Spain's Leader Prepares to Unveil Specific Catalan Measures

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By ARITZ PARRA, Associated Press

BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy said his government will unveil on Saturday specific measures agreed with opposition parties to halt Catalonia's independence bid, but refused to confirm if the deal includes plans to hold a regional election in January.

The main negotiator in the opposition Socialist party, Carmen Calvo, said earlier Friday that a snap election in the prosperous region had been agreed upon as part of the Socialists' support for the government's effort to rein in the country's deepest political crisis in decades.

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 Catalan pro-independence activists. Catalonia's government says it has the mandate to secede from Spain after an illegal referendum was held on Oct. 1, and it doesn't want a new regional election.

The central government will hold a special Cabinet session on Saturday to begin the activation of Article 155 of Spain's 1978 Constitution, which allows for central authorities to 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. Prime Minister Mariano 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 Ciudadanos (Citizens) party, Rajoy told reporters in Brussels.

Although not part of the meeting's official agenda, the Catalan crisis was the main topic in corridors and sideline discussions. Rajoy has insisted that the political deadlock is a domestic Spanish affair but acknowledged that it was a cause of concern for his fellow 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 its 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 against financial institutions that have moved their official headquarters to other locations in Spain amid the political crisis.

Pro-independence umbrella group Crida Democracia called on consumers late Thursday 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 amounts were closest to 155, in reference to Article 155.

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 central Barcelona. "They need to see that it's lots of us who are angry."

Mauri, who withdrew 150 euros because the ATM wouldn't allow him to take out 155, 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 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 tempered and 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."

The crisis over Catalonia's quest for independence escalated Thursday, as Spain's central government prepared to start activating Article 155 after Catalan president Carles Puigdemont refused to abandon secession.

In his latest display of brinkmanship, Puigdemont sent a letter to Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy just minutes before a deadline set by Madrid for him to backtrack on his calls to secede.

Puigdemont didn't give in, however, and threatened to go ahead with a unilateral proclamation of independence if the government refuses to negotiate.

Spain's government responded by calling Saturday's Cabinet session to activate Article 155.

Puigdemont and his aides have so far have ruled out calling a snap vote as a way out of the deadlock.

In a sign that an explicit declaration of independence could be his response, as outlined in this week's letter, separatist lawmakers were holding talks about how to call a special regional parliament session as early as next week, far-left CUP party lawmaker Eulalia Reguant told The Associated Press late Thursday.