Puigdemont to come to Madrid to debate his idea for a referendum, but to do so “in the right place for that, inside parliament.”

Deputy Prime Minister Soraya Sáenz de Santamaría after the cabinet meeting.
Deputy Prime Minister Soraya Sáenz de Santamaría after the cabinet meeting.EFE
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Catalonia to immediately declare independence if no referendum held

The unprecedented invitation was issued by Deputy Prime Minister Soraya Sáenz de Santamaría, of the Popular Party (PP) conservatives, following the regular Friday Cabinet meeting. Santamaría said that Puigdemont should speak about his plans for Catalan sovereignty in Congress “because they affect national sovereignty” and that this requires a debate with the legitimate representatives of all Spaniards. She added that this is “the democratic channel” established by the Constitution for debates of this nature.

Sources at the Catalan government said that Puigdemont would personally issue a reply later today, ahead of an event scheduled in Barcelona. But they added that no changes are being planned to the premier’s agenda of events for Monday, which includes an address at Cibeles Palace, the seat of the Madrid city government, which is currently under a leftist administration headed by Mayor Manuela Carmena.

Puigdemont must respect the rules of democracy, says the central government

The issue was brought up by Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy at the Cabinet meeting on Friday, according to official sources. The Spanish leader made the same offer to speak in Congress to Puigdemont’s predecessor, Artur Mas, when the latter visited him in September 2012 to demand similar fiscal conditions for Catalonia as those enjoyed by the Basque Country. Rajoy replied that the only way to achieve that would be to convince a majority in parliament and make changes to the Spanish Constitution.

The strategy this time around appears to be the same: no closed-door negotiations, but rather a public debate in Congress. There is a precedent for this in 2005, when the Basque premier at the time, Juan José Ibarretxe, took his ideas for a Basque Country that would be freely associated with Spain to Congress, which shot down the plan.

Madrid wants to underscore that the Catalan government is trying to bypass the legal procedures that other regional leaders like Ibarretxe complied with in the past. The central government’s main point is that the power to decide whether a region can hold a self-rule referendum does not fall to any one executive or political party or state agency, but to the body of representatives in the national legislature.

Catalan premier Carles Puigdemont wants to hold a new referendum.
Catalan premier Carles Puigdemont wants to hold a new referendum.Albert Garcia (EL PAÍS)

“The government can neither negotiate nor authorize something that is set out in constitutional legislation, and which gives Mr Puigdemont a democratic channel to request support for that which he wishes.” The Catalan premier and pro-sovereignty parties, she insisted, “must respect the rules of democracy.”

Although Santamaría did not say it, the general opinion among Cabinet members is that this is the last possible offer by the central government to the Catalan leader as part of so-called Operation Dialogue, which the deputy prime minister has been pushing ever since the new political term began.

Rajoy’s previous term in office was characterized by increasingly deteriorating relations between Madrid and Barcelona. On November 9, 2014 Catalonia held a non-binding vote on self-rule, and several government officials were later placed on trial for their alleged role in organizing it. Artur Mas was ultimately found guilty and barred from office for two years. His successor, Puigdemont, has vowed to carry out a new referendum this year.

English version by Susana Urra.


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