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Spain warns it will act if Catalonia declares independence

October 09, 2017

BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy warned anew Monday that Spain will not be divided by a declaration of independence from Catalonia and said the government is ready to respond to any such attempt.

Catalan regional President Carles Puigdemont plans to address the Catalan parliament on Tuesday evening to debate the current political situation. Separatist politicians say there will be a declaration of independence for the northeastern region of 7.5 million during that session, although some ruling coalition lawmakers say the move could be simply “symbolic.”

Still, Rajoy was being as explicit as possible in warning that the national government in Madrid would not stand for such a declaration. “Spain will not be divided and the national unity will be preserved. We will do everything that legislation allows us to ensure this,” Rajoy told the German newspaper Die Welt. “We will prevent this independence from taking place.”

Secession-minded authorities in Catalonia have vowed to break away from Spain after claiming victory in a disputed independence referendum earlier this month. The Oct. 1 vote has been followed by mass protests of Catalans angered by police violence as authorities tried to stop the vote and, more recently, by others in Catalonia and Madrid urging the unity of Spain.

Yet politicians supporting Puigdemont’s minority government and civil society groups backing independence say they will not accept anything less than a full declaration of independence. “Credibility and dignity suggest making the declaration of independence tomorrow,” Jordi Sanchez, the head of the civil group National Catalonia Assembly, said Monday.

A lawmaker with the Catalan CUP party told the Associated Press that the the far-left separatists won’t accept anything short of a declaration of secession. “It’s very clear to me that those who I represent won’t accept any other scenario,” Benet Salellas said during an interview at the regional parliament.

Puigdemont has not clarified what his intentions are. Rajoy’s deputy, Soraya Saenz de Santamaria, also warned that Spain would act decisively if there was any independence declaration. “If they declare independence, there will be decisions to restore the law and democracy,” she said on Monday during a radio interview.

She called for members of the Catalan government “who still respect democracy and freedom to refrain from jumping into the void.” Catalonia’s top judicial official, meanwhile, ordered additional Spanish police protection for the headquarters of the regional judiciary.

The regional Mossos d’Esquadra police force, whose hierarchy reports to the Catalan government, had been in charge until now of guarding the palace in central Barcelona that hosts the judiciary. But the High Judiciary in Catalonia says its president, Jesus Barrientos, has asked the chief of the National Police force in the region to join in the protection of the building. The statement says a declaration of independence, even if illegal under Spanish laws, could trigger the suspension of the judiciary and the ouster of its president.

On Sunday, a massive protest in Barcelona showed the strength of Spanish unionists in Catalonia, as thousands marched with the Spanish national flag that had been absent until now in the regional debate.

They chanted “Don’t be fooled, Catalonia is Spain” and called for Puigdemont to go to prison for holding the banned referendum. Catalan authorities say the “Yes” side won the referendum with 90 percent of the vote, although only 43 percent of the region’s 5.3 million eligible voters turned out in polling that was marred by police raids of polling stations.

Rajoy has said the central government could take control of the governance of the Catalan region. “The ideal situation would be that I don’t have to find drastic solutions, but for that to happen there will have to be some rectifications (by Catalan leaders),” Rajoy said this weekend.

Rajoy’s government had repeatedly refused to grant Catalonia permission to hold a referendum on grounds that it is unconstitutional, since it would only poll a portion of Spain’s 46 million residents.

Catalonia’s separatist camp has grown in recent years, strengthened by Spain’s recent economic crisis and by Madrid’s rejection of attempts to increase self-rule in the region.

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Spanish unionists find their voice in huge Barcelona rally

October 08, 2017

BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — Spanish unionists in Catalonia finally found their voice on Sunday, resurrecting Spain’s flag as a symbol of patriotism after decades of it being associated with the Franco dictatorship.

In a defiant challenge to plans by Catalonia’s regional government to unilaterally declare independence, hundreds of thousands of people flooded the streets of Barcelona in a surprising outpouring of Spanish unity.

They chanted “Don’t be fooled, Catalonia is Spain” and called for regional president Carles Puigdemont to go to prison for holding an illegal referendum last week. Some of the demonstrators took to rooftops, including families with children, and leaned over ledges from their perches overlooking the streets below to wave giant Spanish flags in a city accustomed to the prevalence of the Catalan pro-independence “estelada.”

