Catalonia is headed for a dramatic confrontation with Spain after the insurgent region's parliament voted to declare independence and the government in Madrid gained the power to oust its separatist leadership.
The resolution approved by lawmakers in Barcelona said the establishment of Europe's newest sovereign country had been set in motion. The portion of the text submitted to a vote included measures to ask all nations and institutions to recognize the Catalan Republic.
Meanwhile in Madrid, the Spanish Senate approved measures giving Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy the power to seize control of the Catalan administration via Article 155 of the 1978 constitution. The legislation already has come into force.
"The Catalan Parliament has approved something that in the opinion of the great majority of people doesn't just go against the law, but is a criminal act because it supposes declaring something that is not possible," Rajoy said before an early evening Cabinet meeting.
Catalonia's tumultuous push for independence reached its climax with regional President Carles Puigdemont squeezed by the irreconcilable demands of his own hardliners and authorities in Madrid. In the past 48 hours, the Catalan leader sought to avoid the chaos of an illegal secession without provoking anger among his base, to no avail.
Spain's 10-year bonds dropped, with the spread against benchmark German bunds widening by seven basis points to 119 basis points. The country's benchmark stock index, the Ibex, fell 1.4 per cent, all but erasing Thursday's gain when it looked like all-out declaration of independence might be avoided.
"We constitute the Catalan Republic, as an independent and sovereign country, under the rule of law," Catalan parliamentary speaker Carme Forcadell read out before the secret ballot. Separatist lawmakers broke into the Catalan anthem after the vote, which was boycotted by opposition parties.
Rajoy called for calm immediately after the vote in Barcelona as crowds swelled in number in support of independence.
"The clash is here and it won't be pretty," Antonio Barroso, a political risk analyst at Teneo Intelligence in London, said in an email to clients. "Tensions are likely to rise significantly over the coming days, especially as secessionist groups mobilise to stop the implementation of Article 155."
European Union President Donald Tusk said on Twitter that nothing has changed in the policy toward Catalonia and Spain "remains our only interlocutor." He said he hoped the Spanish government "favors force of argument, not argument of force."
Germany also said it was behind Rajoy. Government spokesman Steffen Seibert urged both sides to consider all options for dialogue and de-escalation.
The semi-autonomous Scottish government, which held a referendum in 2014 on breaking away from the UK, echoed the call for talks, though said Catalans must have the right to determine their own future.
Pro-independence activists had called for a human shield around government buildings to thwart Spanish efforts to take control and protect their representatives. Thursday, they focused their ire on Puigdemont, calling him a "traitor," as his commitment to declaring independence wavered.
Thousands flooded parliament and greeted pro-independence mayors shouting "republica" and "we're not scared" in Catalan.
"Its been worth it, the republic is here and now our duty is to defend it from Madrid," said Guillem Jove, 22, a student who had waited since noon outside the parliament. "Rajoy will try to suppress us - but the streets our ours."
Puigdemont had postponed declaring a republic in the aftermath of the illegal referendum on October 1 that set up weeks of brinkmanship. A senior Catalan official made a last-ditch trip to Madrid on Friday in the hope of securing concessions that would help Puigdemont put a brave face on a climb down.
WHAT DOES CATALONIA WANT?
The Catalan regional parliament in Barcelona passed a motion yesterday unilaterally establishing a new country. The motion was approved by the votes of pro-independence lawmakers, with 70 out of 135 votes in favour of secession. The Catalan regional government supported the breakaway bid, though opposition lawmakers walked out of the chamber ahead of the vote in protest. Secessionists hold a slim majority in the current parliament.
Not all Catalans are keen on breaking away from Spain. Polls show they are roughly evenly split. The issue has been simmering for years and boiled over when a plan to grant Catalonia, with its population of 7.5 million people, greater powers of self-government was ruled illegal by the Constitutional Court.
WHAT DOES THE SPANISH GOVERNMENT SAY?
The national government rejects Catalan independence, noting the constitution says Spain is "indivisible."
The government deployed large numbers of police to Catalonia to stop an October 1 regional independence referendum, which the Constitutional Court ruled illegal. Some heavy-handed policing caused outrage among Catalans.
WHO WILL WIN?
After the Senate yesterday granted the government extraordinary powers to end the Catalan secession drive, the government dismissed the Catalan regional government, dissolved its parliament and called an early election for December 21.
The pro-independence leaders and officials risk being arrested and sent to prison. The central government's measures will likely trigger a Catalan backlash.
Resistance from public servants and regional police is probable, as are large street protests, which will keep the issue alive.
Regional elections in 2015 returned a slim majority of pro-independence lawmakers, who took this as a mandate to push ahead with the independence drive. Analysts predict a similar outcome in the upcoming ballot.
- with AP