Spain’s Senate on Friday authorized the government to apply constitutional measures to take control of the government of Catalonia.
A majority of senators gave Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy the go-ahead Friday through Article 155 of the constitution to apply unprecedented measures, including sacking Catalan regional President Carles Puigdemont and his cabinet. It also authorized him to curtail Catalan parliamentary powers.
It is the first time in four decades of democratic rule that the national government in Madrid would directly run the affairs of one of Spain’s 17 semi-autonomous regions, a move that will likely fan the flames of the Catalan revolt.
The vote came less than an hour after the Catalan Generalitat itself voted in Barcelona to declare the region’s independence and to begin forming a new state in a ballot boycotted by opposition deputies. Thousands of independence supporters gathered near the parliament building in the northeastern city anticipating that historic declaration.
The twin developments showed Spain’s biggest political crisis in decades heading for a showdown.
Facing a crowd of hundreds of supporters packing Catalonia’s parliament building, Puigdemont said: “In the days ahead we must keep to our values of pacificism and dignity. It’s in our, in your hands to build the republic.”
“Today the Parliament fulfilled the long-desired and fought-for step and culminated the mandate of the ballot boxes,” he added, in reference to a banned referendum separatists held on Oct. 1.
Rajoy appealed for calm in a tweet posted minutes after the Catalan vote.
“I ask for calm from all Spaniards. The rule of law will restore legality in Catalonia,” Rajoy wrote.
‘A clear violation of the laws’
Earlier, the Spanish prime minister received sustained applause before and after his speech in the Senate in Madrid, telling the chamber that Spain was facing a challenge not seen in its recent history.
What is happening in Catalonia is “a clear violation of the laws, of democracy, of the rights of all, and that has consequences,” he said.
The Spanish government must now decide how and when to apply the measures. It says they are temporary and aimed at restoring legality in the northeastern region that is an economic powerhouse in Spain.
The government had scheduled a cabinet meeting for 6 p.m. local time (12 p.m. ET) to discuss next steps.
Separatist lawmakers in Catalonia were unbowed by the threats, erupting in applause as their vote was approved with 70 votes in favor of an independent Catalan Republic, 10 against and two blank ballots out of a total 135 members. Most opposition lawmakers had left the chamber in protest moments before the vote.
The motion calls for beginning an independence process that includes drafting Catalonia’s new top laws and opening negotiations “on equal footing” with Spanish authorities to establish co-operation.
International reaction was swift, and not in the region’s favour.
European Council President Donald Tusk says that “nothing changes” for the European Union after Catalonia’s parliament voted to declare independence, adding that Spain “remains our only interlocutor.”
Tusk hoped the impasse would be resolved peacefully.
For EU nothing changes. Spain remains our only interlocutor. I hope the Spanish government favours force of argument, not argument of force.
The U.S. said it backs Madrid’s efforts to keep the country united.
“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.
Nauert’s statement echoes comments President Donald Trump made when asked about the Catalan bid while appearing at a joint news conference on Sept. 26 with Rajoy.
Vote ‘an even bigger error’
In Barcelona, about 500 mayors of Catalan towns chanted “independence!” and raised their ceremonial wooden staves in a hall inside the regional parliament shortly before the parliamentary session began.
Ramon Moliner, the mayor of Alp, in the northern Pyrenees region, said Friday was a historic day.
“We are beginning a new chapter as a country, a very uncertain stage in many ways but very exciting,” he said.
The proposal for independence was submitted ruling Catalan Together for Yes coalition and their allies in the far-left CUP party.
“Today is the day that many Catalans’ long-held desire will be fulfilled, but tomorrow the cruel reality will set in with the Spanish state armed with its interpretation of Article 155,” the former speaker of the Catalan parliament Joan Rigol i Roig, told The Associated Press before the vote was held. “We can only hope that the conflict remains in the political realm.”
Secessionists hold a slim majority in the Catalan government due to Spanish election laws, which give more representation to sparsely populated areas.
Carlos Carrizosa, spokesman for the pro-union Citizens party, the leading opposition party in Catalonia’s parliament, ripped a copy of the proposal into pieces during the debate.
“With this paper, you leave those Catalans who don’t follow you orphaned without a government. And that’s why Citizens won’t let you ruin Catalonia,” he said.
“Today is a sad, dramatic day in Catalonia. Today is the day that you [secessionists] carry out your coup against the democracy in Spain,” Carrizosa added.
Marta Ribas of the leftist Catalonia Yes We Can party said “two grave errors” were being committed Friday.
“First, the Article 155 which will take away our rights and impact all the country. But it is a grave error to respond to that barbarity with an even bigger error,” she said. “The unilateral declaration of independence won’t protect us against Article 155, you will only make the majority of people suffer.”
Large crowds of independence supporters gathered outside in a Barcelona park, waving Catalan flags and chanting slogans in favour of a new state being proclaimed.
“I am here today because we will start the Catalan Republic,” said 68-year-old protester Jordi Soler. “Madrid is starting with total repression — and there is no longer any [other] option.”
Rajoy says the measures to take over Catalan affairs are aimed at restoring order and has promised to call a new regional election once that is achieved.
Rajoy’s conservative Popular Party has an absolute majority in the Senate, which all but guaranteed the approval of his proposals. But he has also sought support from the country’s main opposition parties.
Catalonia represents a fifth of Spain’s gross domestic product, but few European states, if any, would recognize their independence.
Catalonia officials said 90 per cent voted for independence in a referendum on Oct. 1, with a turnout of 43 per cent.
The special measures, Rajoy said, were the only way out of the crisis, adding that Spain wasn’t trying to take away liberties from the 7.5 million Catalans but instead trying to protect them.