MADRID — The government here is feeling good about how things are playing out in Catalonia.
Days after taking direct control over the northeastern region’s government and prompting its ousted separatist leader to flee the country, Spain’s leaders are looking to build on what they see as positive momentum to neutralize the Catalan independence movement ahead of new local elections there on December 21.
“We’re in a much better situation than a week ago,” Íñigo Méndez de Vigo, a Cabinet minister who’s the official government spokesman, said in an interview. He called the transition of power in recent days from the pro-independence authorities in Barcelona to caretakers sent by Madrid “cordial” and “natural.”
More than 150 Catalan officials have been fired, most notably President Carles Puigdemont and his entire cabinet. Defying Madrid, Puigdemont went ahead with an October 1 referendum on independence that was declared illegal by Spanish courts, and used its contested results to support a unilateral declaration of independence last Friday. Madrid later that day moved to take over the region.
Puigdemont turned up at a press conference in Brussels on Tuesday, and in a conciliatory note, said he accepted the snap election in December and asked for guarantees of safety from Madrid before returning to Spain. Later that day, however, Spain’s High Court confirmed charges of rebellion, sedition and misuse of public funds against him and summoned Puigdemont to appear in a Madrid court on Thursday. Puigdemont was last seen in Belgium on Tuesday, and his current whereabouts are unknown.
“We’ve reestablished constitutional order in Catalonia … we’ve brought tranquility to many people” — Íñigo Méndez de Vigo, official government spokesman
After a difficult few months of public relations and political setbacks, including images of police violence against people who tried to vote on October 1 in Catalonia that went viral, Madrid finds itself on the front foot for a change.
Catalonia’s motley coalition of pro-independence factions swerved in recent days from negotiations with Madrid to a hasty declaration of independence that they lacked the levers to enforce and that was not recognized by any country. For its part, Madrid has asserted its authority in Catalonia, at least for the time being, almost effortlessly — dispelling fears, including among some members of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s Cabinet, according to a senior government official, that it would be met with active resistance.
“The government has done what it had to do,” said Méndez de Vigo, who also runs the education, sports and culture ministry. “We’ve reestablished constitutional order in Catalonia … we’ve brought tranquility to many people … and we’ve called elections as soon as it could legally be done.”
As critics of the Rajoy government point out, it was also confident months ago that Catalonia wouldn’t blow up into a full-blown crisis. But it did. Internal rivalries within the separatist forces, fear of judicial sanctions and of the economic consequences didn’t derail last month’s push toward independence, as Madrid expected. The October 1 vote was, as analysts at Elcano Institute put it, a PR “disaster” for Spain.
A Catalan protester shows a referendum ballot paper | Jack Taylor/Getty Images
There are numerous risks lurking in the weeks ahead for Madrid, including the likely possibility that the same or larger pro-independence majority regains control over the regional legislature. But government officials these days point to missteps by the Catalan leadership to justify their optimism.
Speaking at his office in the culture ministry on Tuesday, Méndez de Vigo said a potential deal with Puigdemont last week to avoid a declaration of independence came apart after the Catalan leader made demands for “immunity” from criminal prosecution for himself that Madrid “couldn’t and didn’t want to give.” He added that Puigdemont also demanded that the two Catalan pro-independence civil group leaders — Jordi Sànchez and Jordi Cuixart, who are in custody pending an investigation on charges of sedition — would be freed.
Joan Maria Piqué, the international communications director of the Catalan government who was removed from his job by Madrid over the weekend, denied this account. He said that the only condition made by Puigdemont was that Madrid wouldn’t impose direct rule if he called a regional elections instead of going ahead with the declaration of independence. Madrid said no, Piqué said.
By calling elections much sooner expected, Méndez de Vigo made clear that the government hopes Catalan voters punish separatist forces. He invoked, with a confident grin, the popular slogan shouted at pro-independence rallies throughout the year in Catalonia: “Votarem!” (Catalan for ‘We will vote!’)
“Recent events have refuted the whole pro-independence narrative and all the actions we’ve seen from Puigdemont reveal a lack of bravery,” he said. “It’s not edifying at all to call on people to oppose [the central government takeover] on Saturday and then to take to the heels and run on Monday. I don’t think his supporters have appreciated that.”
Catalan political calculus
The main pro-independence Catalan political parties have vowed that they will take part in the ballot, implicitly accepting Madrid’s direct rule. The question remains if they will form a common front and under what motto they will run their campaign — with some separatists arguing they should frame the ballot as some sort of ratification for the new Catalan Republic.
“We considered something very easy that may not be so easy” — Marta Pascal, head of one of the leading pro-independence Catalan parties
But the reality of their predicament is starting to sink in for some of Catalonia’s leading pro-independence voices. “There hasn’t been international recognition … and some people are saying ‘what’s happening here,'” Marta Pascal, the head of Puigdemont’s center-right Catalan European Democratic Party (PDeCAT), said in a TV interview on Tuesday evening. “We considered something very easy that may not be so easy.”
Were pro-independence parties to lose the absolute majority of the regional chamber, a new promising scenario would open for supporters of a unitary Spain. But that’s far from granted.
A poll by the Catalan Centre d’Estudis d’Opinió released Tuesday gives pro-independence forces a similar ruling majority as the one they got in 2015. The survey also showed a sharp increase — from 41.1 percent to 48.7 percent — in support for secession in the past four months. Opposition to it fell from 49.4 percent to 43.6 percent. The poll was taken on October 16-29.
Carles Puigdemont, the ousted Catalan regional president, speaks at a press conference in Brussels on October 31, saying that he won’t ask for asylum in Brussels and will accept new elections in the Spanish region | Olivier Hoslet/EPA
A senior Spanish government official said he thought the separatists wouldn’t pursue the same confrontational approach again even if they won a new majority.
The prospect of economic trouble — with nearly 1,900 companies fleeing Catalonia since the disputed independence referendum on October 1 — and the cold welcome of the international community to the newly declared republic, said the official, should’ve convinced the separatist that the path of confrontation leads nowhere.
Méndez de Vigo emphasized the role the EU had played in helping Spain face up to the Catalan independence push. He said Spain had gone through two critical moments in the past five years — the economic and financial crisis and the Catalan conflict — and had found critical help in the EU. “It’s a great satisfaction that the EU has been on our side,” he said, “on the side of the Spanish government and constitutional order.”
This article was updated to include a comment from the former spokesman of the Catalan regional government and clarify the name of Spanish court that confirmed charges against Carles Puigdemont.