Spain’s red-and-yellow flag has long been taboo here in Catalonia and throughout the country because it has been linked to groups supportive of Gen. Francisco Franco’s dictatorship. But on Sunday, a sea of Spanish flags, interspersed with some Catalan and European Union flags, dominated Barcelona’s boulevards.

Barcelona police said 350,000 people participated, while march organizers Societat Civil Catalana said that 930,000 people turned out. The march was peaceful and no major incidents were reported. Puigdemont has pledged to push ahead for independence and is set to address the regional parliament on Tuesday “to report on the current political situation.” In the days after the Oct. 1 referendum, the momentum appeared to be on his side. Pro-independence protests were attracting large numbers and he benefited politically from a violent crackdown by Spanish police during the referendum voting.

But now the tide seems to be turning. Catalonia’s top two banks announced they were relocating their headquarters to other parts of Spain because of financial uncertainty if there is an independence declaration. Other companies are reportedly considering leaving Catalonia to avoid being cast out of the EU and its common market in the case of secession.

And Sunday’s mass demonstration by pro-unity Catalans, under the slogan of “Let’s recover our common sense!” will put further pressure on Puigdemont. The march was the largest pro-unionist showing since the rise of separatist sentiment in the prosperous northeastern region that has pushed Spain to the brink of a national crisis.

The rally comes a week after the Catalan government went ahead and held a referendum on secession that Spain’s top court had suspended and the Spanish government said was illegal. Catalan authorities say the “Yes” side won the referendum with 90 percent of the vote, though only 43 percent of the region’s 5.3 million eligible voters turned out in polling that was marred by police raids of polling stations on orders to confiscate ballot boxes.

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy vows that his government will not allow Catalonia, which represents a fifth of Spain’s economy, to break away from the rest of the country. In an interview with the Spanish newspaper El Pais published Sunday, Rajoy said that he will consider employing any measure “allowed by the law” to stop the region’s separatists.

Rajoy said that includes the application of Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution, which would allow the central government to take control of the governance of a region “if the regional government does not comply with the obligations of the Constitution.”

“The ideal situation would be that I don’t have to find drastic solutions, but for that to happen there will have to be some rectifications (by Catalan leaders),” Rajoy said. Rallies were held Saturday in Madrid, Barcelona and other cities to demand that Rajoy and Puigdemont negotiate to find a solution to Spain’s worst political crisis in nearly four decades.

“I hope that nothing will happen. Because (Catalonia) is going to lose more than (Spain) because businesses are fleeing from here already,” said protester Juliana Prats, a Barcelona resident. “I hope it will remain like it has been up until now, 40 years of peace.”

The rally drew Spaniards from outside the northeastern region to the Catalan capital. One group held a large banner boasting “Marbella,” a town on Spain’s southern coast. An AP reporter spoke with another man who had come from the northern Basque Country region.

Nobel Literature Prize laureate Mario Vargas Llosa and former president of the European Parliament Josep Borrell addressed the rally. “Besides Catalans, there are thousands of men and women from all corners of Spain who have come to tell their Catalan companions that they are not alone,” said Llosa, who took on Spanish citizenship in addition to that of his native Peru in 1993. “We want Barcelona to once again be the capital of Spanish culture.”

Borrell added that: “Catalonia is not a state like Kosovo where rights were systematically violated.” The most recent polls taken before the referendum showed that Catalonia’s 7.5 million residents were roughly split over secession, while a majority would support an official referendum on independence if it were condoned by Spanish authorities

Rajoy’s government has repeatedly refused to grant Catalonia permission to hold a referendum on grounds that it is unconstitutional since it would only poll a portion of Spain’s 46 million residents. Catalonia’s separatists camp has grown in recent years, strengthened by Spain’s recent economic crisis and by Madrid’s rejection of attempts to increase self-rule in the region.

Frank Griffiths contributed from London.

Member of Catalan govt wants ‘cease-fire’ with Spain

October 07, 2017

BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — A member of Catalonia’s separatist-led government has called for a “cease-fire” with Spain to decrease tensions after a disputed referendum on independence by the prosperous region.

