Spanish unionists concerned at new Catalan president’s intentions

Ciudadanos urges PM to act swiftly to curtail any fresh attempts at unilateral secession

Spanish unionist parties are at loggerheads over how to manage the Catalan territorial crisis after outspoken separatist Quim Torra took the oath of office to become the new president of the northeastern region.

Mr Torra was sworn in at a brief ceremony in the Catalan regional government headquarters in Barcelona on Thursday, promising “loyalty to the people of Catalonia represented in the [regional] parliament”.

The ceremony reflected the tensions that his appointment has generated. Breaking with protocol, no central government officials were present and Mr Torra also omitted the traditional pledge of allegiance to the Spanish constitution and monarchy.

Pro-independence parties voted Mr Torra in on Monday in the Catalan parliament by a slim margin and he is the fourth candidate to be presented for the post since an election in December, after all the others were barred by the judiciary.

Concern expressed

Unionist parties have expressed concern at some of the objectives Mr Torra, a publisher, writer and activist, outlined in his investiture speech.

Promising to implement the "mandate" of a controversial independence referendum held last October, in his address Mr Torra frequently referred to the Catalan republic. He said the true president of the region is Carles Puigdemont, who was ousted from the post when the Spanish government introduced direct rule last autumn and is now in Germany.

There are concerns in Madrid that Mr Puigdemont plans to set up a parallel government-in-exile with the blessing of Mr Torra, whom he handpicked to succeed him.

Unionist politicians have also portrayed Mr Torra as xenophobic due to a series of derogatory comments about Spain and its people which he wrote on social media, and in articles.

Shortly after the swearing-in ceremony, Albert Rivera, leader of the unionist Ciudadanos party, urged Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy to act swiftly to curtail any new attempts aimed at unilateral secession.

“[Mr Torra] has said in the parliament that his government’s agenda is to ignore the constitution,” Mr Rivera said after the meeting with the prime minister. “What more do we want? What more do we democrats have to wait for to happen before we act in Catalonia?”

Direct rule

Mr Rivera has been campaigning for a more stringent application of direct rule, including taking control of the Catalan public broadcaster and the regional police force, unless the new regional administration promises to obey the Spanish constitution.

However, the Spanish government has said the measure would be lifted once a new Catalan president was in place. The prime minister’s office said a “negotiated and proportional” response to the situation was required.

Joan Tardá, a congressman for the Catalan Republican Left (ERC), warned that unionist parties were taking part in “a giddy race to see who has more anti-Catalan testosterone”.

Meanwhile, the Spanish judiciary is digesting Belgium’s refusal on Wednesday to allow the extradition of three Catalan politicians, Meritxell Serret, Antoni Comín and Lluís Puig, citing a procedural error. Spanish supreme court judge Pablo Llarena has subsequently contacted German judicial authorities, who are deciding whether to extradite Mr Puigdemont, insisting on the legitimacy of his tribunal’s request.