Catalonia: Spanish PM vows to use any means to stop independence

Rajoy says he rules out ‘absolutely nothing’ within law, warning that Madrid would suspend region’s autonomy if necessary.

The Spanish prime minister has insisted that he will stop the Catalan government declaring independence over the coming days, warning that the Spanish authorities would suspend the region’s autonomy and take control from Madrid if necessary.

In an interview with El País on Sunday, Mariano Rajoy said the thousands of Guardia Civil and national police officers deployed in Catalonia would remain there “until things return to normal” and repeated calls for the regional government to drop its independence demands.

“We’re going to stop independence from happening,” he told the paper. “I can say with absolute frankness that it’s not going to happen. Depending on how things develop, we’ll obviously take any of the decisions the law permits.

“I want to make one thing absolutely clear: as long as the threat of a declaration of independence remains on the political horizon, it’s going to be very difficult for the government not to take steps.”

Asked if he would invoke article 155 of the Spanish constitution, which would allow the Madrid government to step in and take control of Catalonia, he replied: “I am ruling out absolutely nothing when it comes to the law. I will do what I have to do when the time comes and that’s the most important thing at the moment. The ideal thing would be to not have to adopt drastic solutions, but to avoid that there would have to be some changes.”

In the interview, which comes a week after millions of Catalans voted in a referendum declared illegal by the Spanish government and the country’s constitutional court, Rajoy described the Catalan independence crisis as an issue for Europe as a whole.

“This is a European battle,” he said. “It’s a battle in which the values of Europe are at stake. I am convinced that all the governments will carry on supporting the constitution and obedience to the law.”

The Spanish prime minister once again stressed that there could be no negotiations whatsoever until the government of the Catalan president, Carles Puigdemont, stepped back from the brink.

Puigdemont is due to appear in the Catalan parliament on Tuesday to “report on the current political situation” and to put the referendum results to MPs.

The move – seen as an attempt to circumvent the Spanish constitutional court’s ban on a similar session scheduled for Monday – could potentially provide an opportunity for the region’s promised unilateral declaration of independence.

“I will not negotiate until there is a return to legality,” Rajoy told El País. “The prime minister of an advanced, democratic country can’t negotiate with someone who flouts the law. As soon as there are changes, we’ll be back to a different and normal situation – just as we have been over the past 40 years in which a lot of things have been negotiated.”

Hundreds of people were reported to have been injured during last Sunday’s referendum, which saw police officers raiding polling stations, beating voters and firing rubber bullets at crowds.

Although he admitted that “things could have been done better or worse”, Rajoy defended the police’s actions and said the authorities had a duty to defend the constitution.

Huge numbers of people are expected to protest on Sunday in Barcelona against the perceived hijacking of the political process by an independence movement that has so far never won the support of more than 48% of the population.

The march was organised by Societat Civil Catalana (SCC), the main channel for anti-independence sentiment in what has suddenly become one of the most troubled regions in Europe. The march will call for a new phase of dialogue with the rest of Spain and will be attended by such luminaries as the Nobel-winning novelist Mario Vargas Llosa and Josep Borrell, former president of the European parliament.

Puigdemont is under pressure to stop short of declaring independence. The Barcelona Bar Association (ICAB) has published an open letter saying: “The Independent Commission for Mediation, Dialogue and Conciliation has told the president that it is essential to hold back on political decisions that will increase the tension between the state and Catalan governments.”

Saturday saw marches and demonstrations all over Spain, with tens of thousands gathering in Madrid’s Plaza Colón in favour of a united Spain. In dozens of towns and cities, including Barcelona, people joined the “white demonstrations” demanding dialogue. Dressed in white and without any flags, protesters marched under the single slogan in Spanish and Catalan: Hablemos/Parlem – let’s talk.

Ada Colau, the Barcelona mayor, who was among thousands at the city’s white demonstration, said: “We mustn’t resign ourselves to polarisation, bellicose language and the competitive logic that only seeks the defeat of the adversary.”

Despite the Spanish authorities’ efforts to stop the referendum, 2.3 million of Catalonia’s 5.3 million registered voters took part, although 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, 7.8% voted against and almost 2% of ballot papers were left blank.

However, a full count of the votes has been complicated by the fact that police removed many ballot boxes from polling stations. The regional government said police shut down polling stations where up to 770,000 people could have voted.