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Spanish govt’s new threat to Catalan separatists

Separatists have called for immediate talks with Madrid
Image: Separatists have called for immediate talks with Madrid

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has threatened to remove Catalonia’s regional autonomy after an emergency cabinet meeting to discuss how to respond to Catalan separatists signing an independence declaration.

In a televised address, he asked the region’s leader Carles Puigdemont to clarify whether independence had already been declared – before the Spanish government decides how to react.

Mr Puigdemont has insisted Catalans have earned the right to independence but that separatists would delay implementing it for several weeks to give dialogue with Madrid a chance.

But Spain’s deputy prime minister Soraya Saenz de Santamaria immediately rejected any notion of talks following a referendum which was deemed illegal, saying Mr Puigdemont “doesn’t know where he is, where he is going and with whom he wants to go”.

Mr Puigdemont signs a declaration of independence
Image: Mr Puigdemont signs a declaration of independence

The cabinet is looking at a range of ways to deal with the separatist leaders and could include the “nuclear option” – suspending Catalonia’s autonomy, taking over control of the region and sending in the national police.

The move would be a risk for Mr Rajoy, who for the first time in a veiled threat on Wednesday said clarity was “a requirement for any measure the government can adopt under Article 155 of the constitution”.

It would allow Madrid to suspend the region’s political institutions and impose its authority.

While many in Catalonia oppose independence they cling fiercely to their high degree of self-governance and would baulk at any interference from central government.

The national police were also condemned for their aggression in trying to stop the referendum and many Catalans would not be comfortable with their presence in large numbers.

However, Mr Rajoy will want to be seen to be sticking to his hard line against separatists – and has decided to launch a constitutional reform, with the backing of Spain’s opposition Socialist leader Pedro Sanchez, that could change the way the country’s 17 autonomous regions are governed.

Spain's Prime Minister, Mariano Rajoy, says he is in contact with authorities
Image: Mr Rajoy has resisted talks with separatist leaders

The Spanish PM has not ruled out arresting Mr Puigdemont and other pro-independence figures, but that would play into the hand of separatists whose leaders could become martyrs to the cause.

Mr Rajoy has come under pressure to soften his stance on negotiations and European Council President Donald Tusk is among the latest to urge him to sit across the table from Mr Puigdemont.

The Catalan leader’s speech seemed to be cast in overtures of compromise as he said separatists have nothing against Spain or Spaniards.

Mr Puigdemont added: “We’re not criminals, we’re not mad. We’re normal people who want to vote.”

Despite this, the signing of an independence declaration will be viewed by Madrid as an act of provocation and Mr Rajoy will struggle to find a way to respond that satisfies everyone.

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    Calais migration crisis is ‘half UK’s problem’

    Migrants in Calais
    Image: About 700 migrants are still thought to be in the Calais region

    The French interior minister has told Sky News the migration crisis in northern France is the UK’s problem as much as it is France’s.

    Gerard Collomb was speaking as he visited Calais – the focal point for migrants – with French President Emmanuel Macron, and ahead of a key Anglo-French summit in London on Thursday.

    “It’s a problem between France and Great Britain,” Mr Collomb said.

    “It’s not just our problem or your problem but we have the same problem with immigration and, as the President said, we must welcome refugees but not welcome all the world.

    “We work together and when we will go (to) London after tomorrow we will talk about that.”

    Speaking to police and security forces in the town, Mr Macron said: “I am here in front of you, two days before a Franco-British summit.

    France's interior minister Gerard Collomb
    Image: France’s interior minister, Gerard Collomb

    “And it is essential to come and experience the reality that you have been living for several months, several years, and to draw the consequences and convey in 48 hours, with Theresa May, several issues that we need to work on in our common management.

    “We must better manage the issue of unaccompanied minors, reinforce the police cooperation in Calais and with the countries of origin and transit, unblock funds to support important projects for the development of the Calais people.”

    Local charities estimate that nearly 1,000 people are still camped out in northern France desperately hoping to get into Britain, despite the demolition of the Calais jungle 15 months ago.

    Francois Macron in Calais
    Image: Francois Macron was warmly received by the people of Calais

    Just hours before the President and interior minister arrived, Sky News witnessed the daily attempt by some of the young migrants to access trucks bound for the UK.

    The demolition of the notorious jungle camp in October 2016, under the orders of Mr Macron’s predecessor Francois Hollande, significantly reduced the number of migrants concentrated in one area.

    However, many just dispersed to smaller camps across northern France.

    Others went to Paris, where numbers have dramatically increased.

