Madrid halting COVID-19 vaccinations due to supply delays

MADRID (Reuters) – Delays to COVID-19 vaccine shipments have forced authorities in Madrid to halt inoculations and are threatening supplies in Catalonia, Spanish officials said on Wednesday.

The Madrid region has ceased first vaccinations for at least this week and next and was using the few doses it has to administer second shots to those who have had the first one, said deputy regional government chief Ignacio Aguado.

“We need more doses and we need them now,” he told reporters on Wednesday, urging newly appointed Health Minister Carolina Darias to act quickly to secure the shots.

U.S. pharmaceutical giant Pfizer said last week there would be a temporary slow down in shipments to the European Union in late January caused by changes to manufacturing processes to ultimately boost output.

The announcement angered some EU governments and the executive European Commission due to the slow pace of vaccine roll outs in the 27-nation bloc.

It is also in dispute with Anglo-Swedish pharmaceutical firm AstraZeneca, which developed its shot with Oxford University and notified the EU on Friday that it could not meet supply targets for the first quarter of the year.

Spain’s 14-day incidence of the virus hit a record 900 cases per 100,000 people on Wednesday and the Health Ministry reported 40,285 new infections and 492 deaths.

Officials in Madrid and Catalonia said at the current pace it would be impossible to reach the national target of 70% of Spain’s 47 million population vaccinated by July.

Catalan health secretary Josep Maria Argimon said the region would use up all its stockpile of vaccines in the coming days and will have to administer second shots later than planned due to supply delays, citing an undelivered shipment of the Moderna vaccine scheduled for this week as one example.

The affluent northeastern region will issue a new request for 30,000 vaccine doses that it expects to administer starting on Feb. 4, Argimon told a news briefing.

Spain has administered just over 1.3 million doses to a priority group of care-home residents and frontline medics, around 77% of its current stocks.

(Reporting by Inti Landauro, Emma Pinedo, Nathan Allen and Joan Faus; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Janet Lawrence)

At least two dead after blast wrecks building in central Madrid

By Nathan Allen and Michael Gore

MADRID (Reuters) – At least two people died and eight were injured on Wednesday when a building in central Madrid belonging to the Catholic Church was blown apart by an explosion, local authorities said.

One of the injured was in serious condition and transferred to hospital.

A Church official said one church volunteer was missing.

Initial investigations suggested that the blast in Calle Toledo, a street leading out from the city center, had been caused by a gas leak, Mayor Jose Luis Martinez-Almeida said.

Smoke billowed out of the partly collapsed building and rescue workers evacuated elderly people from a nearby nursing home.

The top five floors were totally destroyed, with walls blown out, while the bottom two floors were still mostly intact, but charred in places from the flames.

The building was a complex that provided residential training for priests and also gave meals to homeless people, a neighbor said.

(Reporting by Nathan Allen, Inti Landauro, Belen Carreno, Jesus Aguado, Emma Pinedo, Andrei Khalip; Writing by Ingrid Melander; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

After record snowfall, Madrid confronts mammoth garbage heaps

MADRID (Reuters) – Heaps of plastic rubbish bags were piled up alongside snowdrifts in downtown Madrid on Wednesday after a historic storm paralyzed the city’s infrastructure, leaving some 9,000 tonnes of uncollected waste lining its streets.

Waste collection, which was suspended last Friday, restarted on Tuesday and had reached 40% capacity by that evening, the city council said in a statement.

But discontent at the council’s handling of the storm is rising, especially in the outskirts, according to the FRAVM federation of residents’ associations.

“Many of their streets remain blocked, there is no public transport and they (residents) are suffering a lack of supplies,” the group tweeted alongside pictures of stranded cars, heaps of trash and an ambulance crew struggling to dig out their vehicle.

Just 15% of roads in the Spanish capital had been cleared of snow and ice by Wednesday afternoon, three days after Storm Filomena crashed through central Spain, bringing record low temperatures and cutting off transport links.

Schools, universities and nurseries will remain closed until at least Monday.

Some cars were circulating slowly on avenues in the center, but many smaller streets remain blocked by downed trees or treacherous ice patches.

As the cleanup continues, politicians are struggling to count the cost of the damage wrought by the storm.

