The Observer view on the crisis in Europe | Observer editorial | Opinion

The unprecedented measures initiated on Saturday by Spain’s government, aimed at thwarting Catalonia’s secession, are but the latest expression of a developing, Europe-wide crisis of identity and political legitimacy. Mariano Rajoy, the prime minister, was reluctant to resort to direct rule from Madrid, but faced by the stubborn and, in his view, illegal defiance of the Catalan leadership, he clearly felt he had no choice. Rajoy’s intervention could defuse the situation or, by triggering a formal declaration of independence, render it even more unstable.

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The drive for a separate Catalan state has causes specific to that region’s history and culture. But it has also been fuelled by the perceived failures of national political leadership. Inconclusive elections in 2015 and 2016 shattered the traditional dominance of the mainstream centre-left and centre-right parties. Rajoy’s conservative Popular party has been damaged by corruption scandals. The Socialists registered their worst ever performance last year amid record low turnout. Yet would-be mould-breakers such as Podemos failed to achieve a breakthrough.

This rejection of politics as usual, and the consequent fragmentation of the body politic, finds powerful echoes across Europe. Everywhere, or so it seems, newly minted or reviving political forces, sometimes benign, more frequently not, are attempting to fill the vacuum. This weekend’s elections in the Czech Republic are a case in point. Polls suggest the ruling, pro-EU Social Democrats face defeat by the upstart populist, Eurosceptic, anti-immigrant Action of Dissatisfied Citizens led by a pro-Russia billionaire. In prospect is a coalition with the rightwing Freedom and Direct Democracy party, which wants to quit the EU.

Events in Prague recall in turn last week’s Austrian elections, which brought victory for the youthful conservative People’s party leader, Sebastian Kurz, whose cynical tactic was to ape the extremist, xenophobic outlook of the far-right Freedom party. Kurz now looks set to form a governing alliance with a party whose neo-Nazi origins and ideology led the EU to boycott Austria in 2000, when the Freedom party first entered government. It is a measure of how Europe has become more accepting of, or resigned to, far-right activism that no repeat boycott is mooted in Brussels. More than half the Austrian electorate backed parties fiercely opposed to immigration, integration and multiculturalism. Muslim and Jewish citizens are understandably alarmed.

Now switch focus to northern Italy and, again, anger over political failings at the centre can be seen combining, negatively and corrosively, with fears about personal and regional identity. This weekend’s referendums on increased autonomy for Lombardy and the Veneto have at their heart distrust of the Rome government and resentment (and there are echoes of Catalonia here) at the way the poorer south is supposedly subsidised by wealthy, industrialised Milan. But in its tribalism, micro-nationalism and sociocultural exclusivity, the biggest regional party, the Northern League, nurtures many of the unsavoury prejudices displayed by similar groups across the continent.

It would be easy, but facile, to dismiss these phenomena as little local difficulties without bearing on the bigger picture. So what if fringe minorities in the Basque country, Flanders, Transylvania, Corsica or Bavaria are unhappy with their lot? All situations are different. And Europe, in any case, is ultimately an enriching patchwork of like-minded peoples immutably linked by shared values and beliefs. Or is it? As recent votes in France, Germany and Britain show, the crisis of legitimacy and identity extends deep into the heartlands of Europe’s big powers. Emmanuel Macron’s triumph in this year’s French presidential election was taken, for example, as proof that Europe’s nationalist, populist tide was on the turn. It was nothing of the sort. The Front National performed better than ever before. Marine Le Pen stands poised to strike the killer blow next time around, if Macron fails.

Who can save Europe from this fatal fragmentation, this pernicious, creeping dissolution of its ideological, democratic and territorial unity? The threats to solidarity do not come solely from within. Russia plays the stealthy provocateur along the eastern flank. With EU funding for migration controls running out fast, prospective new waves of African and Middle Eastern refugees require an effective, collective response that has been lacking hitherto. The return of Islamic State fighters from Iraq and Syria is another pressing challenge. Authoritarian Turkey is a growing problem. So, too, is Donald Trump. Meanwhile, rightwing leaders in Poland and Hungary are at odds with Brussels over basic principles of law and civic rights.

There was a time when all eyes would have turned for leadership and inspiration to Angela Merkel, Germany’s iron chancellor. But last month’s elections left her badly bent out of shape. Her CDU party recorded its worst result ever. The populist Alternative for Germany stormed into the Bundestag. As of today, Merkel is still trying to form a government. Yet this is the weakened, buffeted leader on whom rest Theresa May’s hopes of rescuing Brexit. Forgetful of its historical role as European exemplar, arbiter and guarantor, a diminished, inward-looking, self-obsessed Britain just does not get it. Europe is slipping ever deeper into an existential crisis all of its own. It is us who should be helping them.

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Catalonia crisis escalates as Spain set to impose direct rule within days | World news

Spain was plunged deep into political crisis on Saturday after the prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, announced that he is stripping Catalonia of its autonomy and imposing direct rule from Madrid in a bid to crush the regional leadership’s move to secede.

