Financial Times

Last updated: September 29, 2014 10:57 pm

Madrid calls on court to block Catalan referendum

By Tobias Buck in MadridAuthor alerts

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy speaks during a press conference after meeting with Spain's King Felipe VI at the Marivent Palace in Palma de Mallorca on August 8, 2014. The members of the Spanish Royal Family spend their summer holidays at the Marivent Palace in Mallorca. AFP PHOTO / JAIME REINA©AFP

Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy

Madrid has called on Spain’s constitutional court to strike down a planned independence referendum in the region of Catalonia, and issued a stern warning to political leaders in Barcelona to abandon their campaign for a historic break with the rest of the country.

The move marks the latest blow in a rapidly escalating conflict between the Spanish state and one of its most prosperous regions. Catalonia has seen rising support for secession in recent years, but the government in Madrid insists the country’s constitution leaves no room for an independence plebiscite, let alone for secession itself.


Monday also brought fresh signs that investors are starting to take note of the Spanish-Catalan stand-off, with Fitch announcing that it was putting Catalonia on watch for a ratings downgrade. The credit rating agency said the regional government´s ability to finance itself was currently dependent on Madrid, and warned that co-operation between the two sides would now become more difficult.

Fitch added in a statement released late on Monday that “tensions between both governments are likely to increase” in the weeks ahead.

The appeal to Spain’s constitutional court means the decree is suspended for a period of up to five months – casting severe doubts over the Catalan government’s declared referendum schedule. Artur Mas, the Catalan president, signed an official decree over the weekend calling a non-binding independence referendum in the region on November 9.

Most constitutional scholars believe the court will ultimately rule against the referendum, but point out that in the meantime the court’s automatic suspension in effect removes the legal basis for any plebiscite.

“The consultation [referendum] is not compatible with the constitution, neither in its objective nor in its procedure,” Mariano Rajoy, the Spanish prime minister, said. Speaking after an extraordinary meeting of the cabinet, he insisted that the planned Catalan vote would not take place: “National sovereignty rests with the Spanish people, in its entirety, and one part of it cannot take decisions about something that affects everyone.”

Catalan leaders struck a note of defiance on Monday, saying Madrid’s legal move would not derail the preparations for the November plebiscite: “Anyone who thinks that the process can be stopped with a ruling from the constitutional court that runs against the will of Catalan citizens is making a mistake,” said Oriol Junqueras, the leader of Esquerra Republicana, a pro-independence Catalan party.

Francesc Homs, a senior adviser to Mr Mas, described the legal challenge as “one of the biggest mistakes of Spanish democracy”.

Mr Rajoy had earlier voiced sharp criticism of Mr Mas, accusing the Catalan leader of a campaign to “break the bonds of brotherhood that have united Catalonia and Spain throughout our long common history”. He added: “I regret that the [Catalan] president has called a consultation on self-determination that goes beyond democracy, divides the Catalans [and] separates them from Europe and the rest of Spain.”

The Spanish leader said he was still committed to dialogue with the Catalan government, pointing out that the only legal way for Catalan to hold a referendum was to change the constitution. “The law can be changed [but] whoever wants to change must follow the democratic path.”

There are divisions within the Catalan leadership over whether they should press ahead with the November referendum in defiance of Madrid and the rulings of the constitutional court. Some of Mr Mas’s allies want him to press ahead with a plebiscite even if Spain’s highest tribunal rules it illegal. Others prefer a more cautious approach, and advocate calling an early regional election instead, with a view to turning the vote into a quasi-referendum on independence.