Catalonia protesters block roads for PM’s visit

Spain's Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez poses with his ministers during a weekly cabinet meeting in Barcelona, Spain, December 21, 2018. REUTERS/Sergio Perez

Police dragged Catalan separatist protesters off highways on Friday as Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez began a cabinet meeting in the regional capital Barcelona in an attempt at reconciliation.

Dozens of protesters, some wearing high-visibility vests, sat on the AP 7 highway, which runs down the Mediterranean coast, hands held in the air as police in riot gear pulled them from the road. Some roads were blocked with tyres.

One man was arrested in central Barcelona carrying materials that could be used to build an explosive device, the regional Mossos police force said on Twitter. Around 40 roads were affected by the protests, local media said.

More than one year after an illegal referendum on a split from Spain, the wealthy northeastern region of 7.5 million people is still bitterly divided.

Sanchez’s choice of venue was both a show of resolve against full independence and also part of a strategy to secure the survival of his minority government with the aid of Catalonian pro-independence parties by offering them some more autonomy.

Hundreds of protesters gathered outside the 14th century building on the sea front in the historic centre of Barcelona where the weekly cabinet meeting was being held.

On Thursday night, Sanchez met Catalonia’s pro-independence regional government head Quim Torra. They agreed to a deeper dialogue and to seek a political solution.

Nine separatist leaders in detention had called on Thursday for large but peaceful protests to greet Sanchez.

Last year, dozens were injured in numerous confrontations between national police and pro-independence protesters.

There were further signs of a spirit of compromise as four of the leaders ended a hunger strike, and their party said it would support Sanchez’s broad plan for the national budget in 2019 and 2020, currently blocked.

The region unilaterally declared independence in October 2017, triggering Spain’s worst political crisis in decades and prompting the previous conservative central government to seize control there for several months.

Spain’s constitution prohibits regions from breaking away.

The Socialists control fewer than a quarter of seats in the Madrid parliament and need the support of smaller parties, including Catalan nationalists, to pass legislation.

Failure to approve the 2019 budget could topple Sanchez’s government, raising the possibility of a right-of-centre government with stronger centralist preferences coming to power – a risk some Catalan politicians would prefer to avoid.

During last year’s independence vote in Catalonia, Spanish police attempted to shut down impromptu voting stations, provoking international outcry with the use of batons and rubber bullets in melees that injured dozens.