Catalonia’s parliament declared independence from Spain on Friday in defiance of the Madrid government, which at the same time was preparing to impose direct rule over the region.
Although the declaration was in effect a symbolic gesture as it will not be accepted by Spain or the international community, the moves by both sides take Spain’s worst political crisis in four decades to a new level.
Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy immediately called for calm and said the rule of law would be restored.
The motion passed in the regional parliament in Barcelona — which was boycotted by opposition parties — said Catalonia constituted an independent, sovereign and social democratic state.
It called on other countries and institutions to recognise it.
It also said it wanted to open talks with Madrid to collaborate on setting up the new republic.
“It is not going to be easy, it is not going to be free, it is not going to change in a day.
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 to 10 in favour in a secret ballot aimed at hindering any attempt by the central government to lay criminal charges on them.
Spanish shares and bonds were sold off when the result of the vote was announced.
Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont left the chamber to shouts of “President!”
Meanwhile in Madrid the upper house of Spain’s parliament, the Senate, was due to approve Article 155, the law that allowing the central government to take over the autonomous region.
“Exceptional measures should only be adopted when no other remedy is possible,” Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy said 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.”
The Catalan leadership was ignoring the law and making a mockery of democracy, he said.
“We are facing a challenge unprecedented in our recent history,” said Rajoy, who has staked out an uncompromising position against Catalonia’s campaign to break away from Spain.
After the Senate vote, Rajoy was expected to convene his cabinet to adopt the first measures to govern Catalonia directly. This could include sacking the Barcelona government and assuming direct supervision of Catalan police forces.
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, which could lead to direct confrontation with security forces.
The crisis developed after an independence referendum on October 1 was declared illegal by Madrid. Although it endorsed independence, it drew only a 43 per cent turnout as Catalans who oppose independence largely boycotted it.
In Barcelona, crowds of independence supporters were swelling on downtown streets, shouting “Liberty” in the Catalan language and singing traditional Catalan songs.
By Friday evening, Spanish flags were taken down in several towns of Catalonia.
Flags were removed from the town halls of Sabadell, Catalonia’s fifth-largest city, and of Girona, whose former mayor is Catalan President, Carles Puigdemont.
Similar actions were taken in other municipalities such as Figueres, Vic and Tortosa, but not in the regional capital of Barcelona, whose mayor, Ada Colau, is against unilateral secession.
In a social media message, Colau criticised the independence declaration and the Spanish government’s decision to counter it with the suspension of Catalan self-government.
“We’re a majority, in Catalonia and in Spain, who want a halt to the confrontation and call for dialogue, common sense and an agreed solution to take hold,” she wrote.