MADRID -- Spanish authorities gave Catalonia's separatist leader five days to explain whether his ambiguous statement on secession was a formal declaration of independence and warned Wednesday that his answer dictated whether they would apply never-used constitutional powers to curtail the region's autonomy.
Threatening to invoke a section of the Spanish Constitution to assert control over the country's rogue region, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy said Catalan President Carles Puigdemont's response to the central government's ultimatum would be crucial in deciding "events over the coming days."
Puigdemont told the Catalan parliament in Barcelona on Tuesday that Catalonia had the right to be an independent country, citing a disputed referendum Oct. 1 that showed strong support for secession from Spain.
But instead of an outright declaration, Puigdemont said the "effect" of independence would be delayed for several weeks to facilitate further dialogue with Madrid. He then signed a document that some perceived as formalizing a break from Spain, baffling observers in Barcelona and Madrid alike.
His position seemed designed to appease the most fervent separatists but also to build support -- both in Catalonia and internationally -- by provoking another tough response from Rajoy's Cabinet. Spanish police used force to try to stop the referendum vote, producing images that elicited sympathy for the separatists.
Speaking Wednesday in the national parliament in Madrid, Rajoy said the referendum Catalonia's regional parliament and Puigdemont's government held in violation of a court order was illegal and part of a strategy "to impose independence that few want and is good for nobody."
The ensuing crisis, he said, was "one of the most difficult times in our recent history."
Rajoy, whose government has been under fire for the police violence, blamed the Catalan separatists for inciting recent street protests and said "nobody can be proud of the image" Spain has projected to the rest of the world with the referendum.
Lawyers, civil-society groups and politicians in Catalonia and elsewhere in Spain have offered to mediate between the two sides, but the prime minister rejected the offers. He said he refused to engage in dialogue with a disobeying Catalan government.
"There is no possible mediation between democratic law and disobedience and unlawfulness," Rajoy said, throwing the ball back to the Catalan authorities in Barcelona for the next move.
Catalan authorities said, however, that independence was inevitable and that it was up to Madrid to negotiate the best possible deal.
Josep Rull, the Catalan government's secretary of territory and sustainability, told reporters, "It's not time to ask questions, but to give answers."
Likewise, in an interview on Spanish radio, Jordi Turull, a member of the Catalan parliament, said the dialogue that Puigdemont seeks is about how -- not whether -- to separate from Spain.
"We want to talk about the Catalan independence," Turull said. "Our commitment is irrefutable. We don't want to trick anyone. We want to see if it's possible to do it in a dialogued and agreed-upon way, to see what the state proposes for Catalonia."
If Puigdemont says before Monday that he indeed proclaimed independence with his Tuesday announcement, he would have three more days to rectify the situation, according to a formal demand submitted by the central government Wednesday. That would mean abandoning implementation of the declaration Catalan separatist lawmakers signed establishing a new Catalan republic, the government said.
A refusal to backtrack or providing no response will lead Madrid to trigger Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution, which allows central authorities to take some or total control of any of the country' 17 regions if they rebel or don't comply with their legal obligations.
The warning issued Wednesday was the first step required before Rajoy's Cabinet can invoke the article for approval from the Senate, where Rajoy's ruling Popular Party has an absolute majority.
The measure has never been invoked during the nearly four decades since the 1978 Constitution restored democracy in post-dictatorship Spain.
The central government "wants to offer certainty to citizens," Rajoy said, adding that it was "necessary to return tranquility and calm."
There was no immediate response by Catalan authorities.
Marta Rivas, a regional lawmaker with the Catalonia Si Que es Pot anti-establishment party, warned that applying Article 155 to curb the region's autonomy could backfire and produce more protests.
"If the Spanish state repeats its actions and enforces the clause, we will be in full confrontation with the state," Rivas said.
About 2.3 million Catalans -- or 43 percent of the electorate in the northeastern region -- voted in the independence referendum. Regional authorities said 90 percent were in favor of secession and declared the results valid. Opponents of the referendum had said they would boycott the vote.
Rajoy's government previously had refused to grant Catalonia permission to hold a referendum on the grounds that it would poll only a portion of Spain's 46 million residents and was therefore unconstitutional.
A window to change the law that authorizes regional referendums only with the central government's approval opened Wednesday. Opposition socialist leader Pedro Sanchez announced that he was backing Rajoy's efforts to quell the Catalan separatists' defiance, but said the premier had agreed to open talks on amending the constitution in six months.
The deal between the socialists and Rajoy's People's Party primarily is aimed at appeasing the Catalans by overhauling the system that governs all the autonomous regions. Many regions -- Catalonia most of all -- regard the system as outdated.
In Catalonia, the decades-long desire for more self-governance has evolved into a growing push to break the region's century-old ties with Spain. The separatist camp swelled during the country's recent economic crisis and with Madrid's repeated rejection of the region's attempts to strengthen self-rule.
Information for this article was contributed by Ciaran Giles, Aritz Parra and Paolo Santalucia of The Associated Press and by Pamela Rolfe and James McAuley of The Washington Post.
Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy issued an ultimatum Wednesday in Madrid to Catalonia’s separatist leader, giving him five days to explain whether his ambiguous statement Tuesday on secession was a formal declaration of independence. Rajoy also rejected the idea of mediation and threatened to exert control over the region despite outcries over violence.
A Section on 10/12/2017
Print Headline: Catalan told to clarify whether split is on