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Spain is moving to crush Catalonia’s independence movement once and for all

Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy announced he will set in motion the so-called constitutional “nuclear option” on Saturday, which would strip the region of autonomy.

Independence Referendum Takes Place In Catalonia Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images

Spain is bent on stopping a secessionist movement by any means necessary, and made moves Thursday to crush a long-simmering independence bid from Catalan separatists.

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy announced in Madrid on Thursday that the parliament would meet Saturday to begin stripping Catalonia — one of Spain’s wealthiest regions, anchored by Barcelona — of autonomous rule. It is an unprecedented moment for Spain, and the worst political and constitutional crisis the country has seen in four decades. It is also sure to set off a fresh wave of protests and anger in a region already on edge.

Rajoy’s move comes after two and a half weeks of standoff between the two sides. It follows a highly controversial independence referendum in Catalonia held on October 1, despite being ruled illegal by the Spanish Constitutional Court, and a strange half-promised declaration of independence on the part of Catalan regional president Carles Puigdemont.

Just nine days after the referendum, on October 10, Puigdemont announced that the region had won the right to declare independence but stopped short of announcing Catalonia would secede. He said he was temporarily suspending the declaration of independence, and instead asked for negotiations with Madrid.

Rajoy refused to sit down, and asked for a firm decision. “The cabinet has agreed this morning to formally require the Catalan government to confirm whether it has declared independence after the deliberate confusion created over whether it has come into effect,” Rajoy said during a press conference on October 11.

He then set a deadline of October 19 for the Catalans to formally declare independence or ... not. Instead, on Thursday morning, Puigdemont wrote a letter to Rajoy, asking him, once again, for a dialogue and blaming him for escalating the conflict.

“If the government continues to prevent dialogue and maintains the repression,’’ Puigdemont wrote, “the Parliament of Catalonia could go ahead, if it deems it opportune, and vote the formal declaration of independence.”

Rajoy, in turn, announced he would convene a special meeting of ministers on Saturday to trigger the so-called “nuclear option” embedded in the Spanish constitution, Article 155, which gives Spain the right to assume control of a region that tries to dissolve the unity of Spain.

If that sounds confusing, that’s because it is.

Clarity on what Catalonia really wants has been hard to come by

While 90 percent of those who voted in the October 1 Catalan independence referendum checked off yes for independence, only 43 percent of the eligible voters participated in the ballot. The day was marred by police violence — voters were pulled from polling booths by their hair, and rubber bullets were used on crowds.

For days afterward, the streets of Barcelona were clogged with protesters, some insisting on independence, some condemning police brutality, some simply calling for dialogue — and still others demanding to remain in Spain.

Pro-Unity Rally Held In Barcelona Against Catalonian Independence Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images

The region is deeply divided between fervent secessionists and those, increasingly vocal, citizens who prefer to remain in Spain.

Secessionists hold a slim majority in the Catalan parliament, but those who want to remain a part of Spain feel the decision to hold a referendum, let alone break away from Spain, is itself an undemocratic move that doesn’t represent the will of the people.

Meanwhile, the Spanish central government has held a hard line from the beginning. Rajoy has long threatened to invoke the so-called nuclear option, Article 155 of the Spanish constitution, which allows Madrid to step in and suspend the autonomy of a region, temporarily relieving elected officials of their duties, in order to bring the region back in line. It has never been used before. That’s what’s now poised to begin on Saturday.

As of now, European Union leaders are backing Rajoy. Both German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron signaled on Thursday that they stand with Madrid.

The country is in a state of suspended animation

Puigdemont’s choice of trying to balance on half-measures may cost him his political career. Already hardline separatists in Catalonia are angry.

And the tremendous uncertainty about the future of the region has already had an impact on business. Banks and multinational corporations based in Barcelona have begun the process of relocating their headquarters elsewhere in Spain. Today’s news won’t calm that economic anxiety anytime soon.