Protesters with Spanish flags shout slogans in favour of Spanish Constitution and its article nr. 155, during a demonstration defending a united Spain on October 4, 2017 in Barcelona. Catalonia could declare independence on October 9, a regional government source told AFP, as a crisis escalates between Madrid and separatist leaders over an illegal independence referendum. / AFP PHOTO / LLUIS GENE
A Spanish government official Friday offered the first apology to Catalans injured by police during their outlawed independence vote as the sides showed tentative signs of seeking an exit from the crisis.
In Spain’s deepest political crisis in decades, Catalan leaders had threatened to declare independence unilaterally and Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy vowed to stop them, rejecting calls for mediation.
The worsening standoff raised fears of further unrest in the northeastern region, a tourist-friendly land of 7.5 million people that accounts for a fifth of Spain’s economy.
But Friday saw the first signs the sides may be willing to step back from the brink in a political conflict that threatens to destabilise Europe.
After days of ill-tempered rhetoric, the central government said it regretted last Sunday’s injuries and suggested Catalonia should hold a regional election to settle the crisis.
Catalan government minister Santi Vila, a close of ally of regional president Carles Puigdemont, meanwhile told broadcaster Rac1 that his side could consider a “ceasefire” in the dispute, to avoid a further crackdown by Madrid.
Apology for injuries
Puigdemont postponed an appearance in the regional parliament at which some leaders were hoping for a declaration of independence, a spokesman said.
Spain’s central government apologised on behalf of police to people hurt in last Sunday’s referendum disturbances.
“I can do nothing but regret it, apologise on behalf of the officers who intervened,” said the government’s representative in Catalonia, Enric Millo.
“I am very sad, very sorry, we deeply regret that we have arrived at this situation, it has been very hard, everything that we have experienced and seen these past few days,” he said.
Central government spokesman Ignacio Mendez de Vigo also said later he “regretted” the injuries.
“It would be good to start mending this fracture… through regional elections,” he told a news conference.
In Madrid meanwhile, Catalonia’s police chief and two prominent separatist leaders avoided being remanded in custody at a court hearing Friday over sedition accusations.
The court summons raised tensions, but despite the gravity of the accusations the court did not issue a custodial order that could have further escalated the dispute.
Jordi Cuixart and Jordi Sanchez, leaders of Catalonia’s two biggest pro-independence civil groups, and regional police chief Josep Lluis Trapero walked free from the preliminary hearing at the National Court in Madrid.
A court official told AFP the judge had ordered no custody or other cautionary measures against them pending an investigation into the accusations.
The two civil leaders were accused of sedition for their role in unrest during protests in Barcelona last month.
Trapero’s force was accused of failing to rein in the protesters.
“We are convinced that sooner rather than later the Spanish state will have to sit down for a dialogue” with the Catalan regional government, Cuixart said.
The government says it will not join in any talks or accept mediation until the Catalans abandon their independence drive.
Spain’s Constitutional Court on Thursday ordered the suspension of a session scheduled for Monday in the Catalan parliament at which some leaders have called for an independence declaration.
If Catalonia declares independence, Spain could respond by suspending the region’s existing autonomous status and imposing direct rule from Madrid.
In spite of the government apology on Friday, the government in Madrid pushed ahead with a measure to pressure Catalonia economically.
It passed a decree to make it quicker for businesses to shift their legal domiciles away from one region to another.
Catalonia’s second-biggest bank said Thursday it was shifting its legal headquarters out of the region due to the turbulence.
Catalonia’s biggest lender CaixaBank was also set to hold discussions on Friday about possibly shifting its legal domicile out of the region, a source close to the matter told AFP.
With its own language and cultural traditions, demands for independence in Catalonia date back centuries but have surged during recent years of economic crisis.
Footballers speak out
Barcelona Football Club, a powerful symbol of Catalan identity, and its captain Andres Iniesta called for dialogue to settle the crisis.
“Do it for all of us. We deserve to live in peace,” Iniesta wrote on Facebook.
His Spain team mate and Real Madrid rival Sergio Ramos said he hoped the crisis will be “resolved as soon as possible.”
He spoke at a news conference ahead of Friday night’s World Cup qualifier against Albania.
But Ramos also said “hats off” to Spain’s King Felipe, who angered Catalan leaders by calling them to drop their independence drive.