Deposed Catalan leader Puigdemont continues to defy Madrid as pro-unity protests take Barcelona

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Pro-unity protesters gathered for a rally in Catalonia’s capital Barcelona on Sunday, two days after regional lawmakers voted to break away from Spain, plunging the country into an unprecedented political crisis.

As protesters gathered for the march, the deputy president of the region’s now-deposed government lashed out against Madrid over what he called a “coup d’etat”.

“The president of the country is and will remain Carles Puigdemont,” his deputy Oriol Junqueras wrote in Catalan newspaper El Punt Avui.

Junqueras used the word “country” to refer to Catalonia, whose lawmakers pushed Spain into uncharted waters Friday with a vote to declare the region independent.

“We cannot recognise the coup d’etat against Catalonia, nor any of the anti-democratic decisions that the PP (Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s ruling Popular Party) is adopting by remote control from Madrid,” Junqueras wrote.

He signed the article as the “vice president of the government of Catalonia”.

There were fears on Saturday that Mr Puigdemont faced imminent arrest after he continued to defy Madrid by standing by the declaration of independence he led in Catalonia’s parliament.

Mr Puigdemont could face more than 30 years in prison and sources from the Spanish public prosecutor’s office said they would demand that he be remanded in custody as soon as he is arrested.

Spain’s prosecution service was preparing accusations of rebellion and misuse of public funds against Mr Puigdemont for going ahead with an illegal referendum on independence for Catalonia, held on October 1 amid scenes of police violence against hundreds of voters.

However, a spokesperson for Madrid central government has since said Mr Puigdemont will be able to stand in the upcoming snap election. “I’m quite sure that if Puigdemont takes part in these elections, he can exercise this democratic opposition,” Íñigo Méndez de Vigo said, as quoted by Reuters.

Friday’s declaration of independence in Catalonia’s parliament made Mr Puigdemont’s arrest a possibility. 

In a televised address Saturday afternoon, hours after he was officially dismissed by government decree under emergency powers granted to Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, Mr Puigdemont raised the stakes again by asking Catalans “to defend our conquests” through the use of mass civil disobedience.

Ignoring the fact that he had been formally dismissed from his post, Mr Puigdemont said: “We cannot and do not want to win through force. Not us.”

Catalan activists are preparing to defend the declaration of independence, despite the fact that the international community has snubbed the declaration.

Theo Francken, the Belgian minister for asylum and migration, said that Mr Puigdemont may be able to seek asylum in Belgium should the need arise.

“Catalans who feel politically threatened can apply for asylum in Belgium. This includes the minister-president Puigdemont. It’s completely legal.”

The Spanish government on Saturday appeared to have gained the upper hand in a standoff with the Catalonian government by taking swift and what it hopes will prove decisive action as pro-union sentiment grows. 

Its manoeuvres against Catalonia’s unilateral declaration of independence represent the first time that Mr Rajoy has directly confronted the Catalonian leadership rather than relying on the courts and police to rein it in.

The decisions agreed by Mr Rajoy’s cabinet on Friday evening, to use special powers granted to the government by Spain’s senate to remove Carles Puigdemont as leader of the Catalan government along with all of his ministers, came into effect in the early hours of Saturday, effectively undoing the declaration of a republic that had lasted only half a day.

In all, at least 150 officials and their appointed aides were stripped of their jobs by the measures. Diplocat, Catalonia’s network of foreign ‘ambassadors’ that has long raised hackles with the administration in Madrid, was another casualty of Spain’s measures.

Juan Ignacio Zoído, Spain’s interior minister and now in charge of security in Catalonia, moved to replace the chief of the regional police force, Josep Lluís Trapero. The reason given for removing him as the head of the Mossos d’Esquadra force was Major Trapero’s “legal situation”, given that the former police chief is one step away from being charged with sedition for his role in allegedly allowing the illegal October 1 referendum to go ahead.

The morning after the declaration of independence in Catalonia, confusion reigned on the streets of Barcelona as to what regime was in power.

