Catalan government to press ahead with referendum debate

Parliament will defy Spanish constitutional court and could make a unilateral declaration of independence, minister says.

The Catalan government will defy the Spanish constitutional court by pressing ahead with a parliamentary debate to discuss Sunday’s referendum result and potentially make a unilateral declaration of independence, the region’s foreign minister has said.

On Thursday the court upheld a challenge by Catalonia’s Socialist party – which opposes secession from Spain – ruling that allowing the Catalan parliament to meet on Monday would violate the rights of the party’s MPs.

The court warned that any session carried out in defiance of its ban would be “null”, and added that the parliament’s leaders could face criminal action if they ignored the court order.

But Catalonia’s foreign affairs minister, Raül Romeva, insisted the debate would go ahead regardless of the court’s decision.

“Parliament will discuss; parliament will meet,” Romeva told the BBC. “It will be a debate and this is important.” The crisis, he added, would be resolved through political and not judicial means.

Carme Forcadell, the speaker of the Catalan parliament, previously said that while Monday’s session had not yet been formally convened, the court’s ruling “harms freedom of expression and the right of initiative of members of this parliament and shows once more how the courts are being used to solve political problems”.

It is not the first time that the Catalan government has ignored the constitutional court’s rulings, not least its order to suspend the referendum itself.

The latest escalation in the long-running battle between the Catalan and Spanish authorities came as Spain’s national court prepared to question two senior officers of the regional police force and the leaders of two pro-independence groups who have been placed under investigation for sedition.

The four – who include Josep Lluís Trapero, the chief of the Catalan police force, and Jordi Sànchez, the head of the Catalan National Assembly, the region’s largest pro-independence group – are being investigated in connection with the huge demonstrations in Barcelona that followed police raids on Catalan government buildings a fortnight ago and the arrests of 14 Catalan officials.

The raids and arrests, carried out by Spanish Guardia Civil police on a judge’s orders, drew a furious response from protesters. Two Guardia Civil vehicles were vandalised and the Catalan police were accused of failing to intervene.

In a television address on Wednesday evening, the Catalan president, Carles Puigdemont, repeated his calls for mediation and dialogue with the Spanish government, but said the results of the vote would be put before parliament.

“On Sunday we had a referendum under the most difficult circumstances and set an example of who we are,” he said. “Peace and accord is part of who we are. We have to apply the results of the referendum. We have to present the results of the referendum to parliament.”

Speaking before Thursday’s court decision, the Spanish prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, said the situation would only escalate further if the Catalan government carried on the path of a unilateral declaration.

“Is there a solution? Yes, there is,” Rajoy told the Spanish news agency Efe. “And the best one would be a return to legality and the swiftest possible confirmation that there won’t be a unilateral independence declaration, because that way still greater harm could be avoided.”

The Madrid government has refused to rule out invoking article 155 of the constitution. The article, which has never been used, makes provision for the central government to step in and take control of an autonomous region if it “does not fulfil the obligations imposed upon it by the constitution or other laws, or acts in a way that is seriously prejudicial to the general interest of Spain”.

However, given the heightened tensions in Catalonia and the huge protests seen across the region this week, the move could prove counterproductive. Puigdemont has already warned that the triggering of the article would be the Spanish government’s “ultimate mistake”.

The Catalan government says hundreds of people were injured on Sunday after Spanish police attempted to halt the independence referendum by raiding polling stations, beating voters and firing rubber bullets at crowds.

Despite the Spanish authorities’ attempts to stop the referendum, which the government and the constitutional court had declared illegal, 2.26 million of Catalonia’s 5.3 million registered voters took part. The figures suggest the turnout was about 43%, as many Catalans who oppose independence boycotted the poll for fear of lending it legitimacy.

According to the Catalan government, 90% of participants voted for independence. However, a full count of the votes has been complicated by the fact that many ballot boxes were removed from polling stations by police.