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 announced on Tuesday that he was using the victory in a banned Oct. 1 referendum to proceed with a declaration of Catalan independence, but proposed freezing its implementation for a few weeks to allow for dialogue and mediation with the government in Madrid.
His equivocal 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 in the national parliament in Madrid on Wednesday, 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 that "nobody can be proud of the image" Spain has projected to the rest of the world with the referendum.
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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 Barcelona-based Catalan authorities for the next move.
If Puigdemont replies 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 say 90 percent were in favor of secession and declared the results valid. Opponents of the referendum being held 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 only poll 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 reforming 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.
Sanchez said his party would nevertheless strive to change the current regional arrangements to "allow for Catalonia to remain a part of Spain."
On the streets of Barcelona, residents followed developments closely.
"They both keep on repeating the same things," resident Alicia Gallego said, referring to Rajoy and Puigdemont.
"The best would be if they could sit down and make some clarity and decide something, maybe a bit more autonomy. I don't know. I am not a politician," she said. "But it is clear that this must have a more reasonable solution."
Another Barcelona resident, Jose Alfaro, said he does not expect any decisive developments to happen any time soon.
"There is enough time to reopen dialogue. Now we are starting a new chapter," he said. "We have to wait and see. I don't think that in the short term something will happen."