“Madrid will receive a large bill from Filomena, one that reaches beyond several hundred million euros for sure,” Madrid Mayor Jose Luis Martinez-Almeida told COPE radio station, adding that the hospitality sector alone had taken a 70 million euro hit.

After some 150,000 trees were downed by the storm, Almeida said his administration would shortly put out a 15 million euro contract to assess the status of those that remain standing.

(Reporting by Belén Carreño and Emma Pinedo, Writing by Nathan Allen,; Editing by Andrei Khalip and Angus MacSwan)

Schools shut, supplies affected as Madrid clears record snow

By Cristina Sanchez and Belén Carreño

MADRID (Reuters) – Schools in Madrid were shut and some supermarkets ran out of fresh produce or were shuttered on Monday but most trains and flights had resumed operations after a huge snow storm hit the Spanish capital and several other regions over the weekend.

While many people enjoyed the rare snowfall, skiing in the very center of Madrid and holding mass snowball fights, a further cold spell was set to turn the snow into ice this week and authorities rushed to clear more streets, though they said the efforts could take one or two weeks.

Residents of Madrid, which has seen its heaviest snowfall in at least 50 years, helped police open paths through deep banks of snow using plywood boards or trays, and poured salt on the underlying ice. With rooftops enveloped in snow, authorities cordoned off some pavements due to the risk of accidents.

The storm, which dumped up to 20 inches on Madrid, has hampered Spain’s efforts to increase the pace of its coronavirus vaccination program amid rising infections.

A new batch of vaccines meant to land in Madrid was diverted on Monday to Vitoria in the north, but city authorities said vaccinations in care homes and hospitals continued as planned.

Renfe train operator said all fast train lines were operating except for Madrid-Barcelona connections, which are likely to resume early in the afternoon. Most Madrid suburban lines were working on Monday, but with fewer trains than usual.


Two runways at the Barajas international airport re-opened. The airport operator said that of around 400 flights scheduled to fly in and out on Monday, 117 had been cancelled.

A Reuters reporter saw a number of empty shelves at several central Madrid supermarkets.

The Spanish supermarket association urged customers to behave responsibly in the wake of a “complicated situation” in many storm-affected areas. But it said supplies had resumed in the early hours on Monday and were gradually increasing.

After staying closed in the morning, Mercamadrid, the city’s main wholesale food market, said convoys of trucks which had been stranded in the snow since Friday had started arriving and that it was preparing to resume activity from Monday night.

About 85% of Madrid’s bars and restaurants are still closed, with a return to normal expected on Thursday, the Hosteleria de España association said, estimating lost revenues over the period at 70 million euros ($85 million)

Interior Minister Fernando Grande-Marlaska said the situation on the roads was improving but was still “extraordinary” and many remained closed.

The cold wave, with temperatures as low as -10 degrees Celsius in central Spain, will last until Thursday, the Aemet meteorological agency said.

($1 = 0.8223 euros)

(Reporting by Guillermo Martinez, Elena Rodriguez, Ingrid Melander, Cristina Sanchez, Belen Carreno, Inti Landauro, Clara-Laeila Laudette, Emma Pinedo, Andrei Khalip; Writing by Ingrid Melander and Andrei Khalip; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky and Gareth Jones)

Thousands gather in Madrid to protest violence against women

MADRID (Reuters) – Thousands of protesters gathered in central Madrid on Friday to draw attention to domestic violence in a year when over 40 women have been recorded so far as having been killed by their partner or ex-partners.

Protesters carried banners reading “We don’t want to carry on counting victims” and chanted “We are not alone” as they brandished umbrellas in pouring rain.

The government regularly publishes the number of women killed by partners or ex-partners. The number so far this year is 42, according to government statistics, with more than 1,000 killed since records started in 2003.

Rates of reported partner violence in Spain are amongst the lowest in Europe and Spain ranked as the European Union country with the most visible campaign against domestic violence, according to a 2014 EU survey.