The decision, which prompted fear and anger across Catalonia, has dramatically escalated Spain’s deepest constitutional crisis since the restoration of democracy in 1977. Observers say the move could raise the spectre of Basque nationalism, and have repercussions across a Europe that is facing the rise of nationalist and separatist movements.

Following an emergency cabinet meeting Saturday morning, Rajoy said he was invoking Article 155 of the constitution to “restore the rule of law, coexistence and the economic recovery and to ensure that elections could be held in normal circumstances”.

Pending almost certain approval in the senate on Friday, direct rule will be imposed as of next weekend. Citing the Catalan government’s “conscious and systematic rebellion and disobedience”, Rajoy said Carles Puigdemont’s government would be stripped of its powers and its functions would be assumed by the relevant ministries in Madrid.

The Catalan president will not be empowered to call elections, which Rajoy said he hoped would be held within a maximum of six months. “We are not ending Catalan autonomy but we are relieving of their duties those who have acted outside the law,” Rajoy said.

He did not go into details of how Article 155 would be applied but a government statement said: “A series of measures will be introduced regarding sensitive issues such as security and public order, financial management, taxation, the budget and telecommunications.”

Over recent years, the Catalan government has been creating the structures of a parallel state in readiness for independence. It has expanded the inland revenue department, as well as other parts of the regional administration, and has established “embassies” in a number of foreign capitals. Under Article 155, it is likely that all of this will be dismantled.

Catalan vice-president Oriol Junqueras accused the government of “totalitarianism” while a spokesman for the left-wing Podemos party claimed that Rajoy wanted to “humiliate” Catalonia. Barcelona’s mayor Ada Colau called the move “an attack on everyone’s rights and freedoms”.

Rajoy has the support of most of the opposition, King Felipe and the EU, whose leaders gave him their backing at Friday’s Council of Europe meeting. Pablo Echenique, a spokesman for Podemos, tweeted: “The most corrupt party in Europe, which has 8.5% of the vote in Catalonia and is going to govern it. A terrible day for any democrat.”

On Friday Felipe, who already faces criticism for his apparently partisan support of the government over the illegal Catalan referendum, said: “Spain has to confront the unacceptable attempt at secession by a part of the national territory.”

Recent government actions – the police violence on 1 October aimed at thwarting the regional referendum on independence, the jailing of the leaders of the two main pro-independence organisations, the threat to imprison the popular Catalan chief of police, and now Article 155 – all serve to reinforce the secessionists’ narrative of repression and colonisation at the hands of an undemocratic and anti-Catalan Spanish regime.

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy speaks to the press after the cabinet meeting at Moncloa Palace on 21 October.

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy speaks to the press after the cabinet meeting at Moncloa Palace on 21 October. Photograph: Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images

Nevertheless, Rajoy put the blame on Puigdemont, saying he lacked the stature to deal with the situation. “This would probably never have happened if a different person with similar ideas had been in charge. But this is what happens when you put yourself in the hands of radicals,” he said, a reference to the anti-capitalist CUP party that props up the centre-right Catalan government.

While Rajoy insists that Article 155 doesn’t imply suspending autonomy, this is not how the move will be seen in Catalonia and 450,000 people took to the streets of Barcelona on Saturday to demonstrate against direct rule.

Puigdemont and other members of his government attended the rally amid fears that the hitherto peaceful movement could turn violent. Direct rule is a recipe for civil disobedience and hugely increases the scope for conflict. The thousands of Spanish civil guards and national police who were drafted in for the referendum are still stationed in Catalonia.

The deadline for Puigdemont to clarify whether or not he had declared independence passed last Thursday. The Catalan president declined to answer yes or no and instead threatened to issue a unilateral declaration of independence (UDI) if the government invoked Article 155.

Spain’s attorney-general said that if Puigdemont declared UDI he would be charged with “rebellion”, a charge that carries a maximum 30-year sentence.

Puigdemont claims that Catalonia has earned the moral right to declare UDI after some 90% voted yes to independence in the unofficial referendum. However, only 43% of voters turned out, roughly equivalent to the percentage of Catalans who favour independence, according to opinion polls.

There is still time for Puigdemont to call an election, in which case Article 155 would be suspended, so long as he also disavows UDI. A poll published in El Periódico newspaper on Saturday showed there is 68% support for fresh elections.

However, his PdeCAT party has not benefited from the independence push and continues to slump in opinion polls. Junqueras said: “We’re not here to hold elections again just so we can have the same mandate we’ve already got”.

Article 155 has never been invoked and the decision could trigger the unravelling of the 1978 constitution that established the 17 autonomous communities that make up Spain. The constitution was devised specifically to accommodate Basque and Catalan national aspirations.

The other 15 communities – including some that have no historic identity as such – were effectively invented so as to avoid the impression that the Catalans and Basques were getting special treatment. Many now believe that this federation of 17 regions, nicknamed café para todos (coffee for everyone),, nicknamed café para todos (coffee for everyone), is obsolete and that the constitution needs an overhaul.

