VIC, Spain (Reuters) - Catalonia's pro-independence leader Carles Puigdemont has called for the European Union to mediate with Spain over the region's future, but for many Catalans the intensity of a police crackdown on a banned referendum may mean it is too late for compromise.
Across Catalonia's separatist heartland of Osona county, politicians said police action, using rubber bullets and batons against voters in the independence vote, left little room in the independence camp for anything short of secession.
"People here have completely disconnected from the Spanish state," said Joan Coma, a councillor for the Popular Unity Candidacy (CUP), a small anti-capitalist party which has an outsized influence on Puigdemont's Catalan government.
"Independence will be unilateral," said Coma, who police arrested last year and released in June on charges of inciting civil disobedience and who is councillor in Osana's capital Vic.
Before Sunday's vote, members of Puigdemont's PdeCat party said they would be ready to accept greater fiscal and political autonomy without full independence for Catalonia, a region with its own language and an industrial and tourism powerhouse that accounts for a fifth of Spain's economy.
But widespread anger over the crackdown on the referendum, declared illegal by Madrid, now makes any such strategy politically risky, given it would be unlikely to sustain broad support from independence supporters and from within Puigdemont's own ruling coalition in the Catalan parliament.
The pro-independence Catalan National Assembly (ANC), which has organised protests of hundreds of thousands of secessionists in the past, interpreted Puigdemont's push for mediation as essentially a call for EU recognition of a new Catalan state.
"It would be the EU that offers to mediate talks to reach an agreement which, I insist, would include Catalonia's independence," ANC spokesman Adria Alsina said.
Puigdemont on Tuesday evening said his government would ask the separatist-controlled Catalan parliament to declare independence within 48 hours of tallying votes from the referendum, which he said could be as soon as this weekend.
This would leave Rajoy with the option of invoking the constitution to suspend the Catalan government and to bring on regional elections.
This so-called "nuclear option" could reignite unrest in a region where secessionists are invoking the name of late dictator Francisco Franco in describing Rajoy's tactics. Before Franco's death in 1975, the Catalan language was suppressed.
An EU spokesman declined to say whether the Union would mediate, although it would be unusual for Brussels to take such a step within one of the bloc's own member states.
The EU executive voiced trust in Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy's ability to manage this "internal matter", but also called for dialogue between the sides and reminded Madrid of a need to respect citizens' basic rights.
Tens of thousands of people took to the streets of Catalonia on Tuesday to protest against Sunday's violent crackdown by Spanish police.
The referendum has plunged Spain into its worst constitutional crisis in decades, and is a political test for Rajoy, a conservative who has taken a hard line stance on the issue. Outside of Catalonia, Spaniards mostly hold strong views against its independence drive.
Spain's King Felipe VI, in a rare intervention, accused secessionist leaders on Tuesday of shattering democratic principles and dividing Catalan society.
Interviews with five pro-independence politicians in Osona county, a patchwork of farming towns, reveal an uncompromising mood after Sunday's violence which, according to Catalan officials, injured around 900 people across the region.
"WE HAVE LOST OUR FEAR"
"We have lost our fear," said Jordi Casals, a 39-year-old councillor for the centre-left Esquerra Republicana party in the town of Torello. "To go back now is impossible."
Casals said that when he entered politics over a decade ago, separatist rallies attracted just a few thousand people.
On Sunday, 2.26 million people out of 5.34 million registered voters managed to vote with about 90 percent backing independence, according to Catalan government figures. However, unionists mostly boycotted the referendum.
Puigdemont used vague language open to interpretation when asked what he wanted to achieve from EU-mediated talks. On Monday, he said: "It would be a mediation in which there must be a commitment to re-establish the institutional normalcy." Coma said Sunday's turnout - greater than that of an informal ballot in 2014 according to Catalan officials - made the referendum result binding and the CUP was now mobilising local assemblies to begin the process of splitting with Spain.
The CUP is crucial to the survival of a separatist Catalan government since it enabled larger parties to form a pro-independence coalition in 2015. As a condition, it forced out Artur Mas as Catalan leader for Puigdemont due to the lack of progress towards independence since the 2014 vote.
The independence tide began to turn in 2010 when secessionists were outraged by a decision of Spain's Constitutional Court, which struck down a reform to Catalonia's autonomy statute that had recognised it as a nation and gave the Catalan language primacy over Spanish.
The week after, a million Catalans took to Barcelona's streets in the first pro-independence mass demonstration to protest under the slogan - "We are a nation. We decide!" "Whenever we have trusted the Spanish state, they have cheated us. Every agreement we made they broke," said Jordi Fabrega, mayor of the town of Sant Pere de Torello, which symbolically declared independence from Spain in 2012.
A banner reading "EUROPE HELP US" hung from an apartment block in Vic on Tuesday. But so far, despite international criticism of the crackdown, most comments from EU member states have been against secession.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel's spokesman said on Wednesday it is important for Spain to uphold the rule of law to preserve stability. But he said any solution "can only take place within the Spanish constitution and democratic order" and declined to condemn police action over the weekend.
Rajoy raised the possibility of a negotiated settlement this week, though he ruled out independence and praised the police crackdown on the referendum.
He called for "all-party" talks to find a solution, opening the door to a deal giving Catalonia more autonomy.
In towns around Osona, an hour's drive north of Barcelona and with a population of over 150,000 people, the Spanish state is just where they have to send their taxes. Catalan authorities provide heath care, run their schools and police their streets.
"When Rajoy appears on television, I don't see him as my (leader), he doesn't represent me," said 58-year-old Elvira Ramisa in Sant Pere as her kitchen's radio blared out news on the referendum's aftermath.