(Reporting by Sonya Dowsett; editing by Grant McCool)

‘A target on the back’: North Korea embassy raid thrusts shadowy group into the spotlight

FILE PHOTO: A Spanish National Police car is seen outside the North Korea's embassy in Madrid, Spain February 28, 2019. REUTERS/Sergio Perez/File Photo

By Josh Smith and Hyonhee Shin

SEOUL (Reuters) – A shadowy group seeking to overthrow North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has been thrust into the international spotlight after a Spanish court investigating a break-in at North Korea’s embassy in Madrid named apparent members as suspects.

Cheollima Civil Defense, also known as Free Joseon, first went public in 2017, when it said it was protecting the family of Kim Jong Un’s half brother Kim Jong Nam, who was murdered in a Malaysian airport.

Spanish authorities unsealed court documents on Tuesday accusing at least 10 individuals of storming into the embassy, restraining and beating some staff members and holding them hostage for hours before fleeing with stolen computers and hard drives. Such an action would be one of the most militant operations ever carried out by activists opposed to North Korea’s government.

“Parties seeking to ‘out’ those in Madrid have painted a target on the backs of those seeking only to protect others,” Cheollima Civil Defense said in a website post, apparently acknowledging for the first time its involvement in the raid. “They have chosen to side with Pyongyang’s criminal, totalitarian rulers over their victims.”

It disputed police allegations that weapons or violence were used in the break-in.

Lee Wolosky, an American attorney who represents Free Joseon, said in a statement that the Spanish court “purported to reach conclusions without any input from representatives” of the group.

“There are a number of statements attributed to the judge in media reports that do not accurately reflect what happened in Madrid,” he continued, without elaborating. “It was, in any event, highly irresponsible to disclose publicly the names of people who are working in opposition to a brutal regime that routinely and summarily executes its enemies.”

Of the 10 suspects, the documents listed the names and birth dates of seven, including citizens of Mexico, the United States, and South Korea. All but one are under 30 years old.

The identification of at least some of the individuals in the group may have undermined their cause and perhaps endangered their lives, analysts and activists said.

“It was too risky,” said one South Korean human rights activist who previously worked with one of the suspects. “Now that their identities are known, they won’t be able to carry out activities as before.”


The Mexican national named by Spanish authorities as one of the embassy raid’s leaders, Adrian Hong, is a longtime activist who helped found the refugee aid organization Liberty in North Korea (LiNK), and later led an organization preparing for an “imminent, dramatic change” in the country, analysts said.

Spanish court documents said Hong played a leading role in the break-in, and that after fleeing to the United States he contacted the FBI to offer information that had been stolen.

Hong could not be reached for immediate comment.

Hong was among several LiNK activists who were arrested and deported from China in late 2006 as they were trying to help a party of North Korean refugees escape.

In a statement on Tuesday, LiNK said Hong had not been involved in any way with the group for more than 10 years and LiNK had no information on his current activities.

Hong told a newspaper in the United Arab Emirates in 2011 that the Arab Spring uprisings then unfolding were “a dress rehearsal for North Korea”.

Kang Cheol-hwan, a defector and founder of the North Korea Strategy Centre in Seoul, said Hong went so far as to travel to Libya to research the aftermath of Muammar Gaddafi’s ouster.


Cheollima Civil Defense takes its name from a winged horse commonly featured in East Asian mythology. Free Joseon, meanwhile, references the last Korean dynasty, and a name that North Korea still often uses to refer to itself.

On its website, the group used soaring language to declare itself the “a provisional government” of Free Joseon as “the sole legitimate representative of the Korean people of the north.”

The website also began to sell “post-liberation blockchain visas” that can be bought with cryptocurrency, and on March 11 it claimed responsibility for defacing the North Korean embassy in Kuala Lumpur.

North Korea has not publicly commented on the Madrid break-in, nor filed a complaint with Spanish police.

The group’s brazen actions led some to speculate that there could be serious dissent against Kim Jong Un taking shape. But other analysts were more skeptical, and say there are lingering questions over possible ties to foreign intelligence agencies.

“I’m still inclined to believe there was some professional involvement because taking over a foreign mission is not an easy operation,” said Korea Risk Group director Andrei Lankov.

“They took computers and hard disks, but if you don’t have highly specialized capabilities for breaking the codes, it’s probably not going to be useful to anyone but major intelligence agencies.”