As well as the friction between Barcelona and Madrid, the atmosphere within Catalonia is also becoming fraught, with growing tension between supporters and opponents of independence, with tolerance of opposing views giving way to acrimony and many people reporting they have fallen out with friends and family over the issue.

Like Brexit for Britain, the independence drive has begun to resemble a collective act of economic self-harm, with major companies moving their headquarters out of the region as instability puts the brake on investment and business confidence. The association of small businesses reports that 1,300 have moved their legal HQ out of Catalonia. Tourism, which accounts for 400,000 jobs, is down by around 20% – a loss to the region of more than €1bn – and one Barcelona restaurant owner said her industry was facing “an economic tsunami”.

Rajoy, whose government was only last week encouraging firms to leave, ended Saturday’s press conference with an appeal to business to stay in Catalonia.

Barely two weeks ago, tens of thousands of secessionists gathered outside the Catalan parliament to hear Puigdemont declare independence, only to suspend it seven seconds later. By this time next week Catalans could be living under both direct rule and a unilateral declaration of independence, with neither option supported by a majority of the population.

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Catalonia: Spanish government to impose direct rule | World news

The Spanish government has suspended Catalonia’s autonomy and will introduce direct rule from next Saturday as the country sinks further into its worst constitutional crisis since the restoration of democracy in 1977.

After an emergency cabinet meeting, and citing the Catalan government’s “conscious and systematic rebellion and disobedience”, Spain’s prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, said he was invoking article 155 of the constitution to “restore the rule of law, coexistence, the economic recovery and so that elections could be held in normal circumstances”.

Pending Senate approval next week, the government of Carles Puigdemont will be stripped of its powers, with its functions assumed by the relevant ministries in Madrid. Elections would then be held in Catalonia within six months, Rajoy said.

“We are not ending Catalan autonomy, but we are relieving of their duties those who have acted outside the law,” Rajoy said, without detailing which Catalan institutions would come under direct rule. It is expected that the interior ministry, and therefore the police, would be one.

Taxation and spending are also expected to be controlled by Madrid, but it is unclear whether the Spanish government will intervene in Catalan state media, whose outlets are viewed as the mouthpiece of the independence movement.

While the government insists that article 155 did not imply ending Catalan autonomy, many in the region are likely to take a different point of view. Thousands of demonstrators are expected to take to the streets later on Saturday to protest against the imposition of direct rule.

The deadline set by Madrid for Puigdemont to clarify whether he had, on 10 October, declared independence passed last Thursday. The Catalan president declined to answer yes or no and instead threatened to unilaterally declare independence if the government invoked article 155.

Mariano Rajoy, the Spanish PM, presides over the crisis cabinet meeting in Madrid on Saturday morning.

Mariano Rajoy, the Spanish PM, presides over the crisis cabinet meeting in Madrid on Saturday morning. Photograph: Juan Carlos Hidalgo/AFP/Getty Images

Spain’s attorney general said that if Puigdemont declared independence for Catalonia, he would be charged with “rebellion”, a crime that carries a maximum 30-year sentence. It was last used against the police and military who supported the failed coup in 1981.

As Rajoy’s People’s party has a majority in the Senate there is virtually no doubt that article 155 will be passed.

Puigdemont will then cease to be Catalan president, but he has a week’s grace during which he could stave off direct rule by calling elections. A poll published on Saturday morning showed that 68% of Catalans were in favour of this option.

However, polls also suggested Puigdemont’s party had not benefited from the rush to independence and would fail to get a majority. In recent days, all members of his coalition have said elections are not an option.

Meanwhile, the chances of the two sides sitting down to talk appear slim. One government spokesman said: “We’re not prepared to discuss the dismemberment of Spain and they don’t want to talk about anything else.”

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The Catalan case is persuasive. But that way lies ruin | Natalie Nougayrède | Opinion

Watching Catalonia and Spain feels like watching a Pedro Almodóvar movie where all the characters start to act freakily. It could be Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (in this case, a country on the verge of a nervous breakdown) or Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (a film about what, in the end, ties us to one another rather than separates us). Don’t get me wrong. Catalonia is a serious matter. But it is also hard not to see the hysteria, the hyperbole, the manipulation. Emotions sweep away reason; radical gestures lead to more radical gestures; passion drenches everything; the picture becomes one great confusing swirl. Can anyone still get a grip?

To sum up the current situation: we now have full-on confrontation. Not armed confrontation but political, legal, and cultural. And with large street pressure involved. The Spanish cabinet is due to meet on Saturday after the prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, indicated he wanted to trigger article 155 of the constitution, which allows the imposition of direct rule. Catalonia’s regional institutions could be disempowered.

In response the Catalan leader, Carles Puigdemont, has threatened to press ahead with a declaration of independence (currently “suspended”, although the region’s parliament hasn’t yet formally voted on it). A pro-independence demonstration will be held on Saturday. This comes just one week after an opposing, pro-Spanish unity demonstration, organised in both Barcelona and Madrid. There will probably be more of this back and forth. The film is not over.

