Crunch day for Catalonia as Madrid takes control

Agence France-Presse
Crunch day for Catalonia as Madrid takes control
(UPDATED) Catalan leaders, sacked by the central Spanish government, urge 'democratic opposition' to Madrid, raising fears around Europe that Spain's worst crisis in decades might turn ugly

BARCELONA, Spain (UPDATED) – Spain watched tensely to see whether Catalan separatist leaders would show up at their offices on Monday, October 30, to resist Madrid as it took over the running of the region in the EU country’s biggest crisis in decades.

A day after hundreds of thousands marched in Barcelona for Spanish unity, all eyes were on the regional government building to see whether Carles Puigdemont, who the central government declared dismissed as regional president on Friday, or any members of his former administration would appear.

Catalan police, now under orders from Madrid, have been told they can allow the dismissed leaders to enter the government headquarters in Barcelona, but only to clear their desks.

One member of the dismissed government, Josep Rull, posted on Twitter a photograph of himself “at the office, carrying out the responsibilities the Catalan people have tasked me with” as a regional minister.

But there was so far no sign of key player Puigdemont. Spanish TV carried live pictures of the building’s entrance but by late morning Puigdemont – who on Saturday urged “democratic opposition” – had not arrived.

Late on Friday the Spanish Senate gave Madrid the power to impose direct rule on Catalonia under Article 155 of the constitution, the first time this so-called “nuclear option” has been applied.

That followed a unilateral declaration of independence by Catalonia’s parliament the same day. Madrid took control of key powers and fresh Catalan elections were called for December 21.

Police chiefs in Catalonia have been replaced by Madrid and photos of Puigdemont were ordered to be removed from police stations. The outgoing head of the Catalan police, Josep Lluis Trapero, has urged officers to be loyal to their new superiors.

Some 200,000 civil servants in Catalonia – a wealthy region of 7.5 million people in north-east Spain – are now meant to take direct orders from Madrid.

‘Psychological war’

Puigdemont’s deputy Oriol Junqueras this weekend called Madrid’s move a “coup d’etat”, defiantly still signing off in a Catalan newspaper as the region’s “vice-president”.

But the international community including the European Union, already struggling with Brexit and other challenges, has largely spurned the independence declaration and has united behind Madrid.

Donald Tusk, EU president, said Friday that Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, 62, “remains our only interlocutor”.

Spain’s Foreign Minister Alfonso Dastis said Sunday it was “hard to see” how Puigdemont and the others, who prosecutors may charge with a string of offences this week, “will go on governing”.

“Reality is already sinking in, will continue sinking in and they will realise that they cannot do something without the authority of law,” he told Britain’s Sky News.

A source within the separatist camp told AFP that if Puigdemont – who has kept a low profile since Saturday – and the others try to show up at work on Monday “then we will come out and support them”.

Another separatist source described the situation as the “beginning of a psychological war” with Rajoy’s government.

“What we have to do is to resist Article 155, in a symbolic manner of course, and to show that the (Spanish) state’s power here is weak and cannot totally impose itself,” the source said.

“Puigdemont remains president for me and for all those who voted for him. Only they can dissolve Catalonia’s parliament,” voter Maria Angels Selgas, 60, told AFP in Barcelona.

Demo for unity

With its own language and distinct culture, Catalonia accounts for about 16% of Spain’s population and a fifth of the eurozone country’s economy.

The current crisis was sparked by a referendum on October 1 in which participants voted in favour of the region, which already has considerable autonomy, breaking away.

Turnout was only 43% and the vote was blighted by a violent crackdown by national police. Rajoy’s government declared the plebiscite illegal.

After Friday’s declaration of independence, Catalan lawmakers hugged and sang the Catalan anthem. The session was beamed onto giant screens outside and a crowd of 15,000 cheered every “yes” vote.

But on Sunday it was the turn of supporters of a united Spain, with hundreds of thousands taking to the streets not of Madrid but of the Catalan capital Barcelona, waving Spanish and European flags and chanting “Viva Espana”.

Municipal police said the crowd numbered about 300,000. Organizers said 1.3 million turned out and the central government’s representative in Catalonia put the figure at one million.

The referendum “was an act of madness that has brought us to the brink,” said Alex Ramos, the vice-president of Societat Civil Catalana, a group opposed to independence that organized the rally.

“The streets don’t belong just to the separatists,” he added. –