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article imageSpain, EU warn Catalan leader ahead of independence showdown

By Daniel Silva with Patrick Galey in Madrid (AFP)     Oct 10, 2017 in World

The Spanish government and the European Union warned Catalonia's separatist leader Tuesday against declaring independence, just hours before he announces a possible split from Spain under intense domestic and European scrutiny.

Whether or not Catalan president Carles Puigdemont will follow through on his threat to announce a full breakaway in defiance of the central government and Spanish courts is still unknown.

Police increased security around the regional parliament in Barcelona where Puigdemont is due to address Catalan lawmakers at 1600 GMT, blocking public access to a park that houses the building.

In Madrid, the Spanish government issued a sharp warning to Puigdemont as it grapples with the nation's worst political crisis in a generation.

Hundreds of thousands of protesters took to the streets of Barcelona on October 8 to defend Spanish ...
Hundreds of thousands of protesters took to the streets of Barcelona on October 8 to defend Spanish unity
LLUIS GENE, AFP/File

"We call on Puigdemont not to do anything irreversible, not to pursue a path of no return and not to make any unilateral independence declaration," government spokesman Inigo Mendez de Vigo told reporters.

EU President Donald Tusk also urged Puigdemont against making a decision that would make "dialogue impossible".

- Madrid will act -

At stake is the future of a region of 7.5 million people deeply divided over independence, one of Spain's economic powerhouses whose drive to break away has raised concern for stability in the European Union.

Catalan regional president Carles Puigdemont says an independence referendum that took place on Octo...
Catalan regional president Carles Puigdemont says an independence referendum that took place on October 1 despite a court ban justifies splitting from Madrid
PAU BARRENA, AFP/File

Political leaders in Catalonia, Spain and Europe have come out against an independence declaration, concerned over the country's biggest upheaval since its transition to democracy in the 1970s.

Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has vowed to use everything in his legal power to prevent independence and has even refused to rule out imposing direct rule over the semi-autonomous region -- an unprecedented move many fear could lead to unrest.

But the Catalan president says the independence referendum that took place on October 1 despite a court ban justifies splitting from Madrid.

Around 90 percent of those who cast ballots voted for independence but the poll was poorly monitored and many Catalans opposed to secession boycotted an illegal plebiscite that was witnessed a violent police crackdown.

- Anger on both sides -

Protesters were pleading for Spain's conservative Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy to heed calls fo...
Protesters were pleading for Spain's conservative Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy to heed calls for peaceful dialogue
GABRIEL BOUYS, AFP

On Monday, Ada Colau, the popular mayor of Barcelona, warned that a unilateral declaration of independence would put "social cohesion" at risk.

Pro-unity and pro-independence supporters have staged mass rallies in Barcelona over the past week, highlighting divisions in Catalonia.

Anger over the police violence during the referendum swung some Catalans over to the independence camp.

But both Madrid and the Catalan executive have come under fire for their dogged response to the crisis and a lack of dialogue.

Carolina Palles, a 53-year-old flower vendor in Barcelona's popular La Ramblas boulevard, said it was "a sad day", almost two months after the seaside city was hit by a deadly terror attack.

Against independence, she was angry at both camps.

"Rajoy's government handled things very badly," she said, accusing the separatists "of persisting until the very end, like martyrs".

- EU backs Spain -

After the referendum, Puigdemont vowed he would declare independence but he has a variety of options to choose from.

Short of declaring an outright split, the Catalan leader could play for time and call for dialogue, or back down outright from his secessionist demands.

EU nations are watching developments closely amid concern that Catalan independence could put further pressure on the bloc still dealing with the fallout from Britain's shock decision to leave.

After talks in Luxembourg with ministers from the European People's Party, the EU's right-of-centre political grouping, Spain's economy minister Luis de Guindos said "everyone has supported the position of the Spanish government".

- 'A disaster' for business -

The crisis has also caused deep uncertainty for businesses in one of the wealthiest regions in the eurozone's fourth largest economy.

A string of companies have already moved their legal headquarters -- but not their employees -- from Catalonia to other parts of the country.

The head of Spain's chamber of commerce Jose Luis Bonet told Cadena SER radio that a unilateral independence declaration "would be a disaster" for Spain and Europe where "it would mean enormous instability."

Demands for independence in Catalonia, which has its own language and cultural traditions, date back centuries.

But a 2010 move by Spain's Constitutional Court to water down a statute that gave Catalonia additional powers, combined with a deep economic meltdown in Spain, sparked a surge in support for independence.

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