Meanwhile, EU leaders met in Brussels for a summit whose official agenda did not list Catalonia at all. But obviously the topic came up in conversations, and (take note, British readers) much more so than Brexit, which in the end ranked as a minor issue, with negotiations hardly moving forward. Nor is there much negotiating going on over Catalonia, which explains why independence activists have become rather frantic.

Rajoy’s strategy has full EU support, and he’s apparently aiming to defuse the crisis by triggering new elections in Catalonia. He’s sticking to a stubborn but consistent logic: nothing can happen outside the constitution.

In private, most EU officials think he’s mishandled the whole separatist question for years. Sending policemen to push old ladies down staircases and fire rubber bullets at crowds on the day of the referendum was bound to backfire. He played straight into the hands of his Catalan opponents.

The same can be said of the recent arrest of two leaders of pro-independence civil society organisations, now accused of “sedition”. That was an inflammatory move. The crowds on Saturday will no doubt brandish slogans about “political prisoners” – an expression even the moderate mayor of Barcelona, Ada Colau, is using. So now we have martyrs to the cause.

However, the 1 October referendum was hardly a model of sound, democratic expression. Only a minority of Catalans took part (turnout was 43%), and its organisation ran counter to Catalonia’s own legislation. The two laws that led to it were voted through without the two-thirds majority the Catalan charter (the Estatut) requires for such a momentous reform process. Nor was the vote overseen by the regional constitutional court. The Council of Europe, Europe’s democracy watchdog, said it did not abide by its fundamental criteria. Reporters without Borders, an organisation that scrutinises freedom of the press, denounced the harassment and intimidation – sometimes physical – of reporters who did not toe the pro-independence line.

These points often get drowned out in the romantic wave of commentary that Catalonia and its history can understandably inspire, within and beyond Spain. Catalan radicals have taken to social media to try to raise support across Europe, using English-language videos. They are fronted by a young woman with pleading eyes who describes a small nation that has come under the juggernaut of a quasi-fascist central government. She says “all [Catalan] values are under attack right now”. She says the Catalans on 1 October did “just like the Scottish not long ago”. “Help Catalonia, save Europe,” is the message. Propaganda thrives in a crisis.

The script of this film is one that leads to two separate nationalisms heading for a monumental showdown. No matter what colours you may want to drape it in, nationalism can hardly be good for anyone in Europe, especially now. Rajoy is no Franco. Puigdemont is no Mandela. Spain is not an oppressive state but a democracy. The Scots voted in a law-abiding process that had been agreed with London – not in a sequence of events specially designed to produce rupture.

Support for Catalan independence may now skyrocket, centred on a narrative of victimhood and in an atmosphere that’s become unhinged. Which brings us, in a way, back to Almodóvar. Born in 1949 in a poor family, he became the best chronicler of Spain’s transformation as it freed itself from the Franco era (with, by the way, Catalonia’s autonomy and economic success as a showcase for the whole country). Almodóvar’s work reflected the festive, frenetic spirit of a nation liberated from the past, from its suffering and its entrenched rigidities.

In some of Almodóvar’s wild, dark comedies, the scenario reaches a point where the viewer thinks only folly is left. But then something happens, a realisation, a cathartic moment of understanding and, yes, love. Self-destruction is averted. Feuds end. There is reconciliation. May the dizziness around Catalonia be like an Almodóvar movie.

Natalie Nougayrède is a Guardian columnist

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Catalonia tourism slumps 15% since referendum violence | World news

Tourism to Catalonia has slumped by 15% in the two weeks since the region’s controversial referendum on independence, according to industry experts.

August’s terror attacks in Barcelona and the seaside resort of Cambrils, which left 16 people dead, scarcely dented tourist numbers, but images of police violence and huge rallies around the 1 October vote on independence are taking their toll.

There has been no sign of tensions easing between the Catalan and Spanish governments following the vote, which has led to Spain’s biggest political crisis for 40 years, and has seen thousands turn out on the streets for opposing protests for and against the independence movement.

On Thursday, the Spanish government said it would make good on its threat to suspend Catalonia’s autonomy and impose direct rule after the region’s president refused to abandon the push for independence. It plans to hold an emergency meeting on the issue on Saturday.

José Luis Zoreda, vice-president of the tourist association Exceltur, said tourist activity in Catalonia had fallen by 15% in the weeks following the referendum compared to the same period last year.

Catalonia welcomed about 18 million visitors last year, and tourism accounts for about 12% of the region’s GDP, with industry and trade as the other main contributors. More than 400,000 people in Catalonia depend on the tourist industry for employment.

Zoreda added that bookings were “in freefall of around 20% for the last quarter of 2017, especially in Barcelona, in what is normally the high season for conferences, leisure and shopping tourism”, especially among international tourists.

A 20% decline would represent a loss of around €1.1bn, according to Zoreda. Exceltur says this decline is confined to Catalonia and there is no slump in the rest of Spain.