Cheollima Civil Defense said on Tuesday that no governments were involved or were aware of the embassy operation beforehand. It said it had shared “certain information of enormous potential value” with the FBI at the agency’s request, but that agreements of confidentiality “appear to have been broken”.

The U.S. State department said on Tuesday the U.S. government was not involved in the raid.

(Reporting by Josh Smith and Hyonhee Shin; Jonathan Landay contributed from Washington; Editing by Alex Richardson and Jonathan Oatis)

Catalan strike severs road links as secessionist leaders regroup

Catalan strike severs road links as secessionist leaders regroup

By Silvio Castellanos

BARCELONA, Spain (Reuters) – A general strike called by pro-independence campaigners in Catalonia severed transport links on Wednesday, as leaders of its secessionist movement sought to regain political momentum after failing to agree a joint ticket to contest an election.

Protesters shut down roads, causing huge tailbacks into Barcelona, and some public transport ran minimum services in response to calls for action by two civic groups — whose heads were imprisoned last month on sedition charges — and a labor union.

People stood across dozens of major highways in the region waving placards and chanting “freedom for political prisoners”, TV and video images showed, while minor scuffles were reported on social media as police attempted to move protesters.

While many smaller stores left their shutters closed, most larger shops and businesses in the region appeared to be open as normal.

An uphill task awaited the political heavyweights of the independence campaign, whose parties jointly ran Catalonia for the last two years until Madrid sacked the region’s government in response to its independence push.

Deposed Catalan president Carles Puigdemont’s center-right PDeCAT and the leftist ERC of former regional vice president Oriol Junqueras had until midnight on Tuesday to agree a new pact, but they failed to meet that deadline, meaning they will contest the Dec. 21 vote as separate parties.

The central government in Madrid called the election last month after assuming control of Catalonia following its parliament’s unilateral independence declaration.

Puigdemont is in self-imposed exile in Belgium, while Junqueras is in custody on charges of sedition, rebellion and misuse of public funds.


Puigdemont, who faces the same charges and is the subject of a extradition request from Madrid, had ambitions to garner support for his independence campaign in the heartland of the European Union.

But that hope has fallen flat, and in an interview published on Wednesday he renewed criticism of the bloc’s executive.

“(EU Commission President Jean-Claude) Juncker welcomes mayors, governors … but he doesn’t want to meet me,” Puigdemont told Belgian Daily De Standaard.

“I’ve always been a convinced European … But the people who are running the EU now, are wrecking Europe … The gap between the Europe of the people and the official Europe is increasing.”

Catalonia’s secessionist push has plunged Spain into its worst political crisis in four decades, triggered a business exodus and reopened old wounds from the country’s civil war in the 1930s.

Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, who has been unwavering in his opposition to any form of independence for Catalonia, said he hoped next month’s election would usher in “a period of calm” and business as usual for the region.

“I’m hoping for massive participation in the election.. and, after that, we’ll return to normality,” he said in the Madrid parliament building on Wednesday.

An opinion poll released on Sunday by Barcelona-based newspaper La Vanguardia showed Junqueras’ ERC could garner between 45 and 46 seats in Catalonia’s 135-strong regional assembly while Puigdemont’s PdeCat would win just 14 or 15.

In order to reach the 68-seat threshold for a majority, they would then have to form a parliamentary alliance with anti-capitalist CUP.

ERC and PDeCAT could still reach an agreement after the vote, but by standing together they could have held more seats, polls and projections from the 2015 election results showed.

Economy Minister Luis de Guindos told a banking conference in Madrid he hoped the election would revive the Catalan success story “during which it has enjoyed great economic and cultural prosperity together with a high level of self-governance.”

For some Catalans who ignored Wednesday’s strike — called by the CSC union and supported by civic groups Asamblea Nacional Catalana (ANC) and Omnium Cultural — that moment is already overdue.

“Why should I strike, nobody is going to raise my salary. In this world we have to work and not argue so much,” Jose Luis, a construction worker, told Reuters TV as he walked through Barcelona on his way to work.

“The politicians should work more and stop their silliness.”