Santi Vila, Catalonia’s regional chief for business, told Cadena SER Radio late Friday that he’s pushing for “a new opportunity for dialogue” under “a cease-fire” with Spanish authorities. Vila says he is against Catalonia unilaterally declaring independence at this moment and wants to see a committee of experts from both sides be created to work toward a solution to the political crisis.

Separatists say they won the Oct. 1 referendum, but Spain says the vote was illegal, invalid and unconstitutional. Less than half of the electorate cast ballots in the referendum which has marred by a brutal police crackdown.

Trump says Spain should stay united, opposes secession vote

September 26, 2017

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump said Tuesday that Spain should stay united, branding as “foolish” a looming secession vote by one of the country’s regional governments. “I think that Spain is a great country and it should remain united,” Trump said at a news conference following White House talks with Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy. “We’re dealing with a great, great country and it should remain united.”

Trump said he’s been watching the situation unfold in the region of Catalonia, whose leaders have vowed to hold a referendum Sunday on independence from Spain. Spain’s central government says such a vote would be illegal.

“I can say only, speaking for myself, I would like to see Spain continue to be united,” Trump said when asked about the referendum, which is challenging Rajoy’s leadership. Rajoy called the situation “just crazy” and said a referendum cannot be held because no one in the Catalan government is organizing it. He said the issue is causing division and heightening tensions in Spain.

“I want this to be resolved as soon as possible and I want us to go into a new stage where the rule of law, dialogue and common sense will prevail,” Rajoy said. Trump didn’t answer directly when asked later what advice he offered Rajoy on the issue, but said he thinks the people of Catalonia, which includes Barcelona, would stay with Spain.

“I bet you if you had accurate numbers and accurate polling, you’d find that they love their country, they love Spain and they wouldn’t leave, so I’m just for a united Spain,” Trump said. “I really think the people of Catalonia would stay with Spain. I think it would be foolish not to, if you’re talking about staying with a truly great, beautiful and very historic country.”

Trump also offered prayers and support to those affected by deadly attacks last month that killed 16 people in Barcelona and a nearby town. The Islamic State group claimed responsibility. “I want to assure the people of Spain that America stands with you in confronting this evil that threatens all of humanity,” Trump said. “We will continue to deny the terrorists their funding, their territory, and any form of support for their wicked ideology.”

Trump had said earlier Tuesday that the U.S. and Spain are allies in the fight against terrorism, saying they share notes and intelligence. He also thanked Spain at the news conference for contributing to a coalition of nations working to defeat IS, including training more than 30,000 members of the Iraqi security forces.

Rajoy said he told Trump that Spain would increase its commitment by contributing a new financial package to help rebuild Iraq.

Madrid tightens grip over Catalan spending to quash vote

September 15, 2017

MADRID (AP) — Spain’s central authorities have increased their control over Catalonia’s regional spending to make sure that no funds are diverted to paying for a suspended independence referendum, the country’s finance minister said Friday.

Following the weekly meeting of the Spanish cabinet, Cristobal Montoro said the government is also giving Catalan officials 48 hours to comply with a new system that scrutinizes public payments in order “to guarantee that not one euro will go toward financing illegal acts.”

Montoro told reporters the extraordinary controls were justified in order to pay civil servants and suppliers procuring services in education and health, among other essentials, while at the same time ensuring financial stability and defending the country’s legal order.

Last week, Spain’s constitutional court decided to suspend an independence referendum that Catalan leaders had penciled in for Oct. 1 while judges decide if it is unconstitutional, as the central government in Madrid has argued.

Separatist politicians in Catalonia — Spain’s richest region that has Barcelona as its major city — are still pressing ahead with the referendum despite the ban and despite the launch of a criminal investigation into three-quarters of Catalonia’s mayors who have supported the vote.

On Thursday, Catalan Vice President Oriol Junqueras, who is in charge of economic affairs in the northeastern region, said he would stop providing central authorities with weekly spending reports. Making these reports weekly instead of monthly, as Spain requires of all 17 regional governments, had been a measure imposed in July by Spain’s finance authorities as preparations for the referendum escalated.