    Calais remains a magnet for hundreds of young people determined to reach the UK.

    On Thursday, Mr Macron will call for a five-point plan to help solve the situation. It will include:

    A group of teenagers huddle around the back of a lorry and get in
    Image: A group of teenagers huddle around the back of a lorry and get in

    :: Better control of migratory flows
    :: A better welcome for asylum seekers
    :: Acceleration of the processing of asylum applications
    :: Working at EU level to ensure the laws of expulsion for failed asylum applicants are more effective
    :: Promotion of the integration of refugees

    In 2017, there were 100,000 asylum applications in France, which represents a 17% increase on 2016.

    Anecdotally, most in northern France are from countries like Eritrea, Ethiopia and Sudan in Africa, as well as a significant proportion from Afghanistan.

    Estimates of the numbers currently in the area vary, largely because they are moving all the time.

    The police have orders to prevent the pitching of tents. The consequence is a continuous game of cat-and-mouse which often leads to violent confrontations.

    Local charity workers, whose constant presence in the area gives them the most up-to-date understanding of the situation, say there are about 700 migrants around Calais and a further 300 or so to the east in Dunkirk.

    Government officials claim the number is smaller, with between 350 and 500 in and around Calais.

    In the hours before Mr Macron’s arrival, Sky News watched a small group of young African men as they attempted to stowaway in a refuelling lorry.

    We filmed from a distance as they ran towards the rear of the Croatian-registered vehicle. Four of them climbed into the rear trailer. The others looked for hiding places under the truck, and then gave up and ran off.

    Mohammas Maroufkhil
    Image: Mohammas Maroufkhil spoke to Sky News about his attempts to enter the UK

    Minutes later, we approached the driver who was aware of the migrants’ presence. He opened the trailer and two heads popped up from between the cargo.

    Abruptly, he shooed them away. Haulage firms are dealing with this on a daily basis.

    The single, privately contracted security guard at the fuel depot watched, apparently powerless.

    The other two young men could not be found but the driver seemed convinced that his vehicle was empty.

    In the woods up the road, not far from the old Jungle camp, we found 24-year-old Zahid Ullah Oryakhil from Afghanistan.

    He took us to see his bed for the night, in the undergrowth under a tarpaulin.

    The £2.3m wall built by the UK to keep out migrants
    Image: The £2.3m wall built by the UK to keep out migrants

    From his bag, under his stash of bread rolls – donated daily by charities – he produced his paperwork.

    Everyone has papers. It’s their proof that they exist. Often there is written testimony too – his has been translated into English by someone he’d met on his journey.

    It outlines his reasons for wanting a new home.

    “Taliban kill my brother,” one section reads.

    Among his papers is a newish document from the French government which states that Zahid’s asylum claim in France has been rejected.

    Sky News filmed as a group of migrants tried to break into a truck

    He has been told to leave France, but he is not forcibly deported.

    Nearby, another Afghan introduced himself as Mohammas Maroufkhil. His Afghan ID, tatty but neatly folded in a plastic bag, says he was born in 1991.

    “In 2010 I did asylum (claim) for the first time in Belgium. For nine years I was in Belgium. I stay in the camps, sometimes I stay with my friends. Always I try to make my life in Belgium because I have a problem in Afghanistan,” he explained.

    He said that he had applied for asylum nine times in Belgium and was rejected every time. After the fifth failed attempt in 2013, he went to what was the Calais Jungle and made it, on a truck, to London.

    Child refugees Calais

    “They deport me from the UK on 24 March 2014 and send me back to Belgium. But I come to Calais again, and I go to England again. I go out of the truck in England. Police catch me. They send me again to Belgium.” he says.

    He then tried for asylum four more times in Belgium and after the most recent attempt, he was given six hours to leave the country.

    He is now back in Calais to try to reach the UK for the third time. He explains that he’s heard rumours that the UK’s decision to leave the EU will increase his chances of asylum in Britain.

    Mohammas and Zahid’s stories demonstrate their determination but also point to a failing system.

    Asylum claims are rejected, in some cases repeatedly, but the claimants are not sent home or helped where they are.

    Volunteer firefighters attempt to extinguish blazing migrant camp in Calais

    Instead they are pushed out of one country to become someone else’s problem. It is happening all the time.

    Not far away from their woodland home is the £2.3m motorway wall which lines the port approach road.

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    Built in 2016 with British money, it was designed to keep the migrants off the trucks. But every day proves that it is useless.

    Down the road, at the end of the wall’s reach, another group shelter from the rain under a bridge. Sodden, miserable and desperate, they wait for their moment.

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