Saturday 18 August 2018

'Spain is not going to let us get away with it' - separatists await crackdown

Pro-unity demonstrators were escorted by Catalan regional police in Barcelona last night. Photo: Reuters/Juan Medina
Pro-unity demonstrators were escorted by Catalan regional police in Barcelona last night. Photo: Reuters/Juan Medina

James Crisp and  James Badcock

It began with a furtive whisper, rather than a bang. One by one, deputies padded across the burgundy carpet of Catalonia's half-empty parliament chamber to drop secret ballot papers into a small box on the speaker's bench.

It was hardly the confident step of the leaders of a brave new nation.

But within an hour, the shock waves of Catalonia's declaration of independence had echoed across Barcelona, Madrid and all the way to Brussels and beyond.

And on the streets of the Catalan capital, the mood was euphoric - if laced with foreboding and uncertainty.

"I have cried. I have been waiting 60 years for this," said Angel Colome, one of thousands of Catalans who took to the streets of Barcelona last night. "But Spain is not going to let us get away with it. They will put the pressure on."

Despite the celebration, the outcome of the vote yesterday afternoon was far from certain.

Opposition members of Catalonia's regional parliament had earlier stormed out in protest after pro-independence parties forced the secret ballot in order to shield their members from criminal charges.

Just 82 members cast their vote, 70 in favour, 10 against and two abstaining, in a poll that ushered in an uncertain future for Spain, its richest region, Catalonia, and the European Union.

When the results were announced just before 3.30pm, the separatists, who hold a slim majority, broke into applause before rising to their feet to sing the Catalan anthem.

Among their number was Carles Puigdemont, the Catalan president, who has spent the last month playing a high-stakes game of chicken with Madrid. If he loses, he faces charges of treason and a lengthy prison sentence.

Yesterday, he was greeted with calls of "President!"

Outside the parliament, there was little sign of nerves as thousands cheered, danced and celebrated the new republic.

Away from the crowds and among those in Catalonia who want to remain part of Spain, the atmosphere was very different. Major companies had fled the region before today's vote and looming over everything is the uneasy fear of violence.

Madrid's Guardia Civil could yet return to Barcelona to take control of government buildings.

In Madrid, Mariano Rajoy, the Spanish prime minister, acted immediately. By mid-afternoon, the Spanish senate had agreed to his request to revoke Catalonia's autonomy and place it under direct rule.

Elsewhere, the US State Department released a statement solidly supporting Mr Rajoy and the Spanish government.

Berlin soon followed suit. Emmanuel Macron, the French president, also offered his support to Mr Rajoy, while Britain refused to recognise the new republic.

Even the European Union, to which Mr Puidgemont has appealed again and again for mediation, was unmoved.

The vote had changed nothing for the EU, said Donald Tusk, the European Council president.

Madrid would remain the "sole interlocutor" for the EU, he added.

Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, was characteristically blunter.

"I do not want a situation where, tomorrow, the European Union is made up of 95 different states," he snapped.

Irish Independent

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