(Additional reporting by Paul Day in Madrid and Robert-Jan Bartunek in Brussels; writing by John Stonestreet; editing by Paul Day)

Ousted Catalan leader accepts new election, says ‘long road’ to independence

Ousted Catalan leader accepts new election, says 'long road' to independence

By Robert-Jan Bartunek and Raquel Castillo

BRUSSELS/MADRID (Reuters) – Catalonia’s ousted leader Carles Puigdemont on Tuesday agreed to the snap election called by Spain’s central government when it took control of the region to stop it breaking away, but he said the fight for independence would go on.

Puigdemont, speaking at a news conference in Brussels, also said he was not seeking asylum in Belgium after Spain’s state prosecutor recommended charges for rebellion and sedition be brought against him. He would return to Catalonia when given “guarantees” by the Spanish government, he said.

Puigdemont’s announcement that he would accept the regional election on Dec. 21 signaled the Madrid government had for now at least gained the upper hand in the protracted struggle over Catalonia, a wealthy northeastern region that already had considerable autonomy.

Resistance to Madrid’s imposition of direct control on Catalonia failed to materialize at the start of the week and the secessionist leadership is in disarray.

But a poll released on Tuesday showed that support for the creation of an independent state of Catalonia rose to an almost three-year high in October.

Spain’s Constitutional Court on Tuesday blocked the unilateral declaration of independence made by the regional parliament on Friday – a largely symbolic move that gained no traction and led to the assembly’s dismissal by Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy less than an hour after it was made.

“I ask the Catalan people to prepare for a long road. Democracy will be the foundation of our victory,” Puigdemont said in Brussels, where he showed up after dropping out of sight over the weekend.

Rajoy, who has taken an uncompromising stance throughout the crisis, is gambling on anti-independence parties taking power in the regional parliament and putting the brakes on the independence drive. Puigdemont will hope a strong showing for the independence camp will reboot the secessionists after a tumultuous several weeks.

Puigdemont did not say when he would return to Spain and denied he was fleeing from justice, but he could be called to testify before the court on the rebellion and sedition charges as soon as the end of the week. He did not specify what guarantees he sought.

The Spanish government said at the weekend Puigdemont was welcome to stand in the election. The judicial process was a separate matter, it said.

The Supreme Court also began processing rebellion charges against Catalan parliament speaker Carme Forcadell and other senior leaders on Tuesday.


The political crisis, Spain’s gravest since the return of democracy in the late 1970s, was triggered by an independence referendum held in Catalonia on Oct. 1.

Though it was declared illegal by Spanish courts and less than half Catalonia’s eligible voters took part, the pro-secessionist regional government said the vote gave it a mandate for independence.

The United States, Britain, Germany and France have all backed Rajoy and rejected an independent Catalan state, although some have called for dialogue between the opposing sides.

Puigdemont, Vice President Oriol Junqueras and other Catalan leaders had said previously they would not accept their dismissal. But their respective parties, PdeCat and Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya, said on Monday they would take part in the election, a tacit acceptance of direct rule from Madrid.

The struggle has divided Catalonia itself and caused deep resentment across the rest of Spain, although separatist sentiment persists in the Basque Country and some other areas.

Two recent opinion polls showed support for independence may have started to wane.

But an official regional survey published on Tuesday showed some 48.7 percent of Catalans believe the region should be independent, up from 41.1 pct in June and the highest since December 2014.

Based on 1,338 interviews, the Centre d’Estudis d’Opinio poll was the first survey released since the independence declaration though the bulk of it was taken before then, between Oct. 16 and Oct. 29.


Despite his dash to the European Union’s power center, Puigdemont’s hopes of engaging the bloc in his cause seem forlorn. Member states have asserted their support for Spanish unity and EU institutions in Brussels say they will deal only with Madrid and that the dispute remains an internal matter.

“Our position remains unchanged,” EU Commission spokeswoman Mina Andreeva said in Brussels on Tuesday.

But some analysts say the dispute is not going to disappear anytime soon despite the present state of play.

“Spain is heading for a period of disruption, and like the UK and Brexit, having its policy agenda dominated by one political issue while other key challenges fade into the background,” said Raj Badiani, an economist at IHS Markit in London.