Catalan President Carles Puigdemont speaks during a statement at the Palau Generalitat today Credit: Presidency Press Service, Pool Photo via AP

“The question is who’s in charge?” said Manolo, who did not wish to give his surname.

Others wondered what comes next. “They’ve fired the president and now they’re telling us to hold elections. How can we have elections because Madrid orders them?” wondered 46-year-old Mireia Garcia.

Catalonia’s pro-independence parties have to decide quickly whether and how they will take part in the snap ballot called for December 21 by Mr Rajoy.

The far-left CUP party has already said it will boycott the elections as it no longer recognises Madrid’s authority, and other independence parties are considering whether they will make the same decision. “We will have a massive rebel paella,” said CUP parliamentarian Mireia Boya, in a jocular reference to the elections being called for a Thursday, a traditional paella day, rather than the usual Sunday.

The possibility of a boycott by pro-independence parties was seen as real enough by former Catalonian leader, Artur Mas, who this week said it would be “lethal” to the sovereignty movement.

The independence movement only enjoyed a slight majority in Catalonia’s parliament, and some activists fear a boycott will mean a comfortable majority for pro-Madrid parties come December.

Seemingly exhausted by weeks of decision making over whether and how to proclaim independence, Mr Puigdemont’s televised statement on Saturday expressed determination but gave no details on what the ousted Catalan government plans to do in the coming weeks.

People wave Spanish flags during a mass protest by people angry with Catalonia’s declaration of independence Credit: AP Photo/Paul White

“Our will is to continue working to fulfill our democratic mandates,” Mr Puigdemont said.

Despite being at risk of arrest for rebellion against Spanish constitutional order, Mr Puigdemont on Saturday cut a relaxed figure when he was caught by the cameras of La Sexta television channel enjoying a meal and a drink in a neighbourhood restaurant in his native Girona.

One other member of the axed Catalan government, Josep Rull, remained defiant. Announcing on Twitter that his territory and sustainability department had approved contracts to improve Catalonia’s rail network worth 9.5 million euros, Mr Rull ended the message by saying: “We continue”.

In Madrid thousands massed under Colón square’s massive Spanish flag to demand that Catalonia’s rebellion be put to an end. “Prison for Puigdemont”, demonstrators shouted.

Jorge Marín, a 38-year-old engineer, said: “In the end, this is going to come to nothing.

“The Catalans aren’t serious, and we’re not serious, because they’re not really getting independence, and we’re not going to put them in prison for what they’re doing.”

The Madrid government is concerned about the potential for confrontation across Catalonia during a weekend of demonstrations and following police violence earlier in the month.

Local newspaper El País quoted Spanish government sources saying the plan is to act “with prudence and proportionality” to ease Catalonia’s former leaders out of their posts, fearful of scenes of street clashes involving police being beamed around the world as happened during the October 1 referendum on independence.

Spanish State Secretaries and undersecretaries discuss yesterday’s events at the State Secretary of Land Management Credit: EPA/JJ GUILLEN

Volunteers to heed a call to mount the civil disobedience hinted at by Mr Puigdemont, are not hard to find.

“If they say that Puigdemont and the speaker of parliament are going to be arrested, we will go and defend them. It will be peaceful resistance. Let it be they who do the violence,” Sara, a 17-year-old who did not wish to reveal her surname, told the Telegraph on a Barcelona street this weekend.

“We’ve declared independence and now come the consequences. It will be humiliating if we don’t struggle,” agreed her 19-year-old friend, Paula.

Deputy Prime Minister Soraya Sáenz de Santamaría, widely regarded as the best communicator in the conservative Popular Party government, has been entrusted with the key role of coordinating direct rule from Madrid, but she will face a difficult task. 

Marti Olivella, a veteran activist imprisoned in the 1970s for refusing to do compulsory military service, was teaching groups of volunteers techniques of passive resistance in a park next to Barcelona’s Sants railway station on Saturday.

“I think it’s an illusion to think that people who have led us this far and declared independence are going to just walk away because a law is published,” Mr Olivella said in reference to the imposition of Article 155 and the Spanish government’s dismissal of Catalonia’s entire ministerial team.

