Catalans strike to protest, independence declaration expected

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Highways were blocked, schools closed and much business halted across Catalonia Tuesday as tens of thousands of workers and students joined strikes and took to the streets to protest the use of force by police that left hundreds injured during a disputed referendum on the region’s secession.

In the regional capital, Barcelona, where bus and subway services were affected, disoriented tourists scrambled to find open cafeterias to avoid the protests.

There were moments of tension when a handful of picketers forced the closure of shops that had remained open in the city’s famed Las Ramblas boulevard, but elsewhere the demonstrations were largely peaceful.

Separatist groups and unions had initially called on strikes to be held on Tuesday in support for Catalan leaders pushing ahead with a declaration of independence from Spain. But many non-separatists were also drawn to the streets following a crackdown on a referendum vote on Sunday.

In Barcelona’s Catalonia and University squares, a sea of demonstrators waved flags, most of them “esteladas” embraced by those wishing secession, but also plenty of Spanish national flags.

People are angry, very angry,” said Josep Llavina, a 53-year-old self-employed worker who had traveled to Barcelona from a nearby town to participate in the protest outside the regional offices of Spain’s National Police.

The building became a focal point for protesters, gathering thousands at midday who shouted that the police were an “occupying force” and urged Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy to resign.

“They brought violence with them,” Llavina said. They have beaten people who were holding their hands up. How can we not be outraged?”

Catalan officials say that 90 percent of the 2.3 million people who voted Sunday were in favor of independence. But fewer than half of those eligible to vote turned out. The vote was boycotted by most of Spain’s national parties on grounds it was illegal and lacked basic guarantees, such as transparency, a proper census or an independent electoral governing body.

The central government in Madrid is blaming Catalan separatist politicians and grassroots groups for the violence, saying they “plotted to break the law” and drew citizens to an unlawful vote.

“Nothing of this would have happened if the (Catalan) government hadn’t declared itself in rebellion, breaking the orders of the courts and lying and tricking people,” said Spain’s top official in Catalonia, Enric Millo, on Tuesday.

Catalan President Carles Puigdemont has declared the vote valid and has announced it will present the final results this week to Catalonia’s regional parliament, which would trigger the process of breaking away from Spain.

The Spanish national government has said it will respond with “all necessary measures” to counter such a move, and is holding talks with national opposition leaders to find multi-partisan consensus on the response.

The general strike in Catalonia called by pro-independence groups was not fully backed by Spain’s two main unions, the UGT and CCOO groups, who invited workers to decide individually whether to halt work or not to protest police violence, but not in support of secession.

“I disagree with the strike. In fact, at work nobody told me anything about a strike. So I decided to come,” said Jose Bolivar, 54, a town hall employee.

Office worker Antonia Cuello, 37, was in two minds about the industrial action.

“On one side it is a hassle to try to get to work in the midst of a strike,” she said. “We are suffering this because a few decided to behave in an improper way. On the other hand, I understand the circumstances surrounding the strike.”

Port workers also held a demonstration outside the regional headquarters of Spain’s ruling Popular Party, while firefighters planned a rally outside the Interior Ministry’s regional office in Barcelona. Protests were also to be staged outside schools that were used as polling stations where police acted with force to try to prevent Sunday’s poll being held.

More than 890 civilians were treated for injuries, most of them not serious, following clashes during Sunday’s referendum, according to Catalan regional health authorities. Police using batons, and some firing rubber bullets, cleared protesters hoping to vote. Spain’s Interior Ministry says 431 National Police and Civil Guard agents were injured, too.

The police action prompted criticism worldwide although the European Union and most governments backed Spain’s stance in what is its most serious political crisis in decades.

Nigel Farage, one of the leaders in Britain’s vote to leave the EU, condemned the bloc’s failure to clearly condemn the police violence.

“It is quite extraordinary to realize that this Union is prepared to turn a blind eye,” Farage told EU lawmakers.

Cyprus said Spain’s national sovereignty and territorial integrity needed to be respected, arguing that the referendum on Catalonia’s independence was carried outin violation of the Spanish constitution.

Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman Huseyin Muftuoglu also said respect for Spain’s territorial integrity was the main principle, adding that it was important that both sides abide by Spain’s laws and avoid violence.

The northeastern region of Catalonia, one of Spain’s autonomous regions, is threatening to declare its independence from Spain following a disputed referendum that, it says, gave it a mandate to break away.

DECLARING INDEPENDENCE

Catalan regional President Carles Puigdemont says he will keep his pledge to declare independence unilaterally following a claimed win for the “Yes” side in Sunday’s disputed referendum.

The pro-independence leader says that under a Catalan law a win with more than 50 percent of “Yes” votes triggers a declaration of independence within 48 hours of the vote, regardless of the fact that the vote was held in extremely precarious circumstances and that turnout — even if true —was less than half of the electorate. That law was suspended by Spain’s Constitutional Court, but Puigdemont and his government seem set to ignore this.

The independence declaration could happen as early as Wednesday or Thursday when the regional parliament meets.

WOULD CATALONIA BE RECOGNIZED AS A SEPARATE COUNTRY?

So far no country or international body has expressed any support for the Catalan government(asterisk)s independence drive, so any declaration of independence is likely to be rejected, at the beginning at least. The European Union is standing solidly behind Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and says Catalonia would be expelled from the bloc and the shared euro currency.

Economically it is impossible to predict if it could survive. Catalonia has an annual gross domestic product of about 215 billion euros ($257 billion) — the largest of the Spanish regions and greater than Greece’s — but many of its goods are supplied by the Spanish state.

WHAT IMMEDIATE CHANGES MIGHT BE EXPECTED?

Besides the removal of Spanish flags from official buildings, it(asterisk)s hard to see what else Catalan authorities could do. The feeling is that the declaration would be a symbolic one. Catalonia does not have security forces sufficient to set up borders and key areas such as taxes, foreign affairs, defense, ports, airports and trains are in the hands of the Spanish government in Madrid. Spain also recently took virtually full control of Catalonia’s spending.

SPAIN’S OPTIONS

Spain has two main options and both would be painful. The constitution’s Article 155 allows the government to suspend, totally or partially, any region’ self-government if it disobeys its constitutional obligations or attacks the general interests of Spain. Catalonia would first be warned and if it didn’t rectify, the measures decided upon would be put to the Senate for approval, a simple matter for Rajoy as his party has a majority.

Possible measures could include placing the region’s police under Spanish control. If necessary, Spanish police could enforce the measures.

The other, more extreme alternative would be to declare a state of siege, should Spain’s sovereignty be considered under attack — which a declaration of independence might constitute — and this could allow for the suspension of civil rights and imposition of martial law. It would need to be debated and approved by the lower house of parliament, a difficult matter as Rajoy lacks a majority there.

Neither option is likely to happen overnight.

“The situation is really serious in Spain now,” said constitutional law professor Fernando Simon of Spain’s University of Navarra, who said Catalonia was basically already in a state of rebellion. He said either option would mean Spain would enter unknown territory.

A COMPROMISE

Given the current state of affairs this is the most desirable for all, but with neither side backing down, the least likely to happen.

Both sides say they are open to dialogue but both put up conditions unacceptable to the other. Rajoy had insisted he couldn’t discuss a referendum unless the constitution was changed, and invited Catalonia to work on changing it. The Catalan government said its right to self-determination must be respected first before talks could proceed. Catalonia now wants the EU to intervene, an unlikely prospect, and calls for international mediation, something Spain is not likely to agree to.