Spain's interior minister yesterday accused Catalonia's government of inciting rebellion after police sent to the region to block a weekend independence referendum were harassed by protesters.
"We see how day after day the government of Catalonia is pushing the population to the abyss and incites rebellion in the streets," Interior Minister Juan Ignacio Zoido said, adding his government would take measures to "stop the acts of harassment."
Madrid says the independence referendum contravenes the constitution, which states that Spain is indivisible. Under Article 155 of Spain's constitution, Madrid has the power to intervene directly in the running of Catalonia's regional government, forcing it to drop the vote. It has been ruled unconstitutional by both the central government in Madrid and the courts, with judicial officials ordering police to seize millions of ballot papers, detain key organizers and shut down websites promoting the vote.
Breaking weeks of virtual silence on Catalonia's banned independence referendum, the European Commission said on Monday the referendum was not legal under Spanish law and was an "internal matter to be dealt with the constitutional order" for the Spanish government.
Meanwhile, Metro stations were closed in Barcelona, pickets blocked roads and state workers walked out on Tuesday in protests across Catalonia over a Spanish police crackdown on the banned independence referendum. The stoppages, in response to a call for a general strike by pro-independence groups and trade unions, affected the public sector, public transport and basic services.
The famed Barcelona football club and the two other Catalan clubs in the Spanish soccer league joined the strikes against the central government.
Barcelona said none of its professional or youth teams practiced yesterday and the club headquarters were closed. The Girona football team also suspended practice and Espanyol was having players undergo physical training behind closed doors.
Barcelona defender Gerard Pique, one of the most outspoken supporters of Catalans, was harassed by fans Monday when he reported to Spain's national team training camp in Madrid ahead of upcoming World Cup qualifiers. Police had to intervene as fans chanted and held cards against him.
Tension has been on the rise since the vote was called in early September, crystallizing years of defiance by separatists in the affluent region, which contributes mightily to Spain's ailing economy. As one of Spain's 17 autonomous regions, Catalonia enjoys ample rights, but key areas such as infrastructure and taxes are in the hands of Madrid. Separatist Catalans have long complained of contributing too much to the state while not getting enough in return.
Catalonia, Spain's wealthiest region, wedged in the northeast on the Mediterranean coast below the mountainous border with France, has its own language and culture and a growing minority there has nurtured hopes of independence for years. Madrid says the constitution prohibits secession and can only be changed if all Spaniards, not just Catalans, agree.