Spanish Government Threatening To Take Over Catalonian Government Over Independence Bid

The standoff between Madrid and Barcelona over Catalan independence appears to be ready to come to an end.

Spanish and Catalan Flags

The Spanish Government appears to be on the brink of seizing control of Catalonia from the regional government in the wake of the region’s moves toward independence:

BARCELONA, Spain — The Spanish government said it would take emergency measures to halt Catalan secessionism in its tracks after the region’s leader warned on Thursday that separatist lawmakers could vote in favor of a declaration of independence, significantly escalating the territorial battle between the national and regional governments.

The announcement from the central government came almost immediately after Carles Puigdemont, the Catalan leader, warned national leaders in a letter that the separatists were prepared to press ahead with independence if the national government used emergency powers in the region.

Facing a second deadline on Thursday to state Catalonia’s intentions in the conflict with Spain, Mr. Puigdemont sent a defiant letter to Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy that blamed him for escalating the conflict by refusing to meet and negotiate, “despite all our efforts and our will to dialogue.”

That, in turn, prompted the Spanish government to say it would convene an emergency cabinet meeting on Saturday “to defend the general interest of Spaniards, among them the citizens of Catalonia.”

Íñigo Méndez de Vigo, spokesman for the Spanish government, said at a news conference that Madrid was ready to use “all the means within its reach to restore the legality and constitutional order as soon as possible.” Mr. Rajoy initiated a request last week to invoke Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution — a broad, forceful tool that has never been used — which would allow him to take control of Catalonia.

The Catalan leader had concluded his letter on Thursday with a clear threat of a breakup. “If the government continues to prevent dialogue and maintains the repression,” he wrote, “the Parliament of Catalonia could go ahead, if it deems it opportune, and vote the formal declaration of independence that wasn’t voted on Oct. 10.”

The letter was sent shortly before the deadline of 10 a.m. Thursday that Mr. Rajoy had set for Mr. Puigdemont to clarify whether Catalonia had declared independence, a question that arose after Mr. Puigdemont delivered a perplexing speech before Catalonia’s regional Parliament.

In that speech, he appeared to declare independence but then immediately suspended the decision. Separatist lawmakers then signed a declaration of independence, but without first voting on the text, as had been expected.

Officials in Madrid have repeatedly warned in recent days that Mr. Rajoy would consider anything short of a clear withdrawal of the declaration of independence to be unacceptable blackmail, after what he deemed an unsatisfactory response from Mr. Puigdemont on Monday.

Article 155 would give Madrid the authority to suspend Mr. Puigdemont and other Catalan lawmakers, and to take charge of the region’s autonomous administration, although Mr. Rajoy has not publicly committed to an emergency intervention.

It is unclear what Mr. Rajoy will propose to his cabinet on Saturday, but he may try to gradually raise pressure on the fragile coalition of Catalan separatists, rather than risk a forceful intervention that could backfire and galvanize the independence movement.

Politicians in Madrid have also recently demanded that Catalonia hold regional elections as soon as possible, but Mr. Puigdemont made no mention of such a vote in his letter on Thursday.

The separatist leaders of Catalonia are already claiming that Madrid has used disproportionate means to push them out of office, with the help of Spanish police and the courts.

About 200,000 demonstrators gathered on Tuesday in central Barcelona, according to the local police, to demand the release of two separatist leaders who were sent to prison without bail, pending a trial on sedition charges. In his letter on Thursday, Mr. Puigdemont mentioned the arrest of the two leaders as evidence of Spain’s repressive stance.

The threat from Madrid is the latest development in a standoff between Madrid and Barcelona that has been in place ever since the results of the Catlan independence referendum were announced. As it had in the months and weeks prior to the vote, the central government views the referendum as wholly illegitimate not the least because it was not authorized either under the law or under the Spanish Constitution, a position that has been upheld by Spain’s highest court. The Catalan government in Barcelona, of course, rejects that view and has threatened to formally declare independence several times over the past two weeks but has so far not taken that step. As a result, the situation remains at roughly the same place it was before the referendum, with the addition that the population of Catalonia appears to be rallying behind the leaders in Barcelona in no small part thanks to the rather strong measures that Spanish authorities took before the referendum and on October 1st to stop the vote from taking place and prevent people from being able to cast a ballot.