“A more tangible impact from the crisis could evolve from early 2018, with the uncertainty set to build as Catalans push harder for a legally binding referendum.”

Influential Catalan business lobbies have backed direct rule and called on firms to stay in the region. The crisis has prompted more than 1,000 businesses to switch their legal headquarters from Catalonia, which contributes about a fifth of Spain’s economy, the fourth-largest in the euro zone.

Spain’s IBEX fell slightly as Puigdemont began speaking in Brussels but then rose again.

For some in Barcelona, the overwhelming emotion appears to be exasperation.

“It’s a farcical and completely ridiculous situation,” said Ernesto Hernandez Busto, a 42-year-old editor. “This extreme nationalism, this separatism, has taken Catalonia to the most absurd situation and the worst inconvenience we have had in the last 40 years.”

(Additional reporting by Paul Day and Sonya Dowsett in Madrid, Writing by Angus MacSwan, Editing by Janet Lawrence and John Stonestreet)

Catalonia declares independence from Spain, direct Madrid rule looms

Catalonia declares independence from Spain, direct Madrid rule looms

By Sam Edwards and Julien Toyer

BARCELONA/MADRID (Reuters) – Catalonia’s parliament declared independence from Spain on Friday in defiance of the Madrid government, which at the same time was preparing to impose direct rule over the region.

Although the declaration was in effect a symbolic gesture as it will not be accepted by Spain or the international community, the moves by both sides take Spain’s worst political crisis in four decades to a new level.

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy immediately called for calm and said the rule of law would be restored.

The motion passed in the regional parliament in Barcelona — which was boycotted by opposition parties — said Catalonia constituted an independent, sovereign and social democratic state. It called on other countries and institutions to recognize it.

It also said it wanted to open talks with Madrid to collaborate on setting up the new republic.

“It is not going to be easy, it is not going to be free, it is not going to change in a day. But there is no alternative to a process towards the Catalan Republic,” lawmaker Marta Rovira of the Junts pel Si pro-independence alliance said in a debate leading to the vote.

After the debate, lawmakers from members of three main national parties — the People’s Party, the Socialists and Ciudadanos, walked out.

Members of the pro-independence parties and the far-left Podemos then voted in 70-10 in favour in a secret ballot aimed at hindering any attempt by the central government to lay criminal charges on them.

Spanish shares and bonds were sold off when the result of the vote was announced.

Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont left the chamber to shouts of “President!”.

Meanwhile in Madrid the upper house of Spain’s parliament, the Senate, was due to approve Article 155, the law that allowing the central government to take over the autonomous region.

“Exceptional measures should only be adopted when no other remedy is possible,” Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy said in an address to the Senate. “In my opinion there is no alternative. The only thing that can be done and should be done is to accept and comply with the law.”

The Catalan leadership was ignoring the law and making a mockery of democracy, he said.

“We are facing a challenge unprecedented in our recent history,” said Rajoy, who has staked out an uncompromising position against Catalonia’s campaign to break away from Spain.

After the Senate vote, Rajoy was expected to convene his cabinet to adopt the first measures to govern Catalonia directly. This could include sacking the Barcelona government and assuming direct supervision of Catalan police forces.

But how direct rule would work on the ground – including the reaction of civil servants and the police – is uncertain.

Some independence supporters have promised to mount a campaign of civil disobedience, which could lead to direct confrontation with security forces.

The crisis developed after an independence referendum on Oct. 1 was declared illegal by Madrid. Although it endorsed independence, it drew only a 43 percent turnout as Catalans who oppose independence largely boycotted it.


In Barcelona, crowds of independence supporters were swelling on downtown streets, shouting “Liberty” in the Catalan language and singing traditional Catalan songs.

“I’m worried, I’m nervous like everybody. But freedom is never free,” said Jaume Moline, 50, musician.

Montserrat Rectoret, a 61-year-old historian, said: “I am emotional because Catalonia has struggled for 40 years to be independent and finally I can see it.”

The crisis has split Catalonia and caused deep resentment around Spain – national flags now hang from many balconies in the capital in an expression of unity.

It has also prompted a flight of business from the wealthy northeastern region and alarmed European leaders who fear the crisis could fan separatist sentiment around the continent.

