Catalonia's president to bring crisis to head in parliament

  10 October 2017    Read: 588
Catalonia's president to bring crisis to head in parliament

Spain’s worst political crisis in four decades is set to come to a head on Tuesday when the Catalan president, Carles Puigdemont, reveals his plans for independence as he addresses the regional parliament for the first time since the referendum that provoked the standoff with the Spanish government.

Although Puigdemont had originally promised to make a unilateral declaration of independence within 48 hours of a victory for the secessionist campaign, he has so far held off doing so, calling instead for mediated negotiations with the Madrid government.

His appearance before parliament comes after the Spanish prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, threatened to impose direct rule on Catalonia and a series of banks and businesses announced plans to relocate from the region amid the enduring uncertainty.

Despite the growing national and international pressure, it is unclear whether Puigdemont will push ahead with a formal declaration of independence or choose a less drastic option in the hope of avoiding any further escalation of tensions with Madrid.

The Spanish government – which has repeatedly argued that the referendum and the laws underpinning it are illegal and unconstitutional – has said it will use all the legal means at its disposal to stop Catalonia splitting from the rest of the country.

A Catalan government source dismissed suggestions that the president would opt for a merely symbolic recognition of independence, but refused to be drawn on what he might do.

“We’re still on track. We’re here to do what we’re here to do and we will do it especially now that we know that people have voted in a referendum and the result is clear,” they said.

“We’re not doing anything apart from what we have committed to do. It is the president’s prerogative to establish the exact parameters on which this will be done.”

Rajoy has vowed to preserve national unity and shown himself willing to invoke article 155 of the Spanish constitution, which allows the central government to take control of an autonomous region if it “does not fulfil the obligations imposed upon it by the constitution or other laws, or acts in a way that is seriously prejudicial to the general interest of Spain”.

Invoking the article, which has never been used, would provoke an angry response in Catalonia. Tempers in the region remain high following the Spanish police’s efforts to stop the referendum on 1 October, which saw officers raiding polling stations, beating voters and firing rubber bullets at crowds.

Rajoy has also said the thousands of Guardia Civil and national police officers originally deployed in Catalonia to prevent the vote would remain there “until things return to normal”.

Much could rest on the response of the Catalan regional police, the Mossos d’Esquadra, to either a unilateral declaration of independence or the imposition of direct rule from Madrid.

Unions representing the two national forces have already accused the Mossos d’Esquadra of “clear disobedience” and an “unacceptable passivity” when it came to halting the referendum.

While the Mossos agreed to seal off polling stations during the referendum, they warned that such actions risked public order.

The head of the force, Josep Lluís Trapero, is being investigated for sedition by Spain’s national court amid accusations that the Mossos failed to assist Guardia Civil officers who raided government buildings and arrested 14 Catalan officials last month.

On Monday, it emerged that the head of the Catalan high court had ordered Spanish national police officers to help protect the court building, which is usually guarded by the Mossos. Explaining his decision in a statement, Jesús María Barrientos said a declaration of independence could disrupt the running of the court and could even result in judges – including himself – being removed.

Speaking on Monday evening, the mayor of Barcelona, Ada Colau, called for urgent negotiations, saying Spain was facing its “greatest institutional crisis” since its return to democracy following the death of Franco in 1975.

She asked both Rajoy and Puigdemont to drop their entrenched positions and to talk to each other. “We cannot allow ourselves to jeopardise either social cohesion or Catalan institutions,” she said.

“The results of 1 October cannot be used as a guarantee for the declaration of independence. But they do represent an opportunity to open dialogue and international mediation.” Urging both sides to calm the tensions, she added: “It’s time to build bridges; not to blow them up.”

Colau told Rajoy not to invoke article 155 and asked him to pull the Spanish police officers out of the region, saying that negotiations would be impossible without such moves.

She said: “I want to stress that we have to abandon the trenches and the bellicose language that speaks of brave people’ and ‘defeated people’. Let’s give ourselves time to open a real space for unconditional dialogue and mediation. This isn’t just a local cry, it’s a cry that’s shared in Europe and all around the world. This isn’t the time for a train crash; it’s the time for talking and coming up with new paths.”

The Catalan government’s calls for international mediation to resolve the issue have so far gone unheeded.

France’s European affairs minister, Nathalie Loiseau, said her country would not recognise a unilaterally independent Catalonia, and urged both sides to negotiate their way out of the crisis.

“If there were to be a declaration of independence, it would be unilateral, and it would not be recognised,” she said on Monday.

“Catalonia cannot be defined by the vote organised by the independence movement just over a week ago,” she told CNews television. “This crisis needs to be resolved through dialogue at all levels of Spanish politics.”

Later on Monday, a spokesman for Spain’s governing People’s party said the Catalan independence crisis was a domestic matter.

“This isn’t Yugoslavia,” Pablo Casado told reporters. “No one needs to come and mediate anything here.”

Casado also went on to compare Puigdemont to the former Catalan president Lluís Companys, who was jailed after declaring a Catalan republic in 1934. Companys, who was exiled in France after the Spanish civil war, was later extradited by the Nazi authorities and shot dead by a Francoist firing squad in 1940.

Noting the recent 83rd anniversary of Companys’ declaration, Casado said: “Let’s hope nothing’s declared tomorrow otherwise whoever declares it could end up like the one who declared it 83 years ago.”

Casado later explained that he had been referring to Companys’ imprisonment rather than his execution.

Nevertheless, the comparison was swiftly attacked. Pablo Iglesias, leader of Spain’s anti-austerity Podemos party, tweeted: “Casado says Puigdemont could end up like Companys, who was tortured and shot. He’s either stupid or an irresponsible troublemaker.”

According to the Catalan government, 90% of participants voted for independence in the referendum on 1 October, with 2.3 million of Catalonia’s 5.3 million registered voters casting a ballot.

A full count of the votes has been complicated by the fact that police removed many ballot boxes from polling stations and shut down polling stations where up to 770,000 people could have voted.

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