BARCELONA — Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy on Wednesday took the first step towards activating a so-called nuclear option in the country's constitution that would allow him to suspend Catalonia's political autonomy and take over the region.
Rajoy held an emergency cabinet meeting the morning after the leader of the autonomous region, Carles Puigdemont, balked at making a formal declaration of independence from Spain in a much-anticipated speech to the Catalan parliament on Tuesday.
Such a declaration had been widely expected after the Catalan government said 90 percent of Catalans voted for a breakaway in an Oct. 1 referendum that Spain had declared illegal and which most opponents of independence boycotted. Images of the violent crackdown by Spanish police prompted international condemnation.
Instead, Puigdemont made only a symbolic declaration, claiming a mandate to launch secession, but suspending any formal steps toward that end. The Catalan president also called for talks with Madrid over the region's future.
But Spain responded angrily to Puigdemont's speech, saying the Catalan government could not act on the results of the referendum.
"The cabinet has agreed to require formally to the Catalan government to confirm whether it has declared or not independence," Rajoy said in a televised address following Wednesday's emergency meeting.
"The answer from the Catalan president will determine future events, in the next few days," he also said, adding he would keep acting in a "cautious and responsible" way.
The clarification of independence declaration is viewed as Rajoy's first step towards activating article 155 of the Spanish constitution, which would allow him to suspend Catalonia's political autonomy and take over the region. It is a formal requirement needed to trigger the article 155 though the constitution does not establish any specific time frame for the answer.
After Puigdemont called for dialogue with Madrid on Tuesday, Spain's Deputy Prime Minister Soraya Saenz de Santamaria signaled the government was in no mood to talk, saying that the Catalan leader "doesn't know where he is, where he is going and with whom he wants to go."
"Neither Mr. Puigdemont nor anybody else can claim ... to impose mediation," Saenz de Santamaria said after Catalan leader's speech. "Any dialogue between democrats has to take place within the law.”
The Catalan crisis has deeply divided the northeastern region itself as well as the Spanish nation.
The stakes are high — losing Catalonia, which has its own language and culture, would deprive Spain of a fifth of its economic output and more than a quarter of exports.