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Catalonia MPs set new collision course with Spain

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Newly-elected lawmakers meet on 18 January 2018 in the first session of Catalonia's parliament since pro-independence parties won a majority in December elections. Reuters/Albert Gea

The parliament in the Spanish region of Catalonia named a pro-independence speaker on Wednesday, setting the ground for an attempt to restore exiled former leader Carles Puigdemont and a new political and legal standoff with Madrid.


The naming of new speaker Roger Torrent the ERC party, one of the three pro-independence parties forming a majority in the new Catalan assembly, ensures the regional parliament will take a key position on rules about the presence of lawmakers.

Several separatist MPs are either in jail or, in Puigdemont’s case, in exile in Brussels for their roles in efforts to win independence from Spain.

“The rules of the chamber require that all members of the chamber have to be present,” says Xavier Arbos Marin, professor of constitutional law at the University of Barcelona.

“Another, which directly impacts Mr. Puigdemont, is that the candidate to be elected as president of Catalonia, has to present, physically, his speech before the chamber.”

Puigdemont left Spain after being fired by Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy last year and faces arrest and potentially decades in jail if he returns.

But he and his team have floated the idea of ruling by proxy or videolink from Brussels, and the new assembly has come together in the spirit that Puigdemont is the rightful leader of the region.

“There was an election on 21 December, the parties that supported Puigdemont as president won a clear majority, therefore it is clear the people of Catalonia want Carles Puigdemont to be reinstated as president,” says Catalan Assembly spokesperson Adria Alsina Leal.

“Therefore the first priority of MPs of this new parliament should be to reinstate Carles Puigdemont, no matter how,” he continues. “If we believe the Catalan people should be allowed to choose who they want as president, it shouldn’t matter whether the candidate is in Barcelona, in Brussels or on the moon.”

But Rajoy says Madrid would not recognise an in-absentia government, and any attempt to restore Puigdemont by proxy would put Catalonia on a new collision course with Spain.

“If Mr. Puigdemont is elected by the Catalan parliament, the Spanish Constitutional Court would suspend the result of this election, and Mr. Puigdemont will not be formally designated as the president of Catalonia,” says Xavier Arbos Marin.

“The president of Catalonia becomes formally elected after the king signs the royal decree of designation, but the king cannot sign if the result of the vote by the parliament has been suspended by the Constitutional Court.”

Madrid took control of the Catalan semi-autonomous administration late last year and called the December elections in hopes of dampening the nationalist sentiment that led to the October referendum.

But the election gave three pro-independence parties a relatively thin but clear majority, and they are united in the wish to see their sovereignty returned.

“If the Spanish government doesn’t allow the Catalans to choose who they want to be their president and heading their institutions, then we’ll probably get into some sort of political confrontation by summer,” says Adria Alsina Leal.

“But that is up to the Spanish government, whether they recognise the results of 21 December and of today, or whether they don’t.”

The Catalan Assembly has until 31 January to name an new regional president, making the coming weeks decisive for the future direction of relations with Spain.