Catalan Leader Defiant After Spanish Move to Quash Independence

(Bloomberg) -- Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont responded defiantly to Spain’s move late Friday to take control of the breakaway province, calling for peaceful resistance against what he called repressive authorities in Madrid.

"The best way to defend the conquests we have won is through democratic opposition," Puigdemont said in a three-minute recorded statement Saturday afternoon, as Spanish television showed him in a coffee bar in his hometown of Girona. "We must preserve ourselves from repression and threats, without ever leaving aside a civic and pacific behavior."

On the morning after Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy strangled Europe’s newest self-proclaimed independent state in its cradle, 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.

Politically, Puigdemont and his allies remained isolated as they faced a historic collision. Within hours of the parliament in Barcelona voting to break away on Friday, the would-be Catalan Republic was hit by the might of the Spanish state. They have little real power and face potential arrest in coming days. The chief prosecutor signaled he would seek rebellion charges against the Catalan president.

Catalan Leader Defiant After Spanish Move to Quash Independence

“They tried to stage a kidnap and steal part of the community from the people,” Rajoy said in a televised national address on Friday. “Now it’s about trying to minimize the damage.”

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

Elections, which Puigdemont had wanted to call to defuse the situation only to balk as the separatist hard core engulfed him, will now come on Dec. 21 after Rajoy dissolved the Catalan Parliament. 

The removal of the Catalan government and its officials "are decisions that go against the will expressed by the citizens, who know perfectly well that a democratic society it’s Parliaments who choose or remove Presidents," Puigdemont said. "Our will is to continue to work to fufill the democratic mandates and to seek democratic stability and calm."

The prime minister, using the measures approved on Friday, delegated his deputy, Soraya Saenz de Santamaria, to take on the role of head of the Catalan regional government. Spain’s interior ministry named Ferran Lopez chief of the regional Catalan police, according to an emailed statement Saturday from the ministry.

“Puigdemont is no longer the regional president,” Enric Millo, the central government’s representative in Catalonia, said on Catalunya Radio on Saturday. “The top authority in Catalonia now is the Spanish prime minister.”

Messy Situation

The regional economy, which accounts for about a fifth of Spanish gross domestic product, is also under threat as more companies up sticks 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.”

Catalan Leader Defiant After Spanish Move to Quash Independence

Protesters Gather
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 where the regional government palace is located, some of them holding separatist flags and chanting slogans such as “llibertat” or “freedom.” A group extended the yellow-red-and-blue flag with white star from of the National Police barracks nearby.

Catalan Leader Defiant After Spanish Move to Quash Independence

For many Catalans, the turbulent events of the past 48 hours were just sinking in as they braced for the inevitable reprisals. They would be forgiven for asking how they got here.

Years of pro-independence campaigning escalated with an unofficial referendum on Oct. 1 as Spanish national police beat would-be voters and stormed polling stations. But any moral high ground was never anchored in law.

Catalan Leader Defiant After Spanish Move to Quash Independence

Weeks of brinkmanship then culminated with two days of high drama as noises came from Barcelona of a Puigdemont climb-down and from some of Rajoy’s political opponents in Madrid of a potential deal should there be elections.

©2017 Bloomberg L.P.