Eyes on EU as Catalonia leader threatens independence

Catalan President Carles Puigdemont holds a carnation while visiting the polling station where he cast his vote, on 1 October 2017. [Reuters]

Catalonia’s leader, Carles Puigdemont, said the region won the right to break away from Spain, with his government claiming on Monday (2 October) that 90% of voters backed independence in a banned referendum marred by violent clashes.

Puigdemont, who governs Catalonia, said in an address after polls closed: “With this day of hope and suffering, the citizens of Catalonia have won the right to an independent state in the form of a republic.”

He urged the European Union to stop looking “the other way” following the police crackdown.

“We are European citizens and our rights and freedoms are being violated,” Puigdemont said.

But the leaders of the EU institutions remained silent. From the leaders of the EU countries, only Belgian PM Charles Michel and his Slovenian colleague Miro Cerar broke ranks, calling for political dialogue.

In a press briefing, regional government spokesman Jordi Turull said 2.02 million Catalans voted for independence, during a 42.3% turnout.

He said that represented “90%” of the votes cast, while 7.8% said “no” to the question: “Do you want Catalonia to become an independent state in the form of a republic?”

A further 2% cast a blank vote, he added, and 0.5% of ballots were void.

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy declared the Sunday plebiscite had been blocked, saying “today there has not been a self-determination referendum in Catalonia”, a region deeply divided over independence.

Further adding to tensions, unions and Catalan associations called a region-wide strike for Tuesday (3 October) due to “the grave violation of rights and freedoms”, urging people to take to the streets in Catalonia, a major engine for Spanish growth.

At least 92 people were confirmed injured out of a total of 844 who needed medical attention, Catalan authorities said, as police cracked down on a vote Spain’s central government branded a “farce”.

More than 760 injured in Catalonia during referendum-Catalan regional government

Around 760 people have been injured in disturbances across Catalonia on Sunday (1 October) according to the latest figures released by the regional government, as riot police clashed with people who had gathered for a banned referendum on the region’s independence from Spain.

The interior ministry said 33 police required treatment as a result of the clashes.

The violence raised alarm abroad and further heightened tensions between Rajoy’s government and the authorities in Catalonia in the worst political crisis in Spain in decades.

Rajoy called the vote a process that “only served to sow division, push citizens to confrontation and the streets to revolt”, but left the door potentially open to negotiations on greater autonomy for the region.

The referendum was organised under the threat of reprisals and criminal charges but thousands of Catalans stood in defiance of the central government crying “Votarem” – “We will vote”.

Camped inside overnight

From early in the day, helmeted police armed with batons moved in en masse to seal off polling stations and seize ballot boxes, sparking clashes.

Videos posted on social media showed police dragging voters from polling stations by their hair, throwing people down stairs and attacking Catalan firefighters who were protecting polling stations.

“They took the ballot boxes by force… and they literally yanked them from us as we continued to sing ‘Els Segadors’, the Catalan hymn, and shouting ‘long live democracy’,” said Marc Carrasco, in charge at one Barcelona polling station.

The referendum law foresees a declaration of independence soon after a “Yes” vote but it remains unclear if the regional government will actually do so.

Even before the vote, judicial officials ordered police to seize ballot papers, detain key organisers and shut down websites promoting the referendum after Madrid and the courts deemed it unconstitutional.

Thousands of people had gathered outside polling stations before dawn, joining those who had spent the night camped inside to ensure they would be open on the day.

In central Barcelona, riot police charged at demonstrators who were sitting on the ground at a polling station, and fired rubber bullets, witnesses said.

‘Unjustified violence’

Riot police also stormed a polling station near Girona, smashing the glass doors of the sports centre where Puigdemont was due to vote and cutting a chain to force their way in.

But the regional government said Puigdemont had managed to vote anyway in nearby Cornella del Terri.

The crackdown drew a sharp rebuke from Catalan leaders and others including Nicola Sturgeon, leader of the pro-independence Scottish National Party. The events in Catalonia are watched closely in Scotland, which voted overwhelmingly to stay in the European Union in last year’s referendum on EU membership. Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon says Scotland should have a right to vote again once the terms of a Brexit deal become clear.

The trouble caused Barcelona football club to play its La Liga tie against Las Palmas behind closed doors after the Spanish league refused to postpone the match.

But in several areas, voting was peaceful.

Under a sea of umbrellas outside a school in Barcelona, a crowd gathered, among them elderly people in wheelchairs, families with buggies and parents clutching toddlers by the hand.

With no police in sight, they were able to cast their ballots, prompting scenes of jubilation.

“I’ve voted! I’ve voted,” one man shouted.

“That’s the great hope, to be able to vote freely like this despite the problems we’ve faced, I’m very happy. I can die peacefully,” added Jose Mas Ribas, 79.

Overtaxed, underfunded

Although Catalans are divided over independence, most want to vote on the matter in a legal and binding plebiscite.

Although Catalonia already has significant control over education, healthcare and welfare, the region says it pays more in taxes than it receives from Madrid.

This has sparked resentment which has been further exacerbated by Spain’s economic woes and helped push the secessionist cause.