Protesters hold a rally in favour of a referendum on independence from Spain for the autonomous community of Catalonia, in the Basque city of Bilbao, Spain on Monday. Photo: Reuters (Reuters)
Protesters hold a rally in favour of a referendum on independence from Spain for the autonomous community of Catalonia, in the Basque city of Bilbao, Spain on Monday. Photo: Reuters (Reuters)

Catalans face day of reckoning as parliament weighs independence

The Catalan government’s determination to break from Spain faces its moment of truth, as the regional parliament meets to consider a declaration of independence

Madrid/Barcelona: The Catalan government’s determination to break from Spain faces its moment of truth, as the regional parliament meets to consider a declaration of independence that risks an ironclad backlash from Madrid, the threat of economic meltdown and international isolation.

Catalonian president Carles Puigdemont is due to address lawmakers in Barcelona at 6 pm on Tuesday on the outcome of the 1 October referendum ruled illegal by the Spanish courts. The Catalan administration says voters defied police violence to deliver a resounding “Yes" to independence that cannot be ignored; prime minister Mariano Rajoy has dismissed the ballot as meaningless and vowed to defend the unity of Spain using all means at his disposal.

With uncertainty over the outcome of the worst political crisis since the death of the dictator Francisco Franco, attention will focus on the form of words used by Puigdemont. Unless he backs away from a unilateral independence declaration, Rajoy has made clear that Catalonia risks intervention by security forces and the reassertion of central government control.

“This is going to be a historical day regardless of the consequences, which are hard to predict," Alejandro Quiroga, professor of Spanish history at the University of Newcastle, England, said in a telephone interview. “The tension has reached such a point that something has to happen and if the Catalan government wants to declare independence, now is the best time, while it’s still got international attention."

Merkel, Macron

With the risk of turmoil rippling out beyond Spain, European leaders are keeping a close watch on developments. French president Emmanuel Macron and the European Union have backed Rajoy, as has German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who reaffirmed her support for Spanish unity in a call with the prime minister at the weekend. She and Rajoy also discussed ways to strengthen dialogue between Madrid and Barcelona.

Spanish stocks and government debt were up on Monday amid speculation that both sides will step back from the brink. The benchmark stock index has still lost 1.4% since the vote in defiance of the Constitutional Court, and Catalan companies including lender CaixaBank SA are moving their legal bases out of the region.

Catalan secessionists have opened a second-front in their campaign against the government in Madrid, reaching out to the opposition Socialists with an offer to forge a coalition to oust Rajoy, according to two people with knowledge of the backroom efforts.

While the Catalan groups pushing the plan have already persuaded the populist Podemos party to back it, the Socialists have so far refused to sign up, the people said, asking not to be named discussing private conversations.

The Catalans are trying to bring officials in Madrid to the negotiating table. Socialist leader Pedro Sanchez has called for dialogue to calm a situation that saw police officers beating would-be voters at makeshift polling stations, but Rajoy and his minority administration have refused to engage in talks with the Catalan leaders until they accept the authority of the Spanish courts. They warn of economic disaster if Catalonia attempts to break away.

“It’s so terrible a scenario the idea of independence, that everything won’t work from the single moment from which independence is declared," Spanish energy minister Alvaro Nadal said in a Bloomberg Television interview on Monday. “There will be a problem in the energy sector, there will be a problem in the telecom sector, in the financial sector of course."

The leaders of the Catalan National Assembly, a civic group that led a series of massive pro-independence demonstrations and works closely with Puigdemont, vowed in a video posted on Twitter that Tuesday’s session will see the president declare independence. Marta Pascal, who heads Puigdemont’s party, told the BBC there will be a symbolic recognition of the result of the illegal referendum, but no unilateral declaration of a new state.

Spanish government debt rose on the prospect of some kind of resolution, with the yield on 10-year bonds dropping 3 basis points to 1.67% on Monday. Spain’s benchmark stock index closed up 0.5%.

Raul Romeva, foreign affairs chief for the separatist government in Barcelona, said the Catalans “are always going to be at the negotiating table," but need Madrid to engage.

“We need two to tango," Romeva said in a Bloomberg Television interview on Sunday. “We need the other side to be at the table." Bloomberg

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