Monday 20 August 2018

'Politics won't pay the bills. I have to work - whether this is Spain or a republic'

Spain's Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy. AP Photo/Paul White
Spain's Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy. AP Photo/Paul White

Rodrigo Orihuela

Normal weekend routines like shopping, soccer and strolling prevailed in Catalonia over the weekend, even as the first test of Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy's decision to take over the breakaway region approached, with Catalans weighing compliance versus defiance.

When schools and government offices open today, teachers and civil servants will decide whether to follow the ousted Catalan leaders' calls to resist their Spanish masters or acquiesce to the new reality. A smooth transition in the Catalan police force, with the new chief accepting Madrid's rule, marked an initial success for Mr Rajoy.

"The more moderate and pragmatic elements probably realise they're not going to get very far," said Caroline Gray, a lecturer in politics and Spanish at Aston University in the UK, who specialises in nationalist movements.

"The more radical elements, however, are in the parallel universe of the new republic - and that disconnect worries me.

"The situation could turn unpredictable if Spain moves in to take control."

Carles Puigdemont, who was fired by Mr Rajoy as the region's president after Friday's declaration of independence, called for "democratic opposition" and peaceful resistance. Jordi Sanchez, a nationalist leader, issued a statement from jail advocating "Gandhi-style resistance".

The Catalan government is no more in the eyes of Spain, and indeed the European Union. Right after Catalan lawmakers victoriously sang their anthem, Mr Rajoy used the power granted to him by the senate to start bringing to an end the country's worst constitutional crisis for decades.

Mr Rajoy dissolved the Catalan Parliament and delegated his deputy, Soraya Saenz de Santamaria, to take on the role of head of the Catalan regional government.

Elections, which Mr Puigdemont had wanted to call to defuse the situation only to balk as the separatist hardcore engulfed him, were set for December 21.

In the hours that followed, it was business as usual in Barcelona: no visible show of force from authorities, open shops packed with customers and swarms of tourists down the central artery of La Rambla. The red and gold Spanish flag was atop City Hall and the Catalan regional government building.

Meanwhile, Spanish television showed Mr Puigdemont in a coffee bar in his home town of Girona during his three-minute recorded statement on Saturday afternoon.

At midday yesterday, hundreds of thousands of demonstrators in Madrid marched in favour of unity.

And while Mr Puigdemont called for human shields to protect the government building in the days leading up to the declaration of independence, some of the thickest crowds in Barcelona on Saturday were at the Zara clothing store.

Politically, Mr Puigdemont and his allies remained isolated and face potential arrest in coming days. The chief prosecutor signalled he would seek rebellion charges against the former Catalan president. The government in Madrid declined to respond to Mr Puigdemont's comments on Saturday.

Mr Rajoy's PP party said on Twitter that his vow was "very serious" and that the "irresponsibility of Mr Puigdemont has no limit".

The regional economy, which accounts for about a fifth of Spanish gross domestic product, is also under threat amid the threat of civil unrest. A business of German insurance giant Allianz AG on Friday added its name to the list of hundreds shifting out of Catalonia.

"It's an enormous mess and utterly incomprehensible," said Jordi Alberich, director general of Cercle d'Economia, a Barcelona-based business association.

"The strategy seems to be to make this the biggest crisis possible so that the world will have to intervene. But I am convinced there is a clear majority of people who want a calm solution."

The phalanx of pro-independence activists and demonstrators is certainly unlikely to take Spain's dramatic intervention lying down. Thousands of people gathered in the square late Friday where the regional government palace is located, some of them holding separatist flags and chanting slogans such as "llibertat" or "freedom". For many Catalans, the turbulent events of the past week were just sinking in as they braced for the inevitable reprisals.

But for some, politics was a sideshow. "I have bills to pay and two daughters," said Pere Garcia (52), who mans a stall in the centre of Barcelona. "Politics won't pay bills. I still have to go to work whether this is Spain or an independent republic."

Irish Independent

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