MADRID: Spain threatened on Wednesday to suspend Catalonia’s autonomy if it follows through on its threat to break away as an independent country in the biggest challenge to Spanish unity in a generation.

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”.

In a step towards possible action by Madrid, 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.

Rajoy has said he will not negotiate on anything until the separatists abandon their independence drive, and rejected calls for mediation in the crisis.

“There is no mediation possible between democratic law and disobedience, illegality,” he told parliament on Wednesday.

The cabinet agreed “to formally ask the Catalan government to confirm whether it declared independence,” he said earlier. “The answer from the Catalan president will determine future events, in the next few days.”

Rajoy could choose to trigger constitution article 155, which allows Madrid to impose control over its devolved regions — an unprecedented move many fear could lead to unrest. The leader of the opposition Socialist Party, Pedro Sanchez, backed Rajoy’s demand for clarification in order to “get out of the swamp”.

He said his party and the government had agreed to “open the road to constitutional reform” in light of the Catalan 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 Britain’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”.

Spain has also won the backing of a number of EU countries, including Germany, France, Italy and Portugal.

German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel said a unilateral declaration of independence in Catalonia would be “irresponsible”.

France said it will not recognise Catalonia if the regional government makes a unilateral declaration of independence from Spain.

Crowds of thousands gathered outside the parliament building in Barcelona on Tuesday ahead of Puigdemont’s speech, waving Catalan flags and banners and screaming “democracy” in the hope of witnessing history in the making.

Published in Dawn, October 12th, 2017

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