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Rajoy files constitutional complaint against Catalan Parliament’s new rules for fast-tracking independence legislation

The Spanish Prime Minister says he doesn’t “know” whether the Catalan government has already purchased the ballot boxes for the independence vote and points out that only president Puigdemont has the power to call a regional election in Catalonia

Avoiding any last-minute surprises, the Spanish government has followed to the letter its well-rehearsed response to Catalonia’s independence bid. Having received the endorsement of the Council of State only the day before, on Friday the Spanish executive formally asked the Constitutional Court (TC in Spanish) to suspend the new rules approved on Wednesday by the Catalan parliament that would allow it to fast-track key independence legislation.

Mariano Rajoy made the announcement himself during the customary press conference where the PM reflects on his government’s policies to date, ahead of the summer recess. Rajoy stressed that the Catalan parliament’s new rules “merely aim to expedite independence” and to impose “without qualms” a “radical, divisive” secessionist agenda, as well as destroy “the law and Catalonia’s home rule”. Rajoy's appeal was endorsed by Spain’s Council of State, which only needed twenty hours to issue a favourable report.

The Council warned that the new rules of the Catalan chamber are a violation of “the right to participate of the minority in parliament” which supposedly conflicts with article 23.2 of the Spanish Constitution and article 96 of the Catalan Statute. Rajoy emphasised that “as mentioned in the report, the right of the parliament’s minority to engage in political debate on equal terms, as guaranteed by the law, may have been infringed upon”.

The Constitutional Court will meet on Monday

Spain’s TC will meet on Monday at 17.30 and will presumably allow the government’s appeal, thus suspending the Catalan parliament’s changes which will have been approved not even five days earlier. Two weeks ago the court held its last session before the summer recess, but the judges had remained on call in the event that such an appeal should be filed.

PM Rajoy insisted that “there won’t be any referendum” because it is “unlawful” and he mentioned Foment del Treball, the employers’ group that recently slammed Catalonia’s referendum law calling it a “legal coup d’état”, as well as the criticisms aimed at the October 1 vote by the head of the Catalan parliament’s legal services. “These facts prove that Catalan society, on the whole, is diverse and has a moderate disposition”, he said, and he vowed to remain “determined” to uphold the law “with restraint” and “to the extent which the rule of law allows for”. Nevertheless, Rajoy insisted that he remains “willing to discuss matters with Catalonia’s institutions”.

Mariano Rajoy did not seem unduly concerned over the issues which his team has recently warned the Catalan authorities about. For instance, he did not mention the threat to cut Catalonia off Spain’s Regional Liquidity Fund (FLA, in Spanish) and he admitted that he didn’t “know” whether the Catalan government has already acquired the ballot boxes for the referendum on independence. He also claimed "no knowledge” of any interrogations of members of the Pact for the Referendum by the Guardia Civil without a court order, as Catalonia’s High Court has pointed out. Still, sources from the Spanish government claimed that the ballot boxes have not been purchased yet and that any information to the contrary is "merely a rumour”.

The goal: to abort the independence bid

Furthermore, Rajoy gave no details of his government’s next steps, but he stated that he has no intention to take away Puigdemont’s power to call elections in order to hold a snap ballot in Catalonia. He did emphasise that “things must return to normal” in Catalonia after October 1. “We cannot have another four-year term like this”, he said, and he asked to turn a new page on Catalan politics. Rajoy added that he has already discussed the scenario after October 1 with Ciudadanos and the PSOE and he is keeping them permanently informed about his government’s plans to stop the vote. “We have had a preliminary discussion about what will happen after October 1, but no decisions have been taken”, he remarked.

The subject of Catalonia keeps cropping up in Rajoy’s yearly political overview before the summer break. Two years ago he referred to the Catalan elections of September 27 as the greatest threat to Spain. A year earlier, it was the non-binding referendum of November 9 2014. Rajoy will be holidaying in Pontevedra whilst keeping an eye on the Catalan government.  Yesterday a Spanish government official joked that “we have been looking forward to Puigdemont going on holiday. We can relax for as long as he stays out of the picture”.

No action is expected against the tabling of the referendum bill

Spanish government sources claim that no legal action is expected against the Catalan referendum bill, which is due to be tabled in parliament next Monday. They stress that the entire Board of the Catalan parliament has been warned that they mustn’t table any referendum legislation unless they wish to face criminal charges and Madrid will only take action once the Board has made a move. The same sources say that the new legislation will be put on the back burner for a while and that it will not get the green light. This way —and once the TC has suspended the reform of the Catalan parliament— Madrid is hoping to avert the independence vote once and for all.

A phone call with Puigdemont

At present the relationship between Rajoy and Puigdemont is non-existent. However, today Rajoy rang the Catalan president to hear about the train crash in Barcelona and show his sympathy. Both leaders posted messages on Twitter thanking each other. Spanish vice president Soraya Sáenz de Santamaría also rang her Catalan counterpart, Oriol Junqueras. The Spanish PM noted that they had only discussed the crash and did not mention any plans to meet the Catalan leader.

Rajoy complains about endless corruption questions

The subject of Catalonia was the highlight of Rajoy’s press conference and Wednesday’s statement as a witness before the Supreme Court over the Gürtel corruption case took back seat. During the Q&A, the Spanish premier complained that the opposition keeps asking him about the same issue nearly a decade later. Rajoy stated that “I believe we have enough political problems in Spain as it is, and we shouldn’t give the public the idea that the most important issue is a ten-year-old affair”. He stressed that he has every intention to work with justice.

Rajoy used the press conference to take aim at PSOE leader Pedro Sánchez over his deal with Podemos to try to force an extraordinary session in parliament to question the PM about his party’s corruption scandals. Rajoy remarked that “anything that gets blown out of proportion always becomes irrelevant. And, besides, it’s a bad idea to allow anxiety to guide your actions”.

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