Oct 20, 3:34 PM EDT

Spanish PM to unveil measures to fight Catalan separatists


AP Photo
AP Photo/Olivier Matthys

BARCELONA, Spain (AP) -- Spain's prime minister says his government will unveil specific measures Saturday to halt Catalonia's independence bid but refused to confirm if that included plans to hold a regional election in January.

The opposition Socialists are supporting the conservative government's effort to rein in the country's deepest political crisis in decades. The Socialists' main negotiator, Carmen Calvo, said earlier Friday that an early election in the prosperous northeastern region of Catalonia had been agreed upon as part of the deal.

Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, commenting on the unprecedented constitutional step his government is taking to assume control of Catalonia, said on the sidelines of a European Union summit in Brussels that "the goal is double: the return to legality and the recovery of institutional normalcy."

The move is likely to further inflame tensions between Spain and Catalonia's pro-independence activists. Catalonia's government says it has the mandate to secede from Spain after it held a disputed referendum on Oct. 1. It certainly does not want a new regional election.

The central government will hold a special Cabinet session on Saturday to begin activating Article 155 of Spain's 1978 Constitution, which lets central authorities take over all or some of the powers of any of the country's 17 autonomous regions.

The measure, which has never been used since democracy was restored after Gen. Francisco Franco's dictatorship, needs to be approved by the Senate. Rajoy's conservative Popular Party has an absolute majority in the Senate, so it should pass easily as early as Oct. 27.

Spain's government has also agreed on the move with the center-right, pro-business Citizens party, Rajoy told reporters in Brussels.

King Felipe VI, meanwhile, threw his weight behind efforts to block Catalan independence, saying at a public event Friday night that Catalonia "is and will be an essential part" of Spain.

"Spain will deal with this unacceptable attempt at secession by using the Constitution," Felipe said in a speech in Oviedo, in northern Spain's Asturias region.

Although not officially on the agenda of a European Union summit Friday, the Catalan crisis was the main topic in Brussels corridors. Rajoy has insisted the political deadlock is a domestic Spanish affair but acknowledged that it was a cause of concern for his fellow EU leaders.

He accused the Catalan separatist authorities of acting against the rule of law and democracy and said: "This is something that goes directly against the basic principles of the European Union."

European leaders have supported Rajoy in Spain's escalating conflict with the separatists.

"We believe that people should be abiding by the rule of law and uphold the Spanish constitution," British Prime Minister Theresa May said.

Offering his "full, entire support," French President Emmanuel Macron blamed extremist forces for "feeding" on separatism as a kind of division within Europe and a "factor of destabilization."

Meanwhile, some bank customers in Catalonia withdrew symbolic amounts of money to protest financial institutions that have moved their official headquarters from Catalonia to other locations in Spain amid the political crisis.

The pro-independence umbrella group Cry for Democracy called on consumers to put pressure on banks that made the decision. By Friday morning, dozens of people were lining up at a CaixaBank branch in downtown Barcelona, most of them withdrawing 150 or 160 euros from ATMs - the closest amounts to Article 155 of the constitution.

CaixaBank and Banco Sabadell, the largest Catalan lenders, are among nearly 1,000 financial institutions and businesses that have moved their official registration out of Catalonia in the past few weeks.

"These banks are traitors," said Oriol Mauri, a 35-year-old owner of a children's game business in Barcelona. "They need to see that it's lots of us who are angry."

Mauri, who withdrew 150 euros, said he wasn't worried about businesses fleeing Catalonia.

"I'm not afraid of economic repercussions," Mauri said. "Our power as consumers is perhaps the only way to influence and have our voice heard in Europe."

Ana Coll, a 55-year-old pharmacist who withdrew 160 euros, said peaceful street protests haven't been enough to influence the decision-makers in Spain and Europe.

"We need to step up our actions and do something that really hurts, and that is targeting the money," she said.

But not everybody saw the measure as productive.

"This is like shooting yourself in the foot. It's not going to solve anything" said 42-year-old consulting firm worker Oscar Garcia, who compared the action to "the tantrum of a kid who doesn't get what he wants."

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