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© Pau Barrena, AFP | People celebrate in Barcelona after Catalonia's parliament voted to declare independence from Spain on October 27.
© Pau Barrena, AFP | People celebrate in Barcelona after Catalonia’s parliament voted to declare independence from Spain on October 27.
Madrid has sacked Catalonia’s regional government and parliament before calling for a snap election, as it moves to impose direct rule over the region just hours after its parliament declared independence in a stunning show of defiance.

Although the Catalan declaration appears to be a doomed gesture, both sides’ moves take Spain’s worst political crisis in four decades to a new and possibly dangerous level.

Quickly after the Catalan parliament’s vote, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy called for calm and said the rule of law would be restored in Catalonia, where secessionists have long cherished the dream of a separate nation.

On Friday evening, the Spanish leader announced he had decided to sack Catalonia’s regional government, dissolved the Catalan parliament, and called for regional elections to be held on December 21.

“We believe it is urgent to listen to Catalan citizens, to all of them, so that they can decide their future and nobody can act outside the law on their behalf,” Rajoy said in a televised speech.

Earlier, Spain’s public prosecutor’s office had announced that it will file rebellion charges against Catalonia’s regional president, Carles Puigdemont, next week. A court would then decide whether to accept the charges against the secessionist leader. Under Spanish law, the crime of “rebellion” is punishable by up to 30 years in jail.

‘Liberty’

On Friday afternoon, a crowd of more than 2,000 independence supporters gathered in the Ciutadella Park outside the regional parliament in Barcelona, shouting “Liberty” in Catalan and singing traditional songs as the independence vote went through.

The motion passed in the regional parliament after a passionate debate from advocates and opponents of independence said Catalonia constituted an independent, sovereign and social democratic state.

Puigdemont left the chamber to shouts of “President!” and mayors who had come from outlying areas brandished their ceremonial batons and sang the Catalan anthem “Els Segadors” (The Reapers).

Within an hour of those events in Barcelona, the upper house of Spain’s parliament in Madrid authorised Rajoy’s government to rule Catalonia directly — an unprecedented move in Spain since the return of democracy in the late 1970s.

Support abroad for Madrid

In Brussels, the president of the European Council, Donald Tusk, said the independence vote changed nothing and the EU would only deal with the central government in Madrid.

In Washington, the US State Department said it backed Madrid’s efforts to keep Spain united and Catalonia was an integral part of the country.

During an overseas trip to French Guiana, France’s president declared Rajoy had his “full support”.

“I have always said it: I have a single interlocutor in Spain, that is Prime Minister Rajoy, and I have no comment to make on matters that are internal matters,” Emmanuel Macron said. “There is a rule of law in Spain with constitutional rules; [Rajoy] wants to ensure they are respected and he has my full support,” he added.

Berlin also expressed its backing of Madrid after Catalonia’s latest move. “The German government does not recognize such a declaration of independence,” said Germany’s government spokesman, Steffen Seibert, adding that Berlin supported Rajoy’s “clear position” in the Spanish prime minister’s bid to restore calm and order.

“We hope that all involved will use the remaining possibilities for dialogue and de-escalation,” Seibert added.

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, who was accompanying Macron, also said it was important to avoid any “fractures” in the EU bloc.

“I do not want a situation where, tomorrow, the European Union is made up of 95 different states. We need to avoid splits, because we already have enough splits and fractures and we do not need any more,” said Juncker.

In London, British Prime Minister Theresa May’s spokesperson said in a statement on Friday that Britain “does not and will not” recognise the Catalan parliament’s unilateral declaration of independence. “It is based on a vote that was declared illegal by the Spanish courts. We continue to want to see the rule of law upheld, the Spanish constitution respected, and Spanish unity preserved,” the spokesperson said.

‘Exceptional measures’

“Exceptional measures should only be adopted when no other remedy is possible,” Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy had said on Friday morning in an address to the Senate.

“In my opinion there is no alternative. The only thing that can be done and should be done is to accept and comply with the law,” said Rajoy, who has staked out an uncompromising position.

How direct rule would work on the ground – including the reaction of civil servants and the police – is uncertain. Some independence supporters have promised to mount a campaign of civil disobedience.

The main secessionist group, the Catalan National Assembly, called on civil servants not to follow orders from the Spanish government and urged them to follow “peaceful resistance”.

“Tensions are likely to rise significantly over the coming days,” Antonio Barroso of Teneo Intelligence said earlier in a note.

“Demonstrators might try to prevent the police from removing Catalan ministers from their offices if the central government decides to do so. This increases the risk of violent clashes with the police.”

The crisis unfolded after Catalonia held an independence referendum on October 1st which was declared illegal by Madrid. Although it endorsed independence, it drew only a 43 percent turnout as Catalans who oppose independence largely boycotted it.

The crisis has split Catalonia and caused deep resentment around Spain. National flags now hang from many balconies in Barcelona in an expression of unity.

Catalonia is one of Spain’s most prosperous regions and already has a high degree of autonomy. But it has a litany of historic grievances, exacerbated during the 1939-1975 Franco dictatorship, when its culture and politics were suppressed.

The chaos has also prompted a flight of business from the region and alarmed European leaders who fear the crisis could fan separatist sentiment around the continent.

Not easy

“It is not going to be easy, it is not going to be free, it is not going to change in a day. But there is no alternative to a process towards the Catalan Republic,” lawmaker Marta Rovira of the Junts pel Si pro-independence alliance said in a debate leading to the vote.

After the debate, lawmakers from members of three main national parties the People’s Party, the Socialists and Ciudadanos walked out. Members of the pro-independence parties and the far-left Podemos then voted in 70-10 in favour in a secret ballot aimed at hindering any attempt by Madrid to lay criminal charges on them.

The independence declaration called on other countries and institutions to recognise Catalonia, although many, including the European Union, had already made it clear they would not do so.

Montserrat Rectoret, a 61-year-old historian, was among the crowds in Barcelona.

“I am emotional because Catalonia has struggled for 40 years to be independent and finally I can see it,” she said.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP and REUTERS)

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