Junqueras dismissed the scrutiny as politically motivated and said the Catalan government would only send the monthly reports. The Madrid-based government has also rejected calls for dialogue from Catalonia’s leading officials on framing a referendum because that can only be achieved by changing the country’s constitution through a majority in the national parliament. Under Spanish law, a secession referendum can only be promoted by the central government. All voters in Spain also have the right to vote on issues related to sovereignty.

In a letter requesting discussions, Catalan President Carles Puigdemont, Junqueras, regional parliament president Carme Forcadell and Barcelona mayor Ada Colau accused Spain of launching “an offensive of repression without precedent.”

“The prime minister can’t make something illegal into something legal,” said Inigo Mendez de Vigo, the spokesman for Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s cabinet as well as being Spain’s culture minister. The prosperous Catalonia region generates a fifth of the country’s 1.1-trillion euro economy. It enjoys ample self-government, running its own police, and has considerable powers over health and education. Taxes, foreign affairs, defense and infrastructures are in the hands of Spain’s central authorities.

Catalan independence push puts Spanish border town on edge

October 05, 2017

SAN RAFAEL DEL RIO, Spain (AP) — The river that runs through San Rafael del Rio, a quiet rural town with a population of just over 500, provides a natural boundary between the Spanish regions of Catalonia and Valencia. Now residents are worried that the escalating conflict between Spanish and Catalan authorities will split the town in two.

“People are nervous and scared because they feel this is a free-fall,” said Guadalupe Espinosa, a 47-year-old psychologist who lives on the Catalan side of the river. “I don’t like armies or borders, but maybe we will have one here. Who knows?”

Catalan leaders have said they will declare independence for the northeastern region after receiving overwhelming support for secession in a weekend referendum that Spain declared illegal and tried to stop by force. That could have particular implications for San Rafael, where the border cutting through the town until now has been a mere curiosity.

Most of San Rafael, including the town hall, is in the Valencia region, which has no plans to leave Spain. But it shares with Catalonia irrigation, roads, electricity supply and even the phone dialing prefix. Mayor Domingo Giner downplayed the conflict’s impact on the town, saying neighbors on either side of the Senia river co-exist peacefully.

“The town has other problems beyond defining its territorial entity,” said Giner, a 55-year-old pig farmer who represents the conservative Popular Party of Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy. “We need to respect each other. Our residents understand Catalonia is part of them.”

There was no outward sign of conflict this week in San Rafael, where a fountain sputtered peacefully on the main plaza as the occasional tractor rumbled by. A 100-meter (100-yard) bridge connects the main part of town with the Castell neighborhood on the Catalonian side. Some residents said they got along just fine, even though some identified as Catalans and others as Spaniards.

“Valencia and Catalonia are different, but even though the border exists, it’s the same town,” 20-year-old lifeguard Natzari Reverte said. But others, especially those old enough to remember Spanish dictator Gen. Francisco Franco’s crackdown on separatism, said tensions have risen in recent years amid the growing animosity between Catalonia’s pro-independence leaders and the Spanish government in Madrid.

“I have a brother who is pro-independence but we can’t talk about it, because it gets tense, and I don’t want to fight,” said Hector Reverter, a 74-year-old retiree having pre-lunch beers with friends at a gas station restaurant on the outskirts of the town.

Only those living on the Catalan side were able to vote in the referendum, casting their ballots in the nearby Catalan town of Ulldecona. According to preliminary results, about 90 percent of ballots cast were for independence, but many opponents are believed to have ignored the referendum. Turnout was around 40 percent.

Reverter lives on the Catalan side but opposes independence and said he would move to the Spanish side if the river were turned into the external boundary of an independent Catalonia. “I don’t want to see any border,” Reverter said. “I want to die and not see it.”

Catalonia urges mediation with Spain in secession dispute

October 02, 2017

BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — Catalan separatists called for international mediation with the Spanish government as they pushed ahead Monday with plans to declare unilateral independence this week after a violent police crackdown scarred a disputed secession referendum.

The referendum debacle only deepened Spain’s most serious political crisis since democratic rule was restored in 1978. The violence on Sunday in the prosperous northeastern region left more than 890 civilians and 430 police injured when anti-riot squads moved into polling stations and dispersed voters.

