Spain set to strip Catalonia of powers over independence bid

Protesters supporting Catalan independence take to the streets in Barcelona

Hours earlier, Catalonia's leader, Carles Puigdemont, said the Catalan parliament will go forward with a vote on independence if the Spanish government does not engage in dialogue and follows through on its threat to strip the region of its autonomy.

Mr Rajoy plans to invoke Article 155 of the 1978 constitution, which allows him to take control of a region if it breaks the law.

The announcement came nearly immediately after the Catalan leader, Carles Puigdemont, facing a second deadline to clarify Catalonia's intentions since it held an October 1 referendum on independence, warned that regional lawmakers were prepared to break from Spain.

With the Spanish prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, and the Catalan regional president, Carles Puigdemont, talking past each other, the space for a political settlement seemed ever smaller.

"If the central government persists in preventing dialogue and continuing repression, Catalonia's parliament could vote for a formal declaration of independence", he wrote in a letter to Rajoy, adding that a cryptic "suspended" independence declaration he issued last week did not amount to breaking away.

Puigdemont, who sparked the country's worst political crisis in decades on Oct 1 by holding a banned referendum on splitting from Spain, warned regional lawmakers could declare unilateral independence if Madrid makes any such move. Catalonia, home to 7.5 million people, has its own language and traditions and enjoys a degree of self-rule.

If Spain's Cabinet moves to implement Article 155, a step that would require approval of its Senate, which is controlled by his party, Rajoy would have a range of options at his disposal.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said she hoped there were solutions "on the grounds of the Spanish constitution".

Puigdemont responded Thursday that Catalan lawmakers could vote to declare secession unilaterally if Madrid triggers Article 155.

Meanwhile in Brussels, EU President Donald Tusk has warned Britain not to expect any breakthrough in Brexit negotiations at a European summit starting on Thursday, saying London needed to come up with more concrete proposals.

Puigdemont says his regional administration has a mandate to declare independence from what he says was a 90% "Yes" vote, marred by a heavy-handed police crackdown on voters. This action, if carried out, would de facto "illegalize" the presently elected Catalan autonomous government and place all of its critical authorities under the Spanish central government's authority.

But turnout was given as only 43 percent. Hard-line secessionists want an abrupt and unilateral rupture with the central government in Madrid, while conservative and more moderate separatists are increasingly anxious about the economic consequences for Catalonia.

Other measures being mulled are removing Puigdemont's presidential powers, rescinding regional control over education and schools, calling fresh elections that would dissolve the regional parliament, and taking control of public media that are seen as mouthpieces for Catalonia's pro-independence ruling coalition. "It's an extreme measure of Rajoy's government and it won't solve anything". Catalonia is Spain's economic engine, accounting for about a fifth of the total economy and more than a quarter of exports.

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