Spain Moves To Crush Catalonia's Autonomy Bid

Oct 21, 2017
Originally published on October 21, 2017 11:20 am
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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Spain's prime minister says he'll fire the government officials of Catalonia and hold new elections there within six months. Spain's Senate will have to approve that plan next week.

Catalonia, with its capital in Barcelona, held a referendum earlier this month that was banned by the government in Madrid. Catalans voted to break away from Spain and came close to declaring unilateral independence. The Spanish government says it's lost patience. Lauren Frayer reports from Madrid.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: For several weeks, Spanish and Catalan officials have talked past each other - issuing ultimatums and then ignoring them - as people rally outside in Barcelona's streets, scaring tourists away. Now the Spanish government has essentially said, enough.

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SPAIN MARIANO RAJOY: (Speaking Spanish).

FRAYER: "The government is taking measures to restore legality and normality in Catalonia," Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy told reporters Friday after a European Union summit in Brussels. He's invoking what many call the nuclear option, Article 155 of the Spanish constitution, suspending some of the powers of the Catalan regional government.

In Madrid's cafes, even people who didn't vote for Rajoy as prime minister say they support his stance now.

BEATRIZ GIL: Catalonia is a problem.

FRAYER: Hairdresser Beatriz Gil says Catalan separatists have exhausted her patience. She says they need to remember they're part of Spain, whether they like it or not.

Ever since Spain's economic recession, Catalonia's independence movement has grown. It's Spain's richest region, and some Catalans resent subsidizing poorer parts of Spain. After the banned independence vote on October 1, separatist leaders asked for dialogue with Madrid, but they did not get it. And the EU refused to get involved. European Council President Donald Tusk confirmed that on Thursday.

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DONALD TUSK: The institutions and member states are clear. There is no room, no space for any kind of mediation or international initiative or action.

FRAYER: In the streets of Barcelona, there's a sense of frustration but also of protest fatigue. Autumn rains have arrived, and the almost daily demonstrations have largely petered out. Jackie Dunfoi owns a restaurant in Barcelona. She's watched tourism to Catalonia fall 15 percent since violence at the polls October 1. Banks and businesses are relocating from the region. And as the rain pours down, she says she thinks Madrid has put them up to it.

JACKIE DUNFOI: I think they're really trying to put the fear of God into people by pressurizing a lot of the companies that have left Catalonia in the last week, 10 days.

FRAYER: She says Catalans also don't know what will happen to their regional institutions. Article 155 allows Spain to take over the local police and dismiss or even jail regional politicians.

DUNFOI: I think it's more worrying what's going to happen to the Catalan Parliament, what's going to happen to the Catalan government, what's going to happen to the language, to education.

FRAYER: Catalonia is one of 17 regions in Spain, which set their own policies on things like education and health care. Spain's young democracy is built on this idea of regional autonomy as a reaction to the centralized power of the late dictator Francisco Franco. Article 155 might end Catalan autonomy, and that worries Dunfoi, the restaurant owner.

DUNFOI: And then, what are the relationships going to be like with Spain now and the future? What's going to happen, you know? How are we going to heal this wound?

FRAYER: It's going to take time. Spain's Senate must first approve the use of Article 155. That would allow the government to call fresh elections in Catalonia in the coming months.

For NPR News, I'm Lauren Frayer in Madrid. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.