In its statement on Thursday, the Spanish government reiterated its claims that the recent push for Catalan independence was damaging the economy, criticising the regional authorities for “deliberately and systematically seeking institutional confrontation, despite the serious damage it’s causing to coexistence and Catalonia’s economy”.

Earlier this week, Spain downgraded its economic forecast for 2018 as the costs of the crisis begin to mount.

“In a short period of time our hotels have seen rooms cancelled because conferences have been put on hold,” said Alfonso del Poyo, vice-president of Meliá Hoteles Internacional. Meliá has eight hotels in Catalonia, five in Barcelona, and saw reservations fall by 4% after 1 October.

“The situation is very worrying, especially for those who depend on the international market,” Del Poyo said.

Tourists pose for selfies in front of the Sagrada Familia basilica in Barcelona in August

Tourists pose for selfies in front of the Sagrada Familia basilica in Barcelona in August Photograph: Lluis Gene/AFP/Getty Images

A Barcelona restaurant owner who owns several establishments but who wished to remain anonymous said they had seen a considerable downturn.

“Over the past two weeks bookings have been down 30-40% and people have been cancelling right through to January,” the restaurant owner said. “We employ 350 people and here in Barcelona what we’re facing is an economic tsunami. But when I tell people this they say if I don’t like it I should move to Madrid.”

Barceló Hotels and Resorts, which has three hotels in Barcelona, also noted a drop in reservations but a spokesman for the group said it was “not alarming”.

Barcelona is the cruise capital of the Mediterranean but this month two ships chose to dock in Valencia instead. The city is also one of Europe’s top destinations for conferences but the political situation has led at least one major conference, the European Association of Chambers of Commerce and Industry, to cancel.

“We’ve certainly seen a slowdown in bookings, as well as some
cancellations, during what is normally one of the busiest times of the year,” said James Blick, co-founder of Devour Tours, which offers food and wine tours throughout Spain.

“Tourists are highly sensitive to any whiff of instability … news headlines, images and videos of police and voter clashes on 1 October were clearly enough to scare a significant number of people away. Happily though, as tourists, we generally have short memories and once stability returns, so does tourism.”

The downturn does not appear to have affected areas outside the region’s main cities. Jordi Urpi, who runs a small hotel in rural Tarragona, says he hasn’t noticed any change. “We’re full up to till the end of October, as always. Fewer bookings during the week, but that’s normal at this time of year, both for local and international clients.”

The online holiday lettings platform Airbnb did not offer any figures but its rival HomeAway said it had not had a significant number of cancellations.

The photograph on this article was changed on 20 October 2017. An earlier image showed a picture of firefighters supporting protestors, but was captioned as being of police restraining Catalans.

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Spanish PM vows to end Catalonia standoff and force region to obey law | World news

The Spanish prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, has vowed to return Catalonia to the rule of law as his government prepares to announce unprecedented measures to head off the independence crisis by imposing direct rule from Madrid.

Speaking at the EU summit in Brussels on Friday, a day after he confirmed that article 155 of the Spanish constitution would be invoked to begin the process of suspending key elements of Catalonia’s self-rule, Rajoy said his government had two clear aims.

“The goal is a double one,” he said. “To return to the observance of the law – because you can’t have a part of the country where the law is not obeyed – and, at the same time, to bring about a return to institutional normality.”

Rajoy added that his response had the backing of the Spanish socialist party (PSOE) and the centrist Ciudadanos, or Citizens, party.

The Spanish cabinet is to hold an emergency meeting on Saturday to decide the precise nature of its intervention in Catalonia, which, as an autonomous region, controls its own education, healthcare and policing. Its proposals will be put before the Spanish senate next week.

Although Rajoy warns that the Catalan independence issue has reached “a critical point”, his ruling People’s party (PP) says that there is still time for the Catalan president, Carles Puigdemont, to end Spain’s worst political crisis in four decades.

On Friday, Fernando Martínez-Maillo, the PP’s third-in-command, issued another call for Puigdemont to “change course … [and] return to constitutional legality” by abandoning his push for independence before the senate meets.

Martínez-Maillo said the holding of fresh Catalan parliamentary elections, agreed with the Spanish government, would give Puigdemont a way out of the impasse.

A woman and baby walk past Catalan pro-independence posters on a wall on in Barcelona.

A woman and baby walk past Catalan pro-independence posters on a wall on in Barcelona. Photograph: Jack Taylor/Getty

The Catalan government, however, has said it does not view elections as the answer. “What purpose would elections here serve when we’re halfway down the road [to independence]?” the Catalan vice-president, Oriol Junqueras, said on Friday.

“We’re not here to hold elections again just so we can have the same mandate we’ve already got.”

The Catalan government insists the results of the unilateral independence referendum held on 1 October give it a clear mandate to forge ahead with the creation of a sovereign republic. It says that 90% of participants in the poll opted for independence on a turnout of about 43%.

Although Puigdemont signed a declaration of independence on 10 October, he has proposed that its effects be suspended for two months while both sides open dialogue aimed at ending the standoff.

