Catalonia urges mediation with Spain in secession dispute
BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — Catalan separatists called for international mediation with the Spanish government as they pushed ahead Monday with plans to declare unilateral independence this week after a violent police crackdown scarred a disputed secession referendum.
The referendum debacle only deepened Spain’s most serious political crisis since democratic rule was restored in 1978. The violence on Sunday in the prosperous northeastern region left more than 890 civilians and 430 police injured when anti-riot squads moved into polling stations and dispersed voters.
Shocking videos and photos of police dragging people by the hair and kicking them were flashed around the globe, leading some European leaders to warn about any further escalation of violence.
Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont said a regional parliamentary commission would investigate why Spain’s anti-riot squads fired rubber bullets, smashed into polling stations and beat protesters with batons to disperse voters in the independence referendum that Spain opposed. He also urged the 5,000-strong contingent of special Spanish police forces deployed in Catalonia to leave immediately.
Puigdemont called Monday for the European Union “to stop looking the other way” and urged Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy to accept international mediation in the crisis. He urged the EU to view Catalonia’s desire to break away from Spain as a Europe-wide issue.
“This is not a domestic issue. The need for mediation is evident,” Puigdemont said.
Calls for restraint came from across Europe, including EU chief Donald Tusk, who appealed to Rajoy to “avoid further escalation and use of force” while agreeing that the independence vote was invalid. Several human rights organizations called for an impartial investigation into the violence.
Of the 893 civilians injured in the melee, two suffered serious wounds, Catalan health authorities said. The Interior Ministry said 39 police received immediate medical treatment and 392 others had scrapes and bruises.
But Spanish authorities commended the police, saying their response to the voting was professional and proportionate. And Spain’s interior minister said the 5,000 extra officers deployed to Catalonia would stay as long as necessary.
“I don’t think there was such a heavy hand, but in any case, they had to react,” said Spanish Foreign Minister Alfonso Dastis, calling the police reaction videos “a matter of interpretation.”
Speaking in Rome, Dastis said “some of the pictures are real, some of them are not real” but that police had simply responded when people prevented them from doing their job.
Catalan officials say an overwhelming majority of the 2.26 million who voted supported independence from Spain — they said 90 percent — but the central government in Madrid has repeatedly condemned the referendum as unconstitutional and invalid.
The Catalan president said the regional parliament will be asked to declare independence this week after final results are announced — and plenary sessions are scheduled for Wednesday and Thursday.
The euro and Spanish stocks fell Monday as investors tried to gauge what the weekend unrest in Catalonia means for the future of Spain and European unity.
The referendum fiasco brought Spain and Catalonia closer to a potentially disastrous showdown as each side said Sunday’s events proved them right.
Rajoy met with his conservative Popular Party members before seeking a parliamentary session to discuss how to confront Spain’s most serious political crisis in decades. He also met with the leaders of the opposition Socialist and Citizens parties to discuss Spain’s options, although no immediate consensus emerged.
The impasse developed after Catalan authorities decided to go ahead with Sunday’s referendum even after Spain’s Constitutional Court suspended it while assessing the claims by Rajoy’s government that the vote was illegal. The court has previously ruled against unilateral secession attempts.
Amnesty International said the Spanish police used “excessive and disproportionate” force against people “passively resisting” a judge’s order to impede the referendum. U.N. human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein called on Spain’s government to ensure “thorough, independent and impartial investigations” of the violence.
Some Catalans said both sides bore some responsibility.
“I think both sides involved committed grave mistakes,” said Eric Tigra, 56. “But we must also highlight that if the people of Catalonia go out in the streets and you don’t listen to them, then something is not working right.”
In an editorial, the Spanish daily El Pais blamed the Catalan government for Sunday’s “shameful” events but also criticized the Spanish government for its inability to tackle the crisis that began about seven years ago.
So far, most European governments, the U.S. and most international bodies have backed Spain in its stance against Catalan independence, fearing that Catalonia could unleash a wave of secessionist movements. French President Emmanuel Macron called Rajoy on Monday to offer support.
“These are times for unity and stability,” EU spokesman Margaritis Schinas said, urging all sides in Spain to move from confrontation to dialogue.
Catalonia, with the vibrant city of Barcelona as its capital, represents a fifth of Spain’s economy. Polls consistently show that while most of its 7.5 million inhabitants favored a referendum, they are roughly evenly split on independence from Spain.
Those in favor of secession argue that the region contributes more to the national government than it receives in return. Catalans already enjoy a wide measure of autonomy but the central government still controls taxation and other financial levers, as well as infrastructure projects.
Ciaran Giles reported from Madrid.