Catalans preparing human shield, protests as Spain moves to seize power of separatist region

Spanish senators were expected to meet on Tuesday to draw up the proposal to approve the use of constitutional powers that include removing Catalan President Carles Puigdemont

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 24 October, 2017, 6:19pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 24 October, 2017, 8:38pm

Catalonia’s separatists are readying efforts to block Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s planned seizure of their powers as the crisis in the breakaway region heads toward a showdown this week with the Spanish government moving to oust them from office.

Spanish senators were expected to meet on Tuesday to draw up the proposal to approve the use of constitutional powers that include removing Catalan President Carles Puigdemont. At the same time, pro-independence activists were fine-tuning plans for a human shield to stop the Spanish authorities gaining access to regional government buildings.

It is the prelude to the next chapter in Catalonia’s stormy secession battle, which is set to escalate with a potential Senate vote on Friday that will grant Rajoy the authority he is seeking. The legislature in Barcelona, which is controlled by separatist parties, will convene on Thursday and Friday with one key card to play: a declaration of independence.

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“The clash is still on,” said Antonio Barroso, an analyst in London at political risk adviser Teneo Intelligence. “The ball is in the court of the secessionist leadership and what happens next is down to the choices they make.”

Rajoy on Saturday announced plans to remove the separatist administration and take direct control of institutions including the regional police force and public media. Spain’s chief prosecutor said that any declaration by Puigdemont means he could be accused of rebellion, a crime that entails immediate jail pending trial and possible sentence of up to 30 years.

It remains to be seen if the drama unfolding this week will be the denouement to the political theatre that has been gathering intensity for months. Puigdemont stepped up his challenge to Spanish authority with a referendum on independence held October 1. 

The Spanish Constitutional Court declared the vote illegal and the government in Madrid has fiercely contested its validity. Puigdemont claims the result gives him a mandate to establish a Catalan republic. Rajoy says he has no choice but to wield the powers granted to him under Article 155 of Spain’s 1978 Constitution to restore legal order in Spain and that he wants to trigger elections in the region within six months.

Article 155: How Spain is taking control of Catalan powers

In a symbol of the damage being done by the crisis to Catalonia’s economic fabric, CaixaBank, the region’s biggest bank, reported earnings on Tuesday from Valencia rather than Barcelona. The lender, whose profit almost doubled in the third quarter, has led an exodus of Catalan firms that have set up their legal bases outside Catalonia to avoid the upheaval that would come from a split with Spain.

In the meantime, focus has shifted to the issue of how Rajoy would be able to take the reins of power in Catalonia in the face of mass protests. 

Raul Romeva, the regional government’s foreign affairs chief, told the BBC on Monday that Catalan authorities would not follow orders from Madrid. Pro-independence groups have drawn up plans to protect the regional government’s headquarters in Barcelona’s Gothic quarter and the nearby parliament, according to two people familiar with their strategy.

“If it can’t avoid it in the coming days, Catalonia could be on its way towards a prolonged and intense dynamic of lack of control, legal insecurity and civic unease,” Cercle d’Economia, a business association, said in an emailed statement.

“Its consequences are unpredictable, but in any case dramatic in terms of self-government, coexistence, economic growth and employment.”