The Spanish government, however, has said there can be no discussion until the Catalan president scraps his independence project and obeys the Spanish constitution, which is based on “the indissoluble unity of the Spanish nation, the common and indivisible homeland of all Spaniards”.

On Thursday, as a second deadline expired for the Catalan government to shelve its plans, Puigdemont accused the Spanish authorities of ignoring his appeals for negotiations and repressing the independence movement.

He also warned that the imposition of article 155 could provoke a unilateral declaration of Catalan independence, saying: “If the [Spanish] government persists in hindering dialogue and continues with its repression, the Catalan parliament could, if it deems appropriate, proceed to vote on the formal declaration of independence, which it did not do on 10 October.”

As tensions between Madrid and Barcelona continued to escalate, pro-independence Catalans protested against the decision of some banks to move their official headquarters out of the region by withdrawing symbolic amounts of cash.

By Friday morning, dozens of people were lining up at a CaixaBank branch in central Barcelona, most of them withdrawing €150 or €160 from ATMs in a nod to article 155.

The crisis engulfing Spain has been noted by some of the leaders attending the Brussels summit this week.

A protester poses with an envelope containing €155 after withdrawing that sum from a Banc Sabadell ATM during an independence rally in Barcelona.

A protester poses with an envelope containing €155 after withdrawing that sum from a Banc Sabadell ATM during an independence rally in Barcelona. Photograph: Lluis Gene/AFP/Getty Images

The British prime minister echoed previous remarks made by other European leaders, saying the UK backed the Spanish government’s actions.

“I have spoken to Mariano Rajoy this morning, as I did earlier this week, and made clear that the United Kingdom’s position is very clear,” Theresa May said. “We believe that people should be abiding by the rule of law and uphold the Spanish constitution.”

The French president, Emmanuel Macron, gave the Spanish government his “full, entire support” and said extremist forces were “feeding” on separatism as a kind of division within Europe and a creating a “factor of destabilisation”.

On Thursday, the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, offered her support to the Spanish government, adding: “We hope there are solutions found on the basis of the Spanish constitution.”

While the Catalan issue was not on the official agenda of the summit – and Rajoy has repeatedly said it is an internal Spanish matter – the Spanish prime minister described the Catalan government’s behaviour as “something that goes directly against the basic principles of the European Union”.

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In Catalonia and Spain we’re all asking: what have we done to deserve this? | Francesc Badia i Dalmases | Opinion

For many years, independence in Catalonia has been portrayed as a happy, low-cost and easy path to a better world. People believed in the promised land of a richer, freer state that would enjoy Scandinavian-style welfare and be admired around the world: like a Denmark of the south, as the former regional president, Artur Mas, used to say.

Much as for the Brexiteers, and for Trump supporters who believed in their leader’s promises, the reality is proving just how illusory that idea was. In Catalonia, as events unfold rapidly, people are starting to realise that the road to independence is rockier than anybody knew and that, at the end of the day, it might turn out to be simply impassable.

The populist component of the pro-independence camp is becoming more and more obvious. Populism proposes simple solutions (in this case, independence) to complex problems (power-sharing in an unevenly decentralised state in times of crisis). Pro-independence leaders create narratives based on historical grievances, and seem trapped in denial of reality. This reality includes strong opposition from the Spanish authorities, banks and corporations, which are moving in a cascade to safer places in Spain, a Catalan population fractured and divided, and nonexistent support from Europe and the international community.

But now it has become apparent that the “suspended declaration” of the Catalan republic at the regional parliament on 10 October was a mistake. This week’s exchange of letters between the Catalan leader, Carles Puigdemont, and Spain’s prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, has proved to be sterile, if not surreal, and we are entering uncharted waters. On the one hand, there is the prospect of a vote in parliament for a “unilateral declaration of independence”; on the other is the menace of triggering article 155 of the constitution, which means taking back the region’s devolved powers.

The feeling in Barcelona is that the harm has already been done, and that things will get worse before they get better. The chain of errors on both sides has proved so toxic that people in the city are starting to feel the consequences in their daily lives. The emotional part of the current conflict overwhelms any rational discussion.

For a city like ours – which used to have a joyful, easygoing, tourist-friendly atmosphere – the sight of anxiety on the streets, of repeated massive peaceful demonstrations turned into angry protests, and of police helicopters constantly flying over our heads, may prove too much. Only two months after the devastating terrorist attack on the jolly Ramblas, when a van ploughed into a crowd, killing 16 and injuring 100, it seems like even the Sagrada Familia has lost its power to charm.

Barcelona protests

‘Jailing two prominent activists has just given the pro-independence movement more ammunition – and “political prisoners” to fight for.’ Photograph: Emilio Morenatti/AP

The general feeling among Spaniards and Catalans alike is that they don’t deserve all this. They were just about to come out of the deepest recession in a generation, one that had caused a major social and political crisis. The country’s GDP has been growing solidly over the past two years, and some of that growth was finally filtering down to the regular shopper. But now we have to deal with a monumental constitutional crisis. Now, how irresponsible is that?

