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Catalan finance official: We are lowering Spanish debt

شعار Al Jazeera Al Jazeera 17/10/2017
A man wears an Estelada, Catalan separatist flag, as protesters gathered outside the regional government headquarters [Gonzalo Fuentes/Reuters] © Provided by Al Jazeera A man wears an Estelada, Catalan separatist flag, as protesters gathered outside the regional government headquarters [Gonzalo Fuentes/Reuters]

Barcelona, Spain - After failing to clarify whether or not he is declaring independence from Spain, Catalonia's President Carles Puigdemont now has until Thursday to make his stance clear.

In avoiding the ultimatum set by Spain to answer the key question, Puigdemont delivered a letterto Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy on Monday asking for two months of dialogue to initiate independence.

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Although Puigdemont declared independence on October 10 following a disputed independence referendum on October 1, the Catalan Republic lasted for just eight seconds before the president suspended the declaration in an attempt to initiate talks with Madrid.

Those talks have not taken place.

If Puigdemont does not clearly rescind independence, Madrid is expected to enact Article 155.

Referred to as the "nuclear option", Article 155 has never been used before and allows the central government to take control of Catalonia's regional government.

Al Jazeera spoke with Albert Puig Pascual, spokesperson for the Catalan Ministry of Economy and Finance, about the fiscal and political implications of Article 155, the role the economy plays in the crisis and his view on the path to an independent Catalonia.

Al Jazeera: If Spain implements Article 155, and it is a very broad application, there would surely be a grassroots reaction from the people of Catalonia?

Puig: One weapon the Catalans have is people.  What will we do? I don't know. Will we go out to the street? Today we have two members of the Catalan civil society and in Madrid going before a jury. The chief of the Catalan police is there with them. We will see. I cannot see the future.

[Note: Catalan Police Chief Josep Lluis Trapero was charged with sedition on Monday but released on bail. Jordi Sanchez and Jordi Cuixart, from separate, pro-independence lobbying firms, were both charged with sedition and kept without bail. Catalans are referring to them as the first political prisoners.]

The other weapon is help coming from Europe. 

Our struggle is to maintain the economy, but [Madrid is] taking more control and that is slowing the Catalan economy. Someone from Europe saying "Ok, sit and talk", [along with the Catalan people], are the only two weapons that we have and we do not control them, at least not 100 percent.

Al Jazeera: Analysts say Rajoy has to cultivate a strongman image to appear he is handling the Catalan issue, but this is also a question of financial losses for Madrid...

Puig: One important thing, I think that it's the most important issue, is the debt. Who is paying the Spanish debt? In Catalonia, the growth of the GDP is above the deficit. We are, little by little, lowering the deficit. That means we are paying the debt. And in Madrid, the deficit is over the growth of the Spanish GDP.

I think that since the very moment the European Central Bank (ECB) sees there is no point to [continue punishing Catalonia]. They're killing the lamb that gives you wool and food. It's like, how do the Americans say, shooting yourself in the foot.

Al Jazeera: But that also presents another problem, because then if Spain loses Catalonia it loses the part of its country that is paying its debt. Then Europe has to deal with a much weaker Spain, which is the fifth strongest economy in Europe. I would assume Europe does not want Catalonia to leave, either.

Puig: I totally agree. A journalist once told me that we are a real threat to Europe. [Catalan independence] would mean that Europe has to reform itself.

All the people in the bubble of Brussels, it's a club of large states: Spain, France, Germany. We have to be more together. More Europe, less states. That's what we want as Catalans. Of course, it's a threat to Spain and Europe.

Al Jazeera: So what hope does Catalonia have to be an independent state? Its own economic strength makes the European system not want it to happen.

Puig: I think Europe has to say no until the last minute. It's like the independence of Ireland in the past, or the US, or even India. In the last second, they said, "No no no", and then they started negotiations [on independence].

Historically, that's the story.

The thing that is new is reaching that level we reached on October 1. When the police used force on old people and children. The next step, in history, would have been war. A violent confclit. But we, the Catalans, decided at the beginning of this process to put the lluita armada [Catalan for "armed conflict] in a desk and to never touch it again. If there's one person dead, we would stop and go to home.

You would say: "This is impossible, how would you do that?" I don't know. We'll have to be creative, we'll have to be patient … we are trying to do that.

Al Jazeera: How much longer do you think this back-and-forth between Madrid and Barcelona will continue?

Puig: Well, that's the question. I think the response is on a table of the ECB. Right now, the payment of the debt, the credit default swapped, and the IBEX [the Spanish stock market], they're controlled.

We think the ECB is buying, artificially, Spanish debt. It could be two days, two weeks, two years. I don't know.

Al Jazeera: If Article 155 is put into place, and Catalonia's economy...

Puig: It depends on how Article 155 is implemented. If it's [a light implementation], I'm not sure people will rise up in the streets.

Imagine that they decide to, one of our worst scenarios, send tanks out in the streets … The image! In Europe, even in the states. Even Mr. Trump will [have questions].

The interview was edited for clarity and length.

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