BARCELONA, Spain — Spain’s Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy on Wednesday issued a blistering denunciation of Catalonia’s regional independence referendum Oct. 1 and raised the threat of Madrid imposing direct rule on the northeast region.
The Spanish leader’s stinging rebuke marked a deepening of Spain’s worst political crisis in decades. It puts Catalonia’s separatist-minded leaders on notice that constitutional measures whose use is unprecedented in the country’s democratic history could be employed to halt the region’s independence bid.
“One thing is absolutely clear: Our democracy is experiencing one of the gravest moments in its history,” Rajoy said. Spain “cannot be fragmented unless its citizens choose.”
That echoed Madrid’s standing contention that the country as a whole would have to vote on the independence question.
Earlier, Rajoy demanded formal clarification of what he called a confusing speech a day earlier by Catalonia’s regional president, Carles Puigdemont — and said his query was being made in the context of Article 155, which gives the central government the authority to stage an administrative takeover in a Spanish region.
The European Union has sided with Spain in its contention that the referendum was illegal, and neighboring European countries including France and Germany have said they would not recognize an independent Catalonia.
Rajoy seemed to evoke solidarity among the EU’s member states in his speech.
“What is happening in Catalonia has nothing to do with democracy as we know it in Europe,” the prime minister said. “We are faced with conduct, attitudes that are not part of civilized society.”
But an administrative takeover of Catalonia by the central Spanish government would be a drastic step. Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution, which allows Madrid to annul Catalonia’s autonomy, has never been used in Spain’s democratic history.
Catalonia, a region of about 7.5 million people, proudly clings to its own language and culture. It has become Spain’s richest region, with the tourist hub of Barcelona as its capital.
Some Catalans resent having their tax revenues subsidize poorer parts of Spain, and believe they would be even more prosperous as an independent country.
Defying Spanish court rulings, the region’s separatist leaders held the Oct. 1 independence referendum. About 90 percent of the nearly 2.3 million votes cast were in favor of independence, according to the Catalan regional government.