Politicians are there to solve old problems, not to create new ones. Inaction on the side of the Spanish government (concerned only with making sure the economy picks up, and with its own political survival) and a ramping up on the side of the Catalan administration (focused only on delivering their particular road map to improbable independence) have left the country in tatters.

Over the next few days, the major challenge will be how to deal with the “permanent mobilisation” set in motion by diehard nationalists and a Catalan government hijacked by the anti-system, anarchist-inspired CUP party, which wants to defend the newly born republic on the streets. And the biggest challenge of all will be how to prevent this situation from bursting into violence.

Pro-independence activists are proud of their capacity to bring hundreds of thousands on to the streets simply by sending a couple of tweets and instructions through WhatsApp groups. Their latest achievement was Tuesday’s protest at the detention and imprisonment of the leaders of the two major pro-independence organisations, disproportionately accused of sedition.

Again, using the judicial instruments to deal with this political problem has proved foolish, and jailing these two prominent activists gives the pro-independence movement more ammunition, fuelling its anger and haste to leave. After all, it now has “political prisoners” to fight for. After the use of violence by riot police trying to prevent the referendum from happening (overblown by some media, as Peter Preston pointed out in this newspaper), these detentions are yet another huge miscalculation by the administration.

A strategy of copying a Ukraine-style Maidan protest has been on the agenda for months, and there is already some talk of the “Ulsterisation” of the conflict. A manipulative video entitled “Help Catalonia”, similar to one released during Kiev’s Maidan square crisis, is the last example of the wish to escalate and internationalise the conflict.

Dealing with a major crisis always requires buying time. The gesture of a last-minute meeting between Spanish and Catalan government officials to agree on freezing both the declaration of independence and the triggering of article 155 would contribute to the de-escalation of a clash that risks ruining long-term Spanish efforts to build a free and open society – a reality that, not long ago, seemed so successful.

Francesc Badia i Dalmases is the editor of DemocraciaAbierta, an international affairs expert, author and political analyst. His most recent book is Order and Disorder in the 21st Century

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Tourist killed by falling masonry in famous Florence church | World news

A 52-year-old tourist from Spain has been killed by falling masonry in one of Florence’s most famous churches, the Basilica di Santa Croce.

The fatal accident at the church where Michelangelo, Galileo Galilei and Niccolo Machiavelli are buried raised questions about the state of Italy’s many ageing and fragile monuments.

The country’s culture minister, Dario Franceschini, speaking from New York, said prosecutors would conduct an investigation to determine whether faulty maintenance was to blame.

The victim was struck by a piece of decorative stone that fell from a height of 20 metres (66ft) as he visited the church with his wife. According to Italian media reports, the fragment was about 15cm x 15cm (6in x 6in).

The 15th-century basilica, which has a famed neo-gothic facade, has been undergoing years of maintenance in collaboration with Italy’s civil protection agency, Irena Sanesi, the head of the organisation that manages the church, told the Italian news agency Ansa.

“We are really astonished at what has happened, and we ask ourselves how it could happen,” she said.

Authorities were checking the stability of the church, which is expected to remain closed to visitors indefinitely.

Other deadly incidents involving Italian monuments include the 1989 collapse of a 14th-century bell tower in the northern city of Pavia, in which four people died. The cause of the accident has never been determined.

A toddler and a 30-year-old were seriously injured in July when plaster fell from the ceiling of the Acireale Cathedral in Sicily during a wedding.

In October 2012, a cornice fell from the wall of the royal palace of Casertanear Naples causing part of the roof to cave in just a few feet from tourists. No one was injured.

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Tesco stocks green satsumas in drive to reduce food waste | Business

Tesco has started selling “green” satsumas and clementines after relaxing its quality specifications in its latest attempt to reduce food waste.

The flesh inside is orange, ripe and edible, but as a result of recent warm weather in Spain the skins have failed to turn the normal colour.

By selling the so-called easy-peelers with green skins that resemble limes, the supermarket says it will slash food waste by giving them up to two days’ extra shelf life.

Green satsumas are already in the shops and clementines – a Christmas favourite – will follow shortly. Tesco claims to be the first supermarket to relax the rules on this type of fruit.

“At the moment green easy-peelers fall outside of the general quality specifications set by UK supermarkets but Tesco has made the leading move in order to cut down on food waste,” said Tesco’s citrus buyer, Debbie Lombaard.

“As a result of this move to take out a handling stage in the journey from farm to fork shoppers will gain extra freshness for their satsumas and clementines.”

To accelerate the colouring process, Spanish growers in the Valencia region have been putting the easy-peelers into a ripening room, but this extra handling has led to a small amount of fruit being damaged and going to waste.

Satsumas and other easy-peelers, as well as oranges, initially grow as a green fruit but turn orange as nights cool.

Over the past few years warmer Spanish temperatures in the early growing season for satsumas in September and October have remained higher into the autumn, delaying the natural process by which the fruit turns orange.

Green satsumas on a tree.