“If they stay there, rock solid in their ministry buildings and in parliament, and a sector of society makes access difficult, it will be complicated for the authorities. Don’t forget that two million people put their physical safety on the line to go out and vote in the referendum.”  

Eva Casas, a 54-year-old bookseller from Barcelona, recalls what she calls the Spanish security forces’ “terrorist violence” as they attempted to break up the referendum. “Today we are a republic. Tomorrow the forces of occupation will try and stop us. We are Spain’s last colony. Spain doesn’t know us, but they want our territory and our wealth.

“The police came in to the polling station and we weren’t afraid. People took the blows, went to hospital and came out in slings to cast their votes. We hope this time that the European Union will condemn Rajoy and his violence.”

But the organisers of a march against independence also hope to take over the streets of Barcelona on Sunday.

Pro-independence supporters celebrate following the parliamentary vote Credit: Angel Garcia/Bloomberg

Alex Ramos, vice president of Catalan Civil Society, said he is expecting up to a million people to celebrate what he called the “end of the surreal and disturbing adventure by the nationalist political class”.

Britain’s Foreign Office has issued a warning to tourists to “exercise caution” in Barcelona and Catalonia due to the political developments of recent days. 

“Further gatherings and demonstrations are very likely to take place in the coming days; they may occur with little or no warning and even demonstrations intended to be peaceful can escalate and turn confrontational”, the notice says.

Barcelona is bracing for economic uncertainty after investors sold off Spanish bonds and shares in Catalan banks in reaction to Friday’s vote, while Catalonia’s future in the EU single market looked in doubt.

Announcing draconian measures to impose direct rule on the region yesterday, Mr Rajoy said he hoped his planned restoration of constitutional order would mean that “no more companies, and no more investors” would join the exodus after two of the country’s top five banks announced their decision to leave Catalonia.

But large global banks and funds are no longer convinced that the premier can contain the crisis.

“We are going to destroy the work of two generations in Catalonia,” said Joaquín Gay, president of Foment de Treball, the region’s leading business organisation.

Nearly 1,700 companies have moved their headquarters outside of Catalonia since the referendum three weeks ago. 

Many business leaders are worried that as a result of the uncertainty the Catalan economy, the largest in Spain and which accounts for a fifth of its GDP, will lose its strength. Earlier this month, as a result of the uncertainty, Spain cut growth forecasts for its economy next year from 2.3 per cent to 2.6 per cent. 

On Friday, shares in Catalonian banks fell sharply on Spain’s Ibex-35. CaixaBank, which is Spain’s third largest lender, immediately fell by around five per cent while Sabadell, the country’s fifth biggest bank, fell roughly six percent. Both announced earlier this month they planned to move their headquarters from Barcelona.

“When you lose CaixaBank, a symbol of Catalonia, it’s demoralising. Companies like Sabadell are going to move their top management, and then it will be assets leaving. The same thing that happened to Quebec is going to happen here,” Carlos Rivadulla of the association Empresaris de Catalunya (Catalan businesspeople), told the Telegraph.

Sabadell confirmed on Friday that it is moving its management offices out of Barcelona, following its decision to change registered office earlier in the month.

Jaime Guardiola, the chief executive of Sabadell, said that all banks, not just his, have moved deposits out of Catalonia and into safer parts of Spain.

“Money is easily scared and even though we tell customers there is no problem, many have decided to move their money,” he said.

The immediate impact on tourism – a crucial constituent of the Barcelona economy – has also been marked.

Flight booking forecasting business, ForwardKeys, reported that air travel bookings to Catalonia are down 22 per cent this month compared to the same period last year.

As a result, local businesses are suffering. Javier, who runs three restaurants in Barcelona told The Telegraph: “We’ve seen an alarming drop-off in business of more than 30 per cent since the start of October. It’s unsustainable if this carries on. 

“People in the tourism trade are all saying the same and it is impossible to overstate the importance of these services to Catalonia’s economy.”

Investors appeared to believe the crisis will be resolved, though analysts say the risks are growing daily.

“We still think that the economic effects of this political crisis will be manageable,” said Stephen Brown, economist at Capital Economics.

