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Mariano Rajoy urges Catalan voters to pull back from ‘the havoc of separatism’ | World news

The Spanish prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, has said elections in Catalonia will help the region recover from “the havoc of separatism”, during his first visit to Barcelona since Madrid imposed direct rule.

Rajoy visited the Catalan capital to show support for his party’s campaign ahead of regional elections next month, and was given a rapturous reception by more than a thousand party members waving Spanish and Catalan flags.

His visit comes two weeks after he dismissed the Catalan leader, Carles Puigdemont, his government and the parliament, suspended the region’s autonomy and called for new elections there on 21 December.

Speaking on Sunday, Rajoy said he had “exhausted all roads” after the Catalan government’s unilateral declaration of independence last month, and called on the participation of the “silent majority” to “convert their voice into a vote”.

“We will never let anyone break the ties that bind us, he said. “We must recover Catalonia from the havoc of separatism.”

On Saturday, hundreds of thousands of Catalans protested against the jailing of regional officials over their push for independence from Spain, which has left the country mired in a political crisis.

Spain’s constitutional court strikes down parts of a 2006 charter on Catalan autonomy that had originally increased the region’s fiscal and judicial powers and described it as a “nation”. The court rules that using the word “nation” has no legal value and also rejects the “preferential” use of Catalan over Spanish in municipal services. Almost two weeks later, hundreds of thousands protest on the streets of Barcelona, chanting “We are a nation! We decide!”

At the height of Spain’s economic crisis, more than a million people protest in Barcelona on Catalonia’s national day, demanding independence in what will become a peaceful, annual show of strength.

The pro-independence government of Artur Mas defies the Madrid government and Spain’s constitutional court by holding a symbolic vote on independence. Turnout is just 37%, but more than 80% of those who voted – 1.8 million people – vote in favour of Catalan sovereignty.

Carles Puigdemont, who has replaced Mas as regional president, announces an independence referendum will be held on 1 October. Spain’s central government says it will block the referendum using all the legal and political means at its disposal.

The Catalan parliament approves referendum legislation after a heated, 11-hour session that sees 52 opposition MPs walk out of the chamber in Barcelona in protest at the move. Spain’s constitutional court suspends the legislation the following day, but the Catalan government vows to press ahead with the vote.

Police arrest 14 Catalan government officials suspected of organising the referendum and announce they have seized nearly 10 million ballots destined for the vote. Some 40,000 people protest against the police crackdown in Barcelona and Puigdemont accuses the Spanish government of effectively suspending regional autonomy and declaring a de facto state of emergency.

Close to 900 people are injured as police attempt to stop the referendum from taking place. The Catalan government says 90% voted for independence on a turnout of 43%. 

Spanish government takes control of Catalonia and dissolves its parliament after secessionist Catalan MPs voted to establish an independent republic. Spanish prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, fires regional president, Carles Puigdemont, and orders regional elections to be held on 21 December.

The demonstrators gathered on an avenue next to the regional parliament building, waving Catalan independence flags and chanting “Freedom!” while some held up banners reading “SOS Democracy”.

The protest followed the release on bail of Carme Forcadell, the speaker of the Catalan parliament – one of dozens of lawmakers sacked by Madrid last month – after posting €150,000 (£132,000) bail.

Barcelona municipal police put turnout for the march at 750,000, and crowds stretched for more than 15 blocks along the boulevard.

The crisis has caused concern in the European Union as the bloc deals with both Brexit and uncertainty over the fate of Catalonia’s 7.5 million inhabitants. More than 2,400 businesses have moved their legal headquarters elsewhere.

On Sunday, Xavier García Albiol, the former professional basketball player who is the ruling People party’s candidate in the forthcoming election, thanked Rajoy for suspending Catalonia’s autonomy.

“Independence has divided friends and families and more than 2,000 businesses have abandoned Catalonia,” he said. “The choice is simple: do you want businesses and jobs or roadblocks in the name of independence?”

Rajoy called for a return to stability and prosperity after the election. “We want a massive turnout to set in motion a new politics of calm and peaceful coexistence,” he said.

On Wednesday, a general strike called by a pro-independence union caused travel chaos, blocking 60 roads and train lines including Spain’s main highway link to France and the rest of Europe.

The protest in Barcelona on Saturday, which police said 750,000 attended.



The protest in Barcelona on Saturday, which police said 750,000 attended. Photograph: Etienne De Malglaive/Getty Images

Since lawmakers in Catalonia – a wealthy region with its own language and distinct culture – declared independence on 27 October following a banned referendum, pro-separatist officials have come under huge pressure from Madrid.

Barcelona’s popular mayor earlier criticised the actions of Puigdemont’s government. “They’ve provoked tensions and carried out a unilateral independence declaration which the majority do not want,” Ada Colau told a meeting of her party members. “They’ve tricked the population for their own interests.”

Eight members of the axed Catalan cabinet have been detained on charges of sedition, rebellion and misuse of public funds.

A further six sacked officials, including Forcadell, were granted bail this week on similar charges by Spain’s supreme court.

Puigdemont is in self-imposed exile in Belgium, awaiting a hearing on possible extradition back to Spain after Madrid issued an EU-wide warrant.

“The situation is sad, the politicians haven’t done their jobs,” said Robert Muni, who was protesting with his children, although some demonstrators shouted their support for Puigdemont, “our president”.

Puigdemont and four ex-ministers say they are in Brussels because they cannot be guaranteed a fair trial back home.

Q&A

The aim of the European Arrest Warrant system is to do away with political interference in controversial extradition cases. Countries cannot refuse an extradition request on the grounds that the suspect has claimed political asylum.

However, the EAW does allow a country to refuse to hand over a suspect on the grounds that he or she is being sought on the basis of nationality or political opinions – factors that could apply to Puigdemont.

“The key questions for the Belgian extradition court are likely to be whether the criminal allegations are politically motivated and whether the Spanish authorities are acting abusively,” says Andrew Smith, an extradition specialist at the law firm Corker Binning.

Any decision by a lower tribunal in Belgium can be appealed up through the higher courts. Given an inventive legal team, Puigdemont could technically slow the process this way.

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“Although some of us are far away from you and others are in prison, we have an opportunity to express loudly and clearly that we want freedom and democracy,” Puigdemont told Catalan television.

Saturday’s protest was organised by two pro-independence lobby groups, ANC and Òmnium Cultura, whose two leaders are also detained.

“We don’t know what’s going to happen but we know what we want: the release of political prisoners,” said demonstrator Maria Angels Quintana.

Puigdemont has said he travelled to Brussels after declaring independence in order to raise international awareness on the treatment of separatists in Spain.

But the European Union, nervous that Catalan independence could stir up separatist tensions in several member states, has repeatedly backed Rajoy’s government over the crisis.

Some participants at the rally betrayed their frustration at the lack of support from Brussels for their cause, holding banners printed in English asking “Europe, where are you?”.

María Dolores de Cospedal, the secretary general of the People’s party, dismissed claims that the jailed Catalan lawmakers are political prisoners. She said: “When you question the law you are questioning democracy itself,” she told the meeting on Sunday. “Spain is a democracy and no one has anything to fear just because they think differently.”


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