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Madrid and Catalonia have both backed themselves into corners of their own making

Moroccan Rif activists carry a Catalan independence flag during a demonstration outside the Catalan Government building, the Palau de la Generalitat on October 28, 2017 in Barcelona, Spain. The Spanish government stripped Catalonia of its autonomy after the Catalan parliament voted yesterday to declare independence.
Jack Taylor | Getty Images
Moroccan Rif activists carry a Catalan independence flag during a demonstration outside the Catalan Government building, the Palau de la Generalitat on October 28, 2017 in Barcelona, Spain. The Spanish government stripped Catalonia of its autonomy after the Catalan parliament voted yesterday to declare independence.

After weeks of precarious political division, both sides in Spain's tense political standoff have backed themselves into corners of their own making, and despite repeated attempts to prolong and prevaricate, have been forced by escalating circumstances to pursue two extreme forms of action.

The Parlament de Catalunya voted through a motion on Friday afternoon calling for the Catalan government to secede fully from Spain to form a new republic. The Catalan President Carles Puigdemont had not wanted to make this unilateral declaration alone, having suspended the force of a previous declaration several weeks ago to allow for talks with Madrid that never came. And even on Friday he hoped to provide greater political cover for himself by encouraging a slim majority of the regional assembly to be complicit in the decision.

The motion urged the Catalan executive to draw up fresh laws, and allowed for an extended process of negotiations with the Spanish government in Madrid. The latter may smack of wishful thinking, but when it passed, parliamentarians in Barcelona stood to clap.

Resounding applause had also greeted Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy hours earlier on Friday morning, when he had addressed the Spanish Senate in Madrid. He told the parliament's upper chamber, dominated by members of his Partido Popular, that the Catalan leadership had made a mockery of democracy and that there was no alternative but to continue with efforts to stop the secession movement in its tracks. He insisted that ordinary Catalans must be protected from what he termed, "an intolerant minority that is awarding itself ownership of Catalonia, and is trying to subject all Catalans to the yoke of its own doctrine."

A significant majority of the Spanish Senate later passed the measures proposed by Rajoy's government under Article 155 of the Spanish constitution. These allow the central government to terminate the executive roles of Puigdemont and his cabinet — though they could remain as local parliamentary deputies until fresh elections slated for December.

They also include the stripping of powers from the autonomous police force, which took effect just hours earlier, designed to help Madrid assert its legal authority through force if necessary in the days ahead. The regional Police Commissioner, Josep Lluís Traper Álvarez, was already facing an investigation for sedition for his inaction during the preparations for the October 1 independence referendum that a Spanish court had deemed illegal; now he is out of a job. A Spanish news agency reported that the director general of the 17,000-man autonomous Catalan police force, the Mossos d'Esquadra, was also dismissed.

The behavior of local police officers may come into focus soon, but it is the actions of the region's civil servants that should be watched closely when they return to work, if a general strike called by a local union for Monday does not bring the city to a halt.

Grassroots pro-independence groups responsible for many of the larger protests in cities like Barcelona have called for mass civil disobedience, and the reaction of authorities in Madrid could serve to exacerbate this situation. Several days ago I had the chance to ask the central government's delegate to the Catalan region, Enric Millo, how Spanish authorities would seek to enforce discipline. Speaking from his ornate office in the 19th century Montaner Palace, protected by multiple fences, armored vehicles and armed guards, he insisted that any separatist Catalan bureaucrats who refused to comply would lose access to their salaries and their roles, effective immediately.

Already, Spain's most senior prosecutor has told a local TV network he would pursue charges of rebellion against Puigdemont, his senior advisers and even some of the Catalan parliament's governing body who helped make the vote on Friday happen. It may be more difficult to prosecute the 70 out of 135 parliamentary deputies who voted through the independence motion, since they did so in a secret ballot, aimed at preventing authorities in Madrid from identifying those that could be liable to criminal charges.

Rajoy has repeatedly said he will try to apply measures that return Catalonia to "normality" as gradually as he can, but that caution may fail to prevent dangerous confrontations in the days ahead. Even politicians vehemently opposed to secession say the application of Article 155 measures will have negative consequences. One Spanish MEP (member of European parliament) from the opposition Podemos party told me this was the "worst scenario for a democratic solution," adding that "unilateral independence is a big mistake. And 155 is the worst response to that."

One man who may have been key to mediating between the two sides, although with little success thus far, is the president of the nearby Basque region of Spain, Inigo Urkullu. He has called for "responsibility" from both parties and described the current state of affairs as "very worrying."

At this point the Madrid government already controls the financial levers in Catalonia, should theoretically have control of the police, and could also move to take over public broadcasters also. Spanish authorities also now assume full responsibility for the region's financial sustainability and budget stability, at a time when Spain's official companies registrar says hundreds of companies have moved their headquarters outside the region. Following the vote Friday investors sold off Spanish shares and bonds, in just the latest market reaction to the region's political upheaval. Flight booking forecasting business ForwardKeys has reported that air travel bookings to Catalonia are down 22 percent this month compared to the same period last year, with tourism a crucial constituent of the Barcelona economy.

"Exceptional measures should only be adopted when no other remedy is possible," Rajoy told the Senate on Friday morning.

Many I have spoken to acknowledge Rajoy chose this path for himself, but nobody I have spoken to in Madrid or Barcelona over the last month really knows what those exceptional measures will portend, for the people and politicians of Catalonia and Spain. For businesses — local, regional, national and European — it is such unprecedented uncertainty that ultimately renders decision-making very difficult.

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