12:01PM

Pro-independence parties weakened, poll shows

The first major opinion poll published since the snap election was announced by by Mr Rajoy shows that pro-independence parties are in danger of losing the slender majority they had in parliament, writes James Badcock in Barcelona.

Based on polling last week up to the day before independence was declared, the Sigma Dos poll published on Sunday by the newspaper El Mundo predicts a combined vote for Mr Puigdemont’s PDeCAT party, the Catalan Republican Left and the far-left CUP of just 42.5 per cent, which would see them fall short of a majority in the chamber.

11:39AM

Unity protest in Barcelona 

Tens of thousands of demonstrators, many of them carrying Spanish and official “senyera” Catalan flags, have gathered on a central Barcelona boulevard in a call for Spain’s unity.

The atmosphere was festive, as many cheered politicians and central government officials who joined the march. Some chanted “Puigdemont, to jail!” referring to the ousted regional leader who has been fired along with his Cabinet by the Spanish government after an independence declaration Friday.

Demonstrators are chanting “Now yes, we are going to vote!” and applauding every time a national police helicopter flies over the crowd. “This is our police!” they chanted.

11:37AM

Belgium could give Mr Puigdemont asylum, minister says

Granting Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont political asylum in Belgium would be “not unrealistic” if he asks for it, the Belgian migration minister said, underlining his country’s position as a contrarian voice in the Spanish standoff.

The Madrid government sacked the Catalan leader and dismissed the region’s parliament on Friday, hours after it declared itself an independent nation.

Spain’s constitutional court has also started a review of Catalonia’s independence vote for prosecutors to decide if it constituted rebellion.

While there was no indication Mr Puigdemont was hoping to come to Belgium, the country is one of few members of the European Union where EU citizens can ask for political asylum.

“It is not unrealistic if you look at the situation,” Belgium’s migration minister, Theo Francken, told Belgian broadcaster VTM.

“They are already talking about a prison sentence,” Mr Francken, a member of Flemish nationalist party N-VA, said. “The question is to what extent he would get a fair trial.”

It would be difficult for Spain to extradite Mr Puigdemont in such a case, he said.

11:34AM

Deposed Catalan leader may be able to stand in election

A spokesperson from Spanish central government has said that Carles Puigdemont may be able to run in the December election.

“I’m quite sure that if Puigdemont takes part in these elections, he can exercise this democratic opposition,” Íñigo Méndez de Vigo said, as quoted by Reuters.

1:44PM

Ousted Catalan leader calls for peaceful resistance

Ousted Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont, who was fired by the Spanish government over the province’s declaration of independence, has called on the people to non-violently resist Madrid’s takeover bid.

1:31PM

‘No room in Europe for any more cracks’,  says Juncker

Officials in Europe are speaking out against Catalonia’s declaration of independence.

European Union President Jean-Claude Juncker, speaking from French Guyana, said “there isn’t room in Europe for other fractures or other cracks. We’ve had enough of those.”

Juncker said the EU wants “to respect the Spanish constitutional and legal order. We are not in favor of letting Europe develop so that tomorrow we’d have 95 member states. Twenty-eight is enough for now.”

Celebrations in Catalonia Credit: AP

Greece also expressed concern Saturday about Catalonia’s independence bid, saying it supports Spain’s territorial integrity.

Greek government spokesman Dimitris Tzanakopoulos says “we are particularly concerned about the situation in Spain and repeat that Europe can only go forward united … unilateral actions cannot be accepted.”

12:35PM

FCO advice

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office has updated its advice on Spain. 

There have been large gatherings of people in Barcelona and other areas of the Catalonia region in relation to the political developments there; further gatherings and demonstrations are very likely to take place in the coming days; they may occur with little or no warning and even demonstrations intended to be peaceful can escalate and turn confrontational; you should exercise caution if you’re in the vicinity.

12:34PM

Rallies in Madrid

Opponents of independence for Catalonia are holding a rally in the Spanish capital of Madrid. Thousands of people have turned out in the Plaza de Colon, many waving Spanish flags or wearing them around their shoulders.