Catalonia is one of Spain’s most prosperous regions and already has a high degree of autonomy. But it has a litany of historic grievances, exacerbated during the 1939-1975 Franco dictatorship, when its culture and politics were suppressed.

(Reporting by Paul Day and Julien Toyer, writing by Angus MacSwan, editing by Mark Heinrich)

Crisis over Catalan independence nears crucial few days

Crisis over Catalan independence nears crucial few days

By Paul Day and Angus MacSwan

MADRID (Reuters) – Catalan separatist leader Carles Puigdemont is likely to go to Madrid on Thursday to explain his position on independence from Spain and try to stop the national government imposing direct control on the region.

The timing of Puigdemont’s appearance before the Senate suggests he is now unlikely to formally declare independence or call a snap regional election on Thursday, as many analysts had expected. He could still do this on Friday before the Senate strips him of his powers and imposes direct rule from Madrid.

An appearance at a Senate debate could pit Puigdemont face to face with Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy who is vehemently opposed to independence for Catalonia.

The political crisis, Spain’s worst since democracy was restored four decades ago, has become increasingly fraught at the prospect of civil disobedience and even confrontation if Madrid goes ahead with taking direct control of Catalonia in the next few days.

The conflict has caused deep resentment elsewhere in Spain, dented the prosperous region’s economy, and worried other European leaders who see it as fanning separatist sentiment elsewhere on the continent.

Secessionists in Catalonia say an independence referendum on Oct. 1 — which attracted a 43 percent turnout but was mostly boycotted by those Catalans who want to remain in Spain — has given them a mandate for statehood.

The Madrid government declared the referendum illegal and has spurned Puigdemont’s calls for dialogue, instead opting to take control of a region which now has a large measure of autonomy.

It has, however, invited Puigdemont to debate in the Senate.

“President Puigdemont is willing to attend the Senate to explain the allegations, explain his political position, and explain how we have arrived here,” a lawmaker for PDCat (Catalan Democratic Party) said on Wednesday.

Thursday would be the most convenient day, he said.

However, Puigdemont is unlikely to make much headway against a government which vehemently opposes full independence and is using all its legal and political power to stop it.

On Friday, the Senate is due to strip him of his powers and impose direct rule, although the actual steps could be taken gradually in order not to inflame the situation.


Catalonia said on Monday it was confident its officials, including the police, would defy attempts by Madrid to enforce direct rule.

A senior Catalan politician said on Tuesday secessionist leaders may call a snap election to try to break the deadlock. The Catalan parliament meets on Thursday and Friday.

Some Spanish political and business leaders, along with most Catalan newspapers, have urged Puigdemont to call a regional election before he is stripped of his authority. They say direct rule from Madrid would be a humiliation for Catalonia and pose a serious risk of civil unrest.

Calling an election could either strengthen Puigdemont’s mandate if pro-independence parties won, or allow him a graceful exit if they did not.

An opinion poll published by the El Periodico newspaper on Sunday showed a snap election would probably have results similar to the last ballot, in 2015, when a coalition of pro-independence parties formed a minority government.

Justice Minister Rafael Catala said that if Puigdemont appeared before the Senate, it would help resolve the crisis. Madrid has so far refused to meet him until he drops his call for independence.

“If his appearance is within the constitution and the law we’ll be delighted…but if it’s just to ratify his position on Catalonia’s independence, sadly we will not be able to do anything else than continuing with the measures already set by the government,” Catala said.

Analyst Antonio Barroso of Teneo Intelligence said Puigdemont was caught between radicals and moderates in the Catalan establishment.

Radical elements want him to make the Catalan parliament declare independence unilaterally on Thursday or Friday. This would provoke a tough government reaction, playing into their hands, he said.

More moderate voices have said that if he calls an early election, he could stop the imposition of direct rule.

Puigdemont is likely to repeat his call for a dialogue between the Catalan authorities and Madrid and remain ambiguous on his next steps, Barroso said.

“Both sides are engaged in a game to tag each other with the blame for what happens next,” he said.

(Reporting by Paul Day,; Writing by Angus MacSwan; Editing by Julien Toyer and Richard Balmforth)