The leader of Catalonia called for international mediation yesterday to resolve a standoff with Madrid, the day after hundreds were injured as police tried to forcibly disrupt a referendum on independence that had been ruled illegal.
Spain’s biggest constitutional crisis in decades has raised fears of unrest and prolonged political instability in its wealthiest region, deepening the divide between Madrid and Barcelona and threatening the economic outlook.
The crisis could deepen further if the Catalan regional parliament uses the vote as justification for a unilateral declaration of independence, a move foreseen by the region’s referendum law if a majority voted to leave Spain.
“It is not a domestic matter,” Carles Puigdemont told a news conference yesterday. He said it was “obvious that we need mediation”, adding: “We don’t want a traumatic break … We want a new understanding with the Spanish state.”
The sight of riot police using rubber bullets and batons in a show of force to stop the vote shocked Spain, at a stroke raising the temperature of a standoff that had been passionate but civil, and drawing international condemnation. Authorities said almost 900 people had been injured.
Despite calling for mediation, Puigdemont, who went ahead with the referendum in defiance of a court order, said the vote was valid and binding, and had to be applied.
His comments opened the door to a possible declaration of independence within a few days, although that would be flatly rejected by Madrid, which has called the vote a farce.
Puigdemont’s comments threw down a challenge to Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, who has the constitutional power to sack the regional government and put Catalonia under central control pending fresh elections. Justice Minister Rafael Catala said Spain could use that power if the regional parliament declared independence.
Puigdemont urged Rajoy to say whether he was in favor of mediation, which he said should be overseen by the European Union. He said Brussels had been timid and lacked courage on the matter. Puigdemont also said he would start legal proceedings against those responsible for Sunday’s violence, and demanded that Madrid withdraw national police from the region.
Catalonia is a center of industry and tourism accounting for a fifth of Spain’s economy, a production base for major multi-nationals from Volkswagen to Nestle, and home to Europe’s fastest-growing sea port.
Although it already has extensive autonomy, its tax revenues are crucial to Spain’s state budget.
Meanwhile, Catalonia is not happy with the European Union (EU). It took more than 24 hours before the European Commission spoke out about Sunday’s violence It took more than 24 hours before the European Commission spoke out about Sunday’s violence.
The statement yesterday did not please Catalan separatists. “We call on all relevant players to now move very swiftly from confrontation to dialogue,” Europe’s top body announced. “Violence can never be an instrument in politics,” it said.
To the anger of secessionists, the commission added a supportive note for Spain’s embattled center-right prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, saying it trusted him “to manage a difficult process, respecting both the Spanish Constitution and the rights of citizens.”
Catalan separatists had hoped the police crackdown ordered by Madrid on those trying to vote in the unsanctioned poll would spur EU leaders to intervene directly in their escalating dispute with the national government in Madrid.
There are little signs Brussels wants to become ensnared in a crisis some fear might plunge into even greater violence, if Catalan separatists follow through on their pledge to announce independence for the restive province within 48 hours. In its statement Monday, the executive body said, “For the European Commission, as President (Jean-Claude) Juncker has reiterated repeatedly, this is an internal matter for Spain that has to be dealt with in line with the constitutional order of Spain.”