MADRID â Spainâs prime minister Wednesday asked the head of the secession-minded Catalonia region the question that no one can seem to answer: Did he declare independence or not?
The demand from the Spanish government reflected more than just confusion. Clarifying Cataloniaâs position is critical to map out Spainâs next move â including possible harsher measures against Catalonia if it now sees itself as a new nation.
The head scratching came a day after Cataloniaâs president, Carles Puigdemont, told the Catalan parliament in Barcelona that Catalonia had the right to be an independent country following last weekâs referendum that backed secession from Spain.
But Puigdemont also said that the formal declaration of independence would be delayed for several weeks to have further dialogue with Madrid. But then Puigdemont joined some lawmakers to sign a documents that some perceived as formalizing a break from Spain.
It left officials in Spain and across Europe uncertain as to what really happened.
The recent call for Catalan independence represents the biggest constitutional crisis in Spain since the end of the Franco regime in the mid-1970s. It also highlights a rising separatist tide in a troubled European Union struggling to navigate a historic migrant crisis as well as continued economic malaise.
But after weeks of suspense â and clashes between Spanish police and Catalan residents â there was far more murkiness than light.
On Tuesday night, more than a week after a disputed referendum vote that Spainâs constitutional court ruled illegal, Puigdemont said that he would âassume the mandate for Catalonia to become an independent state in the form of a republic.â
Then he said he was delaying formally declaring independence âfor a few weeks, to open a period of dialogue.â
Finally, following that speech, Puigdemont and 71 of Cataloniaâs 135 parliamentarians began signing a document billed as a declaration of independence, nominally as representatives of a newly sovereign Catalan republic.
On Wednesday, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy accused Puigdemont of fostering âdeliberate confusion.â
âThis call â before any of the measures that the government may adopt under Article 155 of our constitution â seeks to offer citizens the clarity and security that a question of such importance requires.â
Article 155 of Spainâs constitution, known as the ânuclear option,â allows Madrid to suspend devolution and to take over running an autonomous region should that region declare independence. On Tuesday, the Spanish government appeared to close the door on any offer of negotiation.
Throughout a long and often bitter process, Madrid fiercely rejected the prospect of Catalan independence, deploying police to interrupt the vote in clashes and threatening to throw Puigdemont in jail if he went any further. Spainâs constitutional court had ruled Cataloniaâs referendum illegal, and although a majority of those who voted supported leaving Spain, fewer than 50 percent of eligible Catalan residents ultimately cast ballots.
After Puigdemont spoke, Spanish Vice President Soraya SÃ¡enz de SantamarÃa attacked the speech. âCarles Puigdemont has pushed the autonomous region to the greatest level of uncertainty,â she said on Spanish television. âNeither Mr. Puigdemont nor anyone else can derive conclusions from a law that does not exist, or a referendum that was never produced of the will of the Catalan people who, once again, want it to be appropriate.â
Following the referendum, European leaders warned Catalan authorities not to make a rash decision that would preclude any negotiations with an angry Madrid.
On Tuesday, Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, addressed Puigdemont directly in a strongly worded statement, urging him not to go through with independence.
âA few days ago I asked Prime Minister Rajoy to look for a solution to the problem without the use of force, to look for dialogue, because the force of argument is always better than the argument of force,â Tusk said. âToday I ask you to respect in your intentions the constitutional order and not to announce a decision that would make such a dialogue impossible.â
Catalonia, which prides itself on being the wealthiest region in Spain, is now also facing an exodus by some of the biggest companies based in its capital, Barcelona.
Conglomerates such as Colonial, Abertis and Cellnex have joined the banks Sabadell and Caixabank and energy company Gas Natural to switch their fiscal headquarters to Madrid or other Spanish cities in advance of a possible declaration of independence.
In all, at least 11 publicly listed companies worth more than $80Â billion have changed their fiscal addresses in the past week. The pharmaceutical company Grifols is the only entity from the Ibex-35 exchange still based in Barcelona, but there are rumors that it, too, could move.
In a symbolic gesture, the president of the Catalan sparkling-wine company Freixenet, long identified as a symbol of the regionâs heritage and international appeal, said he would ask the board to move its headquarters out of Catalonia should independence be announced.
McAuley reported from Paris.