Catalan lawmakers voted Friday to declare independence from Spain but Madrid immediately moved to quash the breakaway bid in a sharp escalation of a crisis that has caused jitters in secession-wary Europe.
As tens of thousands of pro-independence activists gathered outside, the regional parliament in Barcelona passed a resolution to “declare Catalonia an independent state in the form of a republic”.
Demonstrators broke out in ecstatic cheers and shouts of: “Independence!” as the vote count was announced, while MPs inside cheered, clapped and embraced before breaking out in the Catalan anthem.
Urging Spaniards to “remain calm” as the country headed into the unknown, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy insisted that “the rule of law will restore legality in Catalonia”.
Rajoy has called a crisis meeting of his cabinet for Friday evening, as the European Union and the United States voiced their support for a united Spain.
The Catalan resolution, which Madrid says the region cannot legally execute, was passed by 70 votes to 10.
There were two abstentions, but dozens of opposition MPS walked out before the secret ballot in the 135-seat assembly, where 68 votes constitute a majority.
One lamented “a dark day” for democracy, and shares in Spanish companies, particularly Catalan banks, dropped sharply after the vote.
– Building ‘a new country’ –
In Madrid, the Spanish Senate agreed to give Rajoy powers to impose direct rule on the semi-autonomous region.
The measures under Article 155 of the constitution, designed to rein in rebels among Spain´s 17 regions, could see Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont, his deputy and regional ministers out of a job by Saturday.
Madrid could also seize control of Catalonia’s civil service, police and finances — measures that would remain in place until a new parliament is elected.
Popping bottles of cava, Catalan sparkling wine, pro-secessionists waved the red-and-yellow Catalan flag and cheered as the vote count came up on two big screens erected outside the regional parliament building, then sang the region´s anthem with raised fists.
“It has cost us so much to get here,” 38-year-old social worker Judith Rodriguez told AFP with tears in her eyes.
“I am very emotional about finally moving forward, to be able to build a Republic, a new country, from scratch.”
In a bar in Madrid, however, diners were not happy, with several shouting “to jail with them all!” at the TV screen.
“They are crazy!” exclaimed Alicia Lombardia, a 79-year-old retiree. “This is like a bomb attack. There could be a war — people are afraid.”
EU President Donald Tusk insisted Madrid “remains our only interlocutor” in Spain after the independence vote that could test the stability of a key member of the bloc.
Wary of nationalist and secessionist sentiment, particularly after Britain’s dramatic decision last year to leave the EU, the bloc has stood firmly behind Madrid in the escalating standoff.
Tusk urged Madrid to exercise restraint.
“I hope the Spanish government favours force of argument, not argument of force,” he tweeted.
The United States, which is one of Spain’s NATO allies, declared its backing for Madrid.
“Catalonia is an integral part of Spain, and the United States supports the Spanish government’s constitutional measures to keep Spain strong and united,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in a statement.
– To the wire –
Roughly the size of Belgium, the wealthy Catalan region accounts for about 16 percent of Spain’s population and a fifth of its economic output.
Resentment to Madrid’s perceived interference has been growing for years, culminating in an October 1 independence vote deemed illegal by the central government and the courts.
But while fiercely protective of their language, culture and autonomy — restored at the end of the 1939-1975 dictatorship of Francisco Franco — Catalans are deeply divided on independence.
Catalan authorities said 90 percent voted “Yes” in the unregulated plebiscite held up by secessionist leaders as a mandate for independence for the wealthy region of 7.5 million people.
However, only about 43 percent of voters turned out, with many anti-secessionists staying away and others prevented from casting their ballot by Spanish police in a crackdown that turned violent
Rajoy sought Friday to place the blame for Spain’s worst political crisis in decades squarely on separatist shoulders.
The government´s steps under Article 155 were not aimed against the people of the region, he insisted, but “to prevent abuse of Catalonia” by its own leaders.
Far-left groups have already threatened “massive civil disobedience” if Madrid moves to usurp its autonomy.