Catalan separatists block roads to protest against Spanish Cabinet meeting

VIDEO: REUTERS
Catalan pro-independence demonstrators at a protest in Barcelona as the Spanish Cabinet held a meeting in the city on Dec 21, 2018.
Catalan pro-independence demonstrators at a protest in Barcelona as the Spanish Cabinet held a meeting in the city on Dec 21, 2018.PHOTO: AFP

BARCELONA (AFP) - Catalan pro-independence groups blocked roads in the region on Friday (Dec 21) to protest against a planned Cabinet meeting in Barcelona chaired by Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez.

The weekly Cabinet meeting usually takes place in Madrid but Sanchez's six-month-old Socialist government decided to hold it in the Catalan capital on Friday as part of its efforts to reduce tensions in Catalonia, which last year made a failed attempt to break away from Spain.

Sanchez and the head of Catalonia's separatist government, Quim Torra, have expressed commitment to an "effective dialogue" to try to resolve the dispute over the wealthy region's status within Spain, after the two men held talks in Barcelona on Thursday night.

The government will use the Cabinet meeting to approve a 22 per cent increase in the minimum wage, a pay hike for public workers and announce investments in infrastructure projects in Catalonia, which is home to about 7.5 million people and has its own language.

But the timing of the meeting - a year to the day after Madrid held snap elections in the region after blocking its move for independence - has been called "a provocation" by separatist leaders.

'UNGOVERNABLE'

A radical separatist group, the Committees for the Defence of the Republic (CDRs), blocked a dozen main roads, including a motorway leading up to the border with France and another to Madrid, from around dawn on Friday, regional transport authorities said.

The CDRs has vowed to try to stop the Cabinet meeting from going ahead by circling the building where it will be held.

The group has blocked highways and railways in the past, and tried to enter the Catalan regional Parliament by force.

"We will be ungovernable on December 21," the group has repeatedly tweeted.

Grassroots separatist organisation ANC, which has previously staged massive pro-independence street demonstrations in Barcelona, has urged supporters to block the streets of Barcelona on Friday with their vehicles.

 
 
 

About 20 pro-independence groups, including the ANC, called on their supporters to march through the streets of Barcelona in the evening.

Amid fears of violence on the part of radical separatists, the Spanish government has sent police reinforcements to Barcelona and Catalan leaders have repeated their call for peaceful protests.

DIVERGENT POSITIONS

Catalonia declared independence in October 2017 but to no avail after pushing ahead with a banned independence referendum.

Sanchez took office as prime minister eight months later after winning a surprise vote of no-confidence against the previous conservative government with the support of Catalan separatist parties.

He initially adopted a more conciliatory tone towards Catalonia than his conservative predecessor but the effort to ease tensions with Catalonia eventually hit a wall.

Catalan separatists also announced that they would not vote in favour of the leader's 2019 budget after public prosecutors in November called for stiff prison sentences for 18 pro-independence leaders facing trial over the region's failed secession bid.

Sanchez adopted a harder line after far-right and anti-separatist party Vox won seats for the first time earlier this month in a regional election in Andalusia, a Socialist stronghold.

During a recent debate in Parliament, Sanchez compared Catalonia's breakaway movement to Britain's campaign to leave the European Union. Both were built on "a tale of invented grievances, magnified by manipulation", he said.

His tone changed after his meeting with Torra, although the solutions to the Catalan conflict proposed by the two leaders remain distinct.

Sanchez has proposed giving Catalonia more powers while Torra wants a legally binding referendum on independence.

"We know that the initial positions are very divergent but we have to see how we advance," Catalan government spokesman Elsa Artadi said.