#28Oct#AHORA |VIDEO EXCLUSIVO| En Plaza de Colón de Madrid. Manifestación por la #UNIDAD de #ESPAÑA .@DanielAckermanLpic.twitter.com/33o2NbNU6E

— CATERINA VALENTINO (@CATERINAV) October 28, 2017

 

11:14AM

Anger and confusion on the streets of Barcelona

Barcelona residents awoke on Saturday wondering if they were living in a new Catalan republic or if it had “all been a dream”, as Manolo, a cyclist in the park surrounding Catalonia’s parliament, pondered.

“The question is who’s in charge now?”

Manolo, who did not wish to give his surname to the Telegraph’s James Badcock, said he didn’t agree with the way the republic had been declared.

“I don’t think many people believe in it. There were celebrations last night but we’ve seen bigger demonstrations in the past.”

Mireia Garcia, a 46-year-old from Barcelona, was more irate with the Spanish government’s imposition of direct rule. “They’ve fired the president and now they’re telling us to hold elections. How can we have elections because Madrid orders them?”

 

11:01AM

“We continue”, vows fired Catalan minister

The first officially fired Catalan minister to communicate on social media today has vowed to continue, according to our correspondent in Barcelona James Badcock. Josep Rull announced on Twitter that his territory and sustainability department on Friday approved contracts to improve Catalonia’s rail network worth 9.5 million euros, ending the message saying cryptically #Seguim, or “We continue”.

 

10:23AM

“The independence saga has no good ending”

This is a momentous occasion for Catalonia and for Spain. But it is also, without doubt, a tragic one, Daniel Cappuro writes for the Telegraph. No matter what the final result of this crisis is, one of Europe’s most charismatic, charming, and beautiful nations will be irrevocably damaged.

No side comes out of this well, and the Iberian Peninsula will end up a far less happy place. The unilateral declaration of independence by the Catalan parliament is a big step. Essentially the separatists have set a course and ripped off the tiller. There can be no going back for them now.

It’s hard to share in the jubilation of Catalan nationalists. A tense parliamentary vote, the electric spread of joy through vast crowds in the streets as the result is reported, a lofty speech delivered by a newly crowned national saviour. These are scenes that used to bring elation in Europe, as one by one the people of this continent threw off oppression. The bitter tale of Yugoslavia may have made us more wary, but freedom and self-determination are beautiful things.

Independence supporters gather in Sant Jaume square Credit: Bloomberg

 

10:00AM

EU warns ‘more cracks’ in bloc 

The EU’s most senior official warned that “more cracks” were emerging in the bloc on Friday after the Catalan parliament declared independence from Spain, plunging the country into political and economic turmoil.

Madrid swiftly responded to the vote by dissolving the Catalan parliament and dismissing Carles Puigdemont as president of Catalonia and his entire government. 

Mariano Rajoy, the Spanish prime minister, announced that regional elections would be held in December and said the unprecedented act of imposing direct rule on the regional was needed to “recover normality”.

The shock decision to declare independence poses potentially the greatest threat to the EU’s unity since Brexit, and is likely to fuel support for separatist movements in Ireland, Scotland and the Basque Country. Read more on this here. 

9:56AM

Madrid fires Catalonia’s regional police chief 

Madrid on Saturday dismissed the chief of Catalonia’s regional police, the Mossos d’Esquadra, a day after imposing direct control on the region over a bid to break away from Spain.

The firing of Josep Lluis Trapero, Catalonia’s highest-ranking policeman, was published in the official government gazette as Spain perched on a knife’s edge in its worst political crisis in decades.

Madrid accuses Trapero of disobeying court orders to block a banned October 1 independence referendum.

He became a hero to the secessionists after his force took a much softer stance than national police in enforcing a government ban on an independence referendum on Oct. 1.

In an effort to defuse tensions, the regional police force urged its members to behave in a neutral manner and not to take sides, an internal note seen on Saturday by Reuters showed.

Trapero became a hero to the secessionists after his force took a much softer stance than national police in enforcing a government ban on an independence referendum on Oct. 1.





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