Tesco says the green satsumas will help reduce food waste. Photograph: Alamy

Tesco’s “perfectly ripe early season satsumas” come in a 600g net bag and cost the same (£1) as conventional orange-coloured ones. Tesco, the UK’s largest retailer, sells nearly 15m 600g bags of satsumas and 75m bags of clementines each year.

Supermarkets have been criticised for contributing to the UK’s food waste mountain by sticking rigidly to quality specifications, and routinely rejecting “ugly” or mis-shapen, but edible, fruit and vegetables grown by suppliers.

Celebrity chefs Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall have helped drive a campaign to encourage consumers to be less obsessed with perfection, and for supermarkets to relax their rules to sell more “wonky” carrots and other odd-looking vegetables and fruit.

Last month, Tesco announced plans to join forces with suppliers to tackle global food waste. It has widened other quality specifications to take more of farmers’ crops, most recently with British-grown apples.

The changeable weather in Spain has been a challenge for supermarkets stocking salads and vegetables out of season in the UK. Earlier this year they were forced to ration lettuce and courgettes after snowstorms in Spain ravaged crops.

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Catalonia: what next for the independence movement? | World news

A little more than two weeks after the Catalan independence referendum, which plunged Spain into its worst political crisis in 40 years, the Madrid government is preparing to take the unprecedented step of suspending Catalonia’s regional autonomy and imposing direct rule.


Spain’s prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, has repeatedly warned the Catalan government that its unilateral bid for independence is illegal and unconstitutional. He has given the Catalan president, Carles Puigdemont, until Thursday morning to abandon his secession campaign and return to “constitutional order”.

How likely is that to happen?

Not likely at all. Puigdemont insists the referendum has given his government a mandate to create a sovereign republic. He has said he will suspend his plans for two months to allow for dialogue, but is adamant that the region will become independent.

How would the Spanish government take control of Catalonia?

By invoking article 155 of the country’s 1978 constitution. The measure, which has never been used, states: “If a self-governing community does not fulfil the obligations imposed upon it by the constitution or other laws, or acts in a way that is seriously prejudicial to the general interest of Spain, the government, after having lodged a complaint with the president of the self-governing community and failed to receive satisfaction therefore, may, following approval granted by the overall majority of the senate, take all measures necessary to compel the community to meet said obligations, or to protect the above-mentioned general interest.”

In other words, if Puigdemont fails to fall into line, the Spanish government will submit its proposals to the senate for debate and approval. As such, article 155’s effects will not kick in for a while.

What will the Spanish government actually do?

Earlier this week, a senior government spokesman said 155’s provisions would be applied judiciously.

“Article 155 is not designed to remove Catalonia’s autonomy but to ensure that its autonomy exists within the law,” he said. “We have envisaged a range of scenarios and will apply 155 accordingly. It’s not a question of applying it in its entirety or of taking over every government function or department. Clearly the Catalan government would lose many of its powers, though not all. It’s a case of using a scalpel, not an axe.”

The spokesman said one measure under consideration would be closing Catalonia’s overseas delegations or “embassies”.

More dramatically, Rajoy could use the article to call new regional elections in the hope that they provide an administration more amenable to remaining in Spain. It could, however, backfire if the separatist politicians find themselves returned to office with an increased share of the vote.

The current Catalan government is made up of a coalition of pro-independence parties that took 47% of the vote in 2015 elections, which were billed as a de facto referendum on independence.

What does the Catalan government say?

It argues the Spanish government has already in effect activated article 155 by intervening in the region’s finances and sending thousands of Guardia Civil and national police officers to Catalonia.

Towards the end of last month, Puigdemont accused Rajoy’s government of a de facto suspension of regional autonomy and a de facto declaration of a state of emergency after Spanish police raided Catalan government offices and arrested 14 officials as part of an unsuccessful attempt to stop the referendum.

How will pro-independence Catalans react?

Puigdemont could attempt to pre-empt the Spanish government by making an unequivocal unilateral declaration of independence and opting to call elections in the hope of capitalising on the anger towards the Spanish authorities. However, the region’s foreign minister, Raül Romeva, appeared to rule out the possibility on Wednesday, saying: “Elections from our perspective are not an option.”

Tensions in the region are still running high after the police violence that marred the referendum on 1 October and a judge’s decision to deny bail to two Catalan independence leaders accused of sedition. Add to that the continuing presence of Guardia Civil and national police officers and the situation looks fraught.

But it is worth remembering that the pro-independence strikes and demonstrations held so far have been almost overwhelmingly peaceful affairs. If some Catalan separatists decided to push back against 155, they would probably do so by going on strike or by forming human chains around key regional government buildings.

Much could also depend on the reaction of the Catalan police force, the Mossos d’Esquadra. Spanish police unions have accused the Mossos of failing to do enough to prevent the referendum and the head of the force, Josep Lluís Trapero, is also being investigated for alleged sedition.

Will the application of article 155 bring an end to the crisis?

Extremely doubtful. The Catalan independence effort has acquired momentum over recent years and most campaigners say they are in it for the long haul. Similarly, the Spanish government can’t afford to back down when it comes to such a direct challenge to national and territorial unity.

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