Catalonia: Hardliners vote to quit divided Catalan separatist government

Catalonia found itself plunged into political uncertainty Friday after the hardline JxCat party decided to pull out of the separatist coalition running the wealthy northeastern region of Spain.

Catalonia: Hardliners vote to quit divided Catalan separatist government
Catalan regional president Pere Aragonès talks to the press in front of the Palacio de las Cortes congress in Madrid on April 21, 2022. (Photo by JAVIER SORIANO / AFP)

The decision to abandon the regional government came after a vote by party activists in which some 55 percent said they wanted to leave, compared with 42 percent who wanted to stay.

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, speaking on the sidelines of an EU summit in Prague, called for “stability” at such a “complex time” for Catalonia.

But the decision will not bring down the Catalan administration, at least not in the short term, with regional leader Pere Aragones saying he won’t call early elections.

Instead, his left-wing ERC will govern with a minority. “We will not abandon the citizens in complicated moments like this, that is why we must continue to govern,” Aragones assured late Friday.

Aragones could seek the support from Sanchez’s socialists in the Catalan parliament in order to pass key measures such as the regional budget.

READ ALSO: No regrets, says Catalan ex-minister on referendum anniversary

The ERC “will absolutely need to seal an agreement with the socialists”, said Gabriel Colome, political science lecturer at the Autonomous University of Barcelona.

Sanchez on Friday said his party “will always reach out for dialogue… for the general interest of Catalonia”.

‘Failed government’

Since 2016, JxCat has served in various ruling coalitions with ERC, with this latest lineup taking shape in May 2021.

Although both parties are in favour of Catalonia gaining independence from Spain, they have been sharply at odds over how to achieve it.

READ ALSO: Why does Catalonia have its own ‘embassies’ abroad? 

JxCat is headed by former Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont who played a key role in staging the October 2017 referendum banned by Madrid and the failed independence bid that followed, sparking Spain’s worst political crisis in decades.

Puigdemont fled abroad to escape prosecution while others who stayed in Spain were arrested and tried. Nine were handed heavy jail terms by the Spanish courts but later pardoned.

The failed independence bid triggered a bitter rift between the two separatist parties that has never healed.

ERC backs a negotiated strategy via dialogue with Madrid, while JxCat prefers a confrontational approach on grounds that Spain has ruled out any new independence referendum.

READ ALSO: Why Catalan separatists are in crisis five years after independence vote

Tensions between the two parties came to a head last week when JxCat threatened to call a vote of no confidence, prompting Aragones to sack his deputy Jordi Puignero, the hardline party’s top official in the Catalan government.

Laura Borras, speaker of the Catalan parliament and a JxCat MP, called Aragones’ administration “a failed government” more concerned with making agreements with the Spanish socialists than with reaching consensus within the regional coalition.

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Gibraltar accuses Spain of ‘gross sovereignty breach’ over customs incident

Gibraltar on Friday accused Spain of a "gross violation of British sovereignty" after an incident on one of its beaches involving Spanish customs agents who were attacked by smugglers, during which shots were fired.

Gibraltar accuses Spain of 'gross sovereignty breach' over customs incident

“The evidence surrounding this incident discloses a gross violation of British sovereignty and, potentially, the most serious and dangerous incident for many years,” said Gibraltar’s Chief Minister Fabian Picardo in a statement.

The incident happened early on Thursday when a small Spanish customs vessel lost power while pursuing suspected tobacco smugglers off Gibraltar, a source from Spain’s tax agency which is in charge of customs told AFP.

After choppy seas pushed their vessel to the shore, the two officers on board were surrounded by a group of people and pelted with rocks, some of them weighing over three kilos (6.5 pounds), the source added.

The officers fired “shots into the water to try to drive away” the people throwing rocks, a tax office source told AFP, speaking on condition he was not identified.

One customs officer suffered a broken nose, the other fractured bones in his face, he added.

Videos circulating on social media appear to show several shots being fired during the incident, although it was not clear who fired them.

‘Reckless and dangerous’

“Should it be confirmed that Spanish officials discharged their weapons in Gibraltar, such action would be a very serious breach of the law,” the Gibraltar government statement said.

It called the incident “reckless and dangerous, especially in an area of dense civilian population, given the proximity of a residential estate in the area”.

The governments of Gibraltar and the United Kingdom consider that the events “will require careful consideration as to the nature and level of diplomatic response,” it added.

Gibraltar police and army officers used metal detectors on Friday to search for bullet casings on the beach, images broadcast on Gibraltar TV showed.

Picardo said Spanish law agencies know they can ask Gibraltar law enforcement to continue a chase into Gibraltar but “it would appear that they did not do so in this case.”

Spain’s foreign ministry “categorically rejected” the terms of the Gibraltar government statement as well as the “claims of alleged British sovereignty over the territory and waters of Gibraltar” which it contained.

Spain’s Budget Minister Maria Jesus Montero said the customs agency would “investigate what happened and will demand the necessary explanations”.

Post-Brexit talks

The incident comes as Madrid and London are locked in talks over Gibraltar’s post-Brexit relationship with the European Union.

The European Commission and Spain sent Britain, in late 2022 a proposal that would keep freedom of movement along the border of the tiny British enclave at Spain’s southern tip.

About 15,000 people, the majority of them Spaniards, commute daily from Spain to jobs in Gibraltar, which has a population of about 34,000.

Gibraltar has long been a source of British-Spanish tensions. Although Spain ceded Gibraltar to Britain in 1713, Madrid has long wanted it back, a thorny dispute that has for decades involved pressure on the

Tensions peaked in 1969 when the regime of dictator Francisco Franco closed the border, which did not fully reopen until 1985.