Monday 16 September 2019

Clashes as Spanish cabinet holds meeting in Catalonia

Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez sparked controversy by leading the weekly Spanish cabinet meeting in Barcelona.

Catalan riot police charge against demonstrators (Santi Palacios/AP)
Catalan riot police charge against demonstrators (Santi Palacios/AP)

By Joseph Wilson and Aritz Parra, Associated Press

Thousands of pro-independence protesters angry about Spain’s cabinet holding a meeting in Catalonia have blocked roads across the region and clashed with anti-riot police in its capital.

At least 11 protesters were arrested and scores were injured during the clashes, the regional Mossos d’Esquadra police said, by the time the meeting in Barcelona finished.

Spain’s centre-left government announced a series of gestures, including steps to reverse a sentence that led to the execution of a former Catalan president, and infrastructure works for the north-eastern region, along with the highest increase in the national minimum wage in four decades.

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A masked protester holds up a smoke flare during clashes with riot police in Barcelona (Manu Brabo/AP)

But the most radical protesters seemed unimpressed, confronting police in anti-riot gear in the streets of Barcelona, angry at Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez’s presence in the city.

The Catalan regional government, formed by a coalition of pro-secession parties, had called on people to protest peacefully despite an agreement with central authorities to find a way out of the political crisis that has festered since Catalonia’s failed secession attempt last year.

After their encounter on Thursday, the second since both took power earlier this year, Mr Sanchez and Catalan president Quim Torra issued a joint statement calling for dialogue to settle the conflict over the future of Catalonia.

That outcome was beyond the low expectations before the talks, when disagreement over their scope and format kept officials negotiating until the very last minute.

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Pro-independence demonstrators march against Spain’s cabinet holding a meeting in Barcelona (Emilio Morenatti/AP)

Mr Sanchez, who inherited the Catalan crisis when he toppled his conservative predecessor in June, made mending relations with the prosperous region one of his priorities.

But his minority government – the Socialists only control a quarter of the parliament’s lower house – faces fierce opposition from more conservative groups urging a stronger hand on Catalonia or early elections.

Despite Thursday’s apparent progress, distrust prevailed on Friday.

Security in the prosperous north-eastern region, normally in the hands of the Catalan police, was reinforced with hundreds of anti-riot officers sent by Spain’s national police forces.

“It is a provocation,” said Oriol Benet, a 24-year-old pharmacist who joined others marching near the headquarters of the National Police in Barcelona.

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Catalan police prevent demonstrators from approaching the area as they march against Spain’s cabinet holding a meeting in Barcelona (Emilio Morenatti/AP)

Spanish television broadcast Mr Sanchez’s walk from his hotel to the location of the meeting down streets heavily guarded by police.

Metres away, a crowd of mostly young protesters jeered.

The Mossos police force said that 43 people, including 28 agents, were injured and that one of the 11 protesters arrested for public order offences carried inflammable material.

A TV journalist was also punched to the floor by some protesters, the Intereconomia channel showed in online video.

Retired salesman Romualdo Sedo, who displayed a yellow ribbon pin in support of nine jailed separatist politicians who are awaiting trial for their part in last year’s push for independence, said he wants things to be “resolved in a peaceful way”.

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Catalan riot police escort pro-independence demonstrators as they march in protest in one of the city’s access highway in Barcelona (Emilio Morenatti/AP)

“I am not with those who cover their faces,” the 67-year-old said, “even if they are protesting the same thing I am.”

“Any chance to talk is good,” said Carlos Castilla, watching from a distance as protesters launched smoke bombs.

“It is clear the status quo doesn’t work, they agreed on that. I think the answer is more self-government and that Catalonia manages its own finances.”

Mr Sanchez had presented the meeting in Barcelona as “a way of showing affection to Catalonia”.

On Friday, his cabinet took the first step to nullify a court-martial that led to the execution in 1940 of Lluis Companys, the Catalan regional president arrested by the German Nazi secret police in France and handed over to the regime of dictator General Francisco Franco.

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Spain’s Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, centre, presides over a weekly cabinet meeting with government ministers held in Barcelona (Manu Fernandez/AP)

The Socialist administration also proposed renaming Barcelona airport in honour of Josep Tarradellas, who headed the Catalan government in exile during the dictatorship.

The government also announced that the monthly minimum wage will be raised from 736 euros (£663) to 900 euros (£811) and civil servants’ salaries will increase 2.5% starting on January 1.

The 22% minimum wage hike is part of the Socialists’ deal to pass the country’s 2019 budget with the support of an anti-austerity party.

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