Calm on streets as ousted Catalan leader flees to Belgium
Direct rule from Madrid takes hold smoothly as Catalans ignore calls for civil disobedience
CARLES Puigdemont, the ousted president of Catalonia who defied the Spanish state by declaring his region’s independence, has fled to Brussels, fuelling speculation that he may seek political asylum in Belgium.
Sources from the Catalan government, which has been formally removed from power by Mariano Rajoy, the Spanish prime minister, said that Mr Puigdemont had travelled to the Belgian capital yesterday, reportedly accompanied by five colleagues.
Yesterday, all 14 members of Mr Puigdemont’s ousted executive were accused by Spain’s chief prosecutor of rebellion, sedition and misuse of public funds for organising an illegal referendum in Catalonia before declaring independence.
Six members of the speaker’s committee at the Catalan parliament face the same accusations for pushing ahead with illegal procedures before last Friday’s proclamation of an independent Catalan republic.
Catalonia’s public television channel TV3 said that Mr Puigdemont and some of his former government colleagues were “in a safe and secluded place”.
On Sunday, Theo Francken, Belgium’s migration minister, had appeared to invite Mr Puigdemont to request asylum in the country to avoid being arrested and facing up to 30 years in jail if found guilty of rebellion.
A spokesman for Mr Francken said yesterday that he could not confirm rumours regarding the deposed Catalan leader’s presence in Brussels. The Belgian state broadcaster VRT said Mr Puigdemont would “meet lawyers and political representatives”.
Mr Francken is a member of the New Flemish Alliance, the largest party in Belgium’s coalition government, which has offered consistent support for the cause of Catalan independence.
Fernando Martinez Maillo, the chief spokesman of Spain’s ruling Popular Party, said that fleeing to Brussels was an “error and a sign of desperation”.
And there were signs in Catalonia that Mr Puigdemont’s enthusiasm to flee the country was not shared by all of his former government colleagues, some of whom showed up for work in their departments yesterday, despite the imposition of direct rule from Madrid under emergency constitutional powers.
“There are some people who are still working for Catalonia in the functions that correspond to them – and others who will explain their decisions at some point,” a source from the office of Oriol Junqueras, Catalonia’s ousted vice-president, said in apparent reference to Mr Puigdemont’s journey.
The source said that the now deposed Catalan number two had gone to work in Catalonia’s economy department. Josep Rull, another ousted government member, posted a photograph of himself at his desk, on which a copy of yesterday’s edition of the Catalan newspaper ‘El Punt Avui’ was visible.
The Catalan Mossos d’Esquadra police force has been given direct orders from Madrid to file criminal reports against regional officials who did not accept their dismissals.
The mystery as to Mr Puigdemont’s whereabouts deepened when he failed to attend a meeting of his PDeCAT pro-independence party at which it decided to run in elections imposed on the region and set for December 21.
Catalonia, a prosperous region with its own language and culture, triggered Spain’s biggest crisis for decades by holding an independence referendum on October 1, which Spanish courts called illegal.
Yesterday’s calm on the streets of Barcelona resolved a weekend of uncertainty during which it was not clear how the region would respond to central control.
The Catalan police force has been given orders to file criminal reports against officials who did not accept their dismissals
A call for widespread civil disobedience from the main civic groups behind the secessionist campaign failed to attract many followers.
Most public sector workers such as teachers, firefighters and the police started work as normal yesterday and there was no sign of widespread absenteeism.
A trade union, Intersindical-CSC, which had called for a general strike in Catalonia, said yesterday it had cancelled it.
There were no signs of any spontaneous demonstration taking place.
Two-hundred thousand public sector workers receive salaries paid by the Catalan region, and another 100,000 in the region rely directly on the Madrid government.
Hundreds of thousands of supporters of a unified Spain marched on Sunday in one of the biggest shows of force yet by the so-called silent majority that has watched as regional political leaders push for Catalan independence.
Two opinion polls also showed support for independence may have started to wane. A Sigma Dos survey published in ‘El Mundo’ showed 33.5pc of Catalans were in favour of independence, while a Metroscopia poll published by ‘El Pais’ put that number at 29pc.
This compared to 41.1pc in July according to an official survey carried out by the Catalan government.
Opponents of secession largely boycotted the October 1 referendum, when participants voted overwhelmingly for independence on turnout of only 43pc. (© Daily Telegraph London)
Independence and pro-unionist supporters outside the Palau Catalan Regional Government Building. Photo: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty