Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy will hold an emergency cabinet meeting this morning as ministers discuss how to respond to Catalan separatists signing an independence declaration.
In a much anticipated address, the region’s leader Carles Puigdemont insisted Catalans had earned the right to independence but said separatists would delay implementing it for several weeks to give dialogue with Madrid a chance.
But Spain’s deputy prime minister Soraya Saenz de Santamaria immediately rejected any notion of talks following a referendum which was deemed illegal, saying Mr Puigdemont “doesn’t know where he is, where he is going and with whom he wants to go”.
The cabinet meeting will look at a range of ways to deal with the separatist leaders and could include the “nuclear option” – suspending Catalonia’s autonomy, taking over control of the region and sending in the national police.
The move would be a risk for Mr Rajoy.
While many in Catalonia oppose independence they cling fiercely to their high degree of self-governance and would baulk at any interference from central government.
The national police were also condemned for their aggression in trying to stop the referendum and many Catalans would not be comfortable with their presence in large numbers.
However, Mr Rajoy will want to be seen to be sticking to his hard line against separatists when he addresses an extraordinary session of parliament this afternoon.
The Spanish PM has not ruled out arresting Mr Puigdemont and other pro-independence figures, but that would play into the hand of separatists whose leaders could become martyrs to the cause.
Mr Rajoy has come under pressure to soften his stance on negotiations and European Council President Donald Tusk is among the latest to urge him to sit across the table from Mr Puigdemont.
The Catalan leader’s speech seemed to be cast in overtures of compromise as he said separatists have nothing against Spain or Spaniards.
Mr Puigdemont added: “We’re not criminals, we’re not mad. We’re normal people who want to vote.”
Despite this, the signing of an independence declaration will be viewed by Madrid as an act of provocation and Mr Rajoy will struggle to find a way to respond that satisfies everyone.