Shocking videos and photos of police dragging people by the hair and kicking them were flashed around the globe, leading some European leaders to warn about any further escalation of violence. Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont said a regional parliamentary commission would investigate why Spain’s anti-riot squads fired rubber bullets, smashed into polling stations and beat protesters with batons to disperse voters in the independence referendum that Spain opposed. He also urged the 5,000-strong contingent of special Spanish police forces deployed in Catalonia to leave immediately.

Puigdemont called Monday for the European Union “to stop looking the other way” and urged Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy to accept international mediation in the crisis. He urged the EU to view Catalonia’s desire to break away from Spain as a Europe-wide issue.

“This is not a domestic issue. The need for mediation is evident,” Puigdemont said. Calls for restraint came from across Europe, including EU chief Donald Tusk, who appealed to Rajoy to “avoid further escalation and use of force” while agreeing that the independence vote was invalid. Several human rights organizations called for an impartial investigation into the violence.

Of the 893 civilians injured in the melee, two suffered serious wounds, Catalan health authorities said. The Interior Ministry said 39 police received immediate medical treatment and 392 others had scrapes and bruises.

But Spanish authorities commended the police, saying their response to the voting was professional and proportionate. And Spain’s interior minister said the 5,000 extra officers deployed to Catalonia would stay as long as necessary.

“I don’t think there was such a heavy hand, but in any case, they had to react,” said Spanish Foreign Minister Alfonso Dastis, calling the police reaction videos “a matter of interpretation.” Speaking in Rome, Dastis said “some of the pictures are real, some of them are not real” but that police had simply responded when people prevented them from doing their job.

Catalan officials say an overwhelming majority of the 2.26 million who voted supported independence from Spain — they said 90 percent — but the central government in Madrid has repeatedly condemned the referendum as unconstitutional and invalid.

The Catalan president said the regional parliament will be asked to declare independence this week after final results are announced — and plenary sessions are scheduled for Wednesday and Thursday. The euro and Spanish stocks fell Monday as investors tried to gauge what the weekend unrest in Catalonia means for the future of Spain and European unity.

The referendum fiasco brought Spain and Catalonia closer to a potentially disastrous showdown as each side said Sunday’s events proved them right. Rajoy met with his conservative Popular Party members before seeking a parliamentary session to discuss how to confront Spain’s most serious political crisis in decades. He also met with the leaders of the opposition Socialist and Citizens parties to discuss Spain’s options, although no immediate consensus emerged.

The impasse developed after Catalan authorities decided to go ahead with Sunday’s referendum even after Spain’s Constitutional Court suspended it while assessing the claims by Rajoy’s government that the vote was illegal. The court has previously ruled against unilateral secession attempts.

Amnesty International said the Spanish police used “excessive and disproportionate” force against people “passively resisting” a judge’s order to impede the referendum. U.N. human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein called on Spain’s government to ensure “thorough, independent and impartial investigations” of the violence.

Some Catalans said both sides bore some responsibility. “I think both sides involved committed grave mistakes,” said Eric Tigra, 56. “But we must also highlight that if the people of Catalonia go out in the streets and you don’t listen to them, then something is not working right.”

In an editorial, the Spanish daily El Pais blamed the Catalan government for Sunday’s “shameful” events but also criticized the Spanish government for its inability to tackle the crisis that began about seven years ago.

So far, most European governments, the U.S. and most international bodies have backed Spain in its stance against Catalan independence, fearing that Catalonia could unleash a wave of secessionist movements. French President Emmanuel Macron called Rajoy on Monday to offer support.

“These are times for unity and stability,” EU spokesman Margaritis Schinas said, urging all sides in Spain to move from confrontation to dialogue. Catalonia, with the vibrant city of Barcelona as its capital, represents a fifth of Spain’s economy. Polls consistently show that while most of its 7.5 million inhabitants favored a referendum, they are roughly evenly split on independence from Spain.

Those in favor of secession argue that the region contributes more to the national government than it receives in return. Catalans already enjoy a wide measure of autonomy but the central government still controls taxation and other financial levers, as well as infrastructure projects.

Ciaran Giles reported from Madrid.

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