Where this heads from here is entirely unclear. Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution does authorize the central government to take control of a regional government under a broad variety of circumstances, and other provisions of Spanish law would appear to authorize the central government to charge the current Catalan government and other independence supporters criminally if they continue no their current path. Either of these steps would be entirely unprecedented, though, and it’s unclear how the general population might react. As it stands, it seems clear that a crackdown would only serve to push the population further toward the pro-independence forces, but its hard to say what that really means practically speaking. In the end, there’s very little that the Catalan people can do to advance their cause in the face of opposition from Madrid, and Madrid clearly isn’t going to back down from its position anytime soon. At the same time, it seems clear that Madrid isn’t earning itself much support with hits heavy-handed response. Perhaps the tense situation will dissipate over time, but that’s not likely to happen in the immediate future. Whether that leads to something more serious than the current standoff remains to be seen.

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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. al-Ameda says:

    The Spanish government, Madrid, has no good alternative to denying Catalonia independence. If Madrid negotiates independence with Barcelona, it is almost a sure thing that Basque provinces ,Euskadi, will be looking to do the same.

    The best Madrid can do here is try to buy Catalonia off with promises of greater autonomy. Of course Bilbao will want to have a new deal too.

  2. DrDaveT says:

    I’m curious to know what EU law has to say about this. The EU has promoted regional autonomy fairly strongly over the years. Are there provisions of the EU charter that would (for example) contradict or weaken the Article 155 powers of the Castilian Spanish Constitution?

    the central government views the referendum as wholly illegitimate not the least because it was not authorized either under the law or under the Spanish Constitution, a position that has been upheld by Spain’s highest court

    That seems a bit disingenuous, Doug. The government of George III felt the same way about American claims of independence, but the fact that the Declaration was not authorized under UK law of the time was perhaps not the crux of the problem. A legal path to secession is the historical anomaly, very rarely provided for by any nation or empire.

  3. Daryl's other brother Darryl says:
  4. Slugger says:

    @DrDaveT: Just a question. The American separatists in the Declaration of Independence listed a substantial list of grievances. Is there a list of Catalan grievances?

  5. DrDaveT says:


    Is there a list of Catalan grievances?

    Yes. How legitimate they are depends, in part, on what you think the statute of limitations is for oppression. Since (re-)conquering them in 1715, Spain has cracked down hard on Catalans at times, mostly let them be at other times. Under Franco, it was tough. Since then, less so.

    Here’s one article at The Economist.

    I am not an expert in this area, but I have met a number of Spaniards and, with few exceptions, the non-Castilians resent Castile. In their eyes, the history of ‘Spain’ is the history of Castile conquering its neighbors, then simultaneously treating them as second-class citizens (or worse, in the case of the Basques) while preaching Spanish unity and indivisibility. It’s an asymmetric relationship; “you non-Castilians must think of yourself as Spanish (and stop speaking other languages), but we Castilians will continue to think of you as less than equal.” It doesn’t help that most of the actually wealthy and productive and culturally rich parts of Spain are not in Castile.

  6. Davebo says:


    Excellent link, thank you. This paragraph my tell a lot of the motivation of the Catalonians and it’s not flattering.

    Behind the support for the referendum lies a sense of insecurity. Catalans like to see themselves as a highly advanced part of a backward country. This is no longer as true as it was. The rest of Spain has caught up. In 1962 income per person in Catalonia was 50% above the national average; now Catalonia’s is only 19% higher, according to Mr de la Fuente.

  7. DrDaveT says:


    This paragraph may tell a lot of the motivation of the Catalonians and it’s not flattering.

    I’m highly skeptical of the standard University of Chicago analysis that assumes everything is explained by rational financial self-interest. Such a world would not elect Trump or vote for Brexit or promote theocracies.

    Catalunya has a long cultural tradition of being not Spanish, better than Spanish, and under the thumb of those idiot Spanish. Discount that at your peril. I suspect that in Barcelona they don’t think of it as “the rest of Spain has caught up” so much as “Spain has dragged us back down to her level”.

  8. Davebo says:


    Probably true, but a distinction without a difference IMO to the point I was trying to make.