Reacting to the suggestion that the Catalan separatist leader Carles Puigdemont may become the region’s president in exile, the Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy threatened to retain direct rule.

Puigdemont remains in Brussels since October 2017, when he was dismissed from the Presidency following an illegal independence referendum.

According to legal advice issued by the Catalan Parliament on Monday, January 15, Puigdemont would need to be physically present in parliament to be elected President. That goes against the suggestion of the secessionist coalition that Puigdemont may be elected via Skype.

If he leaves Brussels for Barcelona, Puigdemont faces the prospect of an arrest, a trial, and a maximum 30-year sentence for the crime of “rebellion.” Six of his former cabinet ministers have already been arrested on similar charges.

In October 2017 the Spanish government evoked a constitutional clause that allows the central government to suspend regional autonomy and impose direct rule. Madrid then called for regional elections in December, in which secessionist parties secured a thin parliamentary majority with a 47% share of the popular vote.

The Catalan Parliament is due to convene on Wednesday, January 17, to choose a new interim administration. A new Catalan executive and President must be selected by January 31st.

If the separatist leader attends the region’s parliamentary vote, the Spanish government will challenge the new administration in court. Moreover, prime minister Rajoy made clear that Madrid will continue to exercise direct rule over the region.