Demonstrators wave pro-independence Catalan flags and letters arranged to read "Disobedience" during protests against Catalonia's Superior Court of Justice's charges against Catalan parliament president Carme Forcadell for hosting a debate on independence © AFP

Spain is set for a further escalation in the clash of wills between Madrid and the restive region of Catalonia after the country’s constitutional court approved new powers to act against public officials who do not comply with its decisions.

The verdict confirms that the court can use a law that is seen as directed at the Catalan independence movement.

Catalonia’s parliament, controlled by a pro-secession coalition, wants to approve measures to lead the north-eastern region to separate from Spain, including an independence referendum next year. But the constitutional court has already ruled against secessionist steps by the regional parliament, including a pro-independence resolution.

Mariano Rajoy, Spain’s prime minister whose second term in office started last week, is strongly opposed to any Catalan breakaway. Legislation approved last year by members of his centre-right Popular party gave the constitutional court the right to fine or suspend officials if they defied one of its orders.

The court powers “guarantee that nobody can fail to comply with the rulings of the constitutional court and is a very clear message”, Xavier García Albiol, a Popular party legislator in Catalonia, said at the time.

PP lawmakers were alone in backing the legislation. Thursday’s judgment by the constitutional court, which voted 8 to 3 in favour, upholds the validity of that legislation.

The Catalan government reacted angrily. Oriol Junqueras, vice president of Catalonia, said: “With today’s decision by the constitutional court, the Spanish state is again showing that it is far from good democratic practices that characterize any western country.”

The court decision means that officials in Catalonia could be suspended if they pursue measures to help the region secede

One such official is Carme Forcadell, president of the Catalan parliament. Last month Catalonia’s highest court accepted a request to investigate charges of disobedience and perversion of justice against Ms Forcadell.

“With the new ruling, the court can suspend elected politicians without hearing them,” said Joan María Piqué, a Catalan government spokesman. “This is unthinkable in any modern democracy in the world. You cannot sentence anyone without hearing and without evidence and without due process.”

Whether the court will use its new powers is an open question. Analysts doubt that the constitutional court will move to suspend Ms Forcadell, at least not immediately, as that would risk significantly worsening the already fraught relationship between the regional government and Madrid.

“That would create major tension in the Catalan problem, with unpredictable effects,” said Oriol Bartomeus, a political scientist at the Autonomous University of Barcelona. “If you throw out the president of parliament, you’ll have a huge problem. But if you [impose] a fine, no big deal.”

Get alerts on Spain when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018. All rights reserved.

Follow the topics in this article