New Catalan leader asks to meet Spain PM as 'xenophobia' row grows

Berlin (Spain) (AFP) –


Catalonia's freshly-appointed separatist leader Quim Torra on Tuesday asked Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy for a meeting as he prepares to form a new government and keep fighting to break from Spain.

His request from Berlin, where he was visiting deposed Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont, came as controversy grew over his appointment with critics accusing him of "xenophobia" for past tweets and articles deemed offensive to the Spanish.

"My first aim of this new Catalan government is to offer dialogue to the Spanish government," he told reporters.

Prime Minister "Rajoy please you fix a time and place," he said, standing next to Puigdemont, who is battling extradition to Spain and has named Torra as his successor.

Torra, a 55-year-old editor who has long campaigned for independence, was appointed Catalan president on Monday after scraping through a regional parliamentary vote.

But a series of tweets and articles by Torra over past years have overshadowed his appointment, with independent, anti-racism group SOS Racisme Catalunya slamming them on Tuesday.

"We reject the discourse that Mr Torra has used repeatedly," the group said.

"A dangerous, irresponsible and unacceptable discourse, based in prejudices," a statement said, adding it would remain vigilant to denounce any potential "racist stances".

- 'Out of here' -

In a series of articles published online, Torra said it wasn't "natural" to speak Spanish in Catalonia. He also described Spain as "a country that exports misery" and branded those who do not defend the Catalan language and culture "scavengers, vipers and hyenas."

A since-deleted tweet he posted in 2012 also said: "The Spanish are coming to monitor us, out of here once and for all!".

Torra has also said a new armed uprising was necessary, just like the one Francesc Macia, Catalan president from 1931 to 1933, planned in 1926 against the military dictatorship of Miguel Primo de Rivera.

"He defends xenophobia," Ines Arrimadas, the leader in Catalonia of the centre-right, anti-independence Ciudadanos party, said Monday.

Foreign Minister Alfonso Dastis added Tuesday he was concerned over a "discriminatory form of nationalism" in Catalonia, according to a statement by a forum in which he took part in the southern city of Sevilla.

The allegations could harm the Catalan separatist movement which has always strived to differentiate itself from radical, xenophobic nationalisms that have arisen elsewhere in Europe.

It is estimated that more than 60 percent of the region's 7.5 million inhabitants originate from other parts of Spain.

Torra has repeatedly apologised for his past comments, which he said were taken out of context.

In an interview on Catalan radio on Tuesday, he said he "liked" the Spanish.

"I like being with them," he said, adding that in the independent republic he wanted, Spanish and Catalan would both be official languages.

"I'm sorry that in some moments of major excitement, there were these excesses."

- Jailed, exiled ministers back? -

In that same interview, he said he would ask regional ministers jailed or exiled after a failed secession bid last October if they want to return to their posts in his government.

"We will definitely propose it to them... and if they accept, they will be regional ministers," he said.

Torra will now form a regional government ending months of political limbo as other candidates proposed by the separatist camp after it won regional elections in December fell by the wayside.

This in turn should automatically lift the state of emergency direct rule imposed on semi-autonomous Catalonia by Prime Minister Rajoy, who deposed Puigdemont and his cabinet after a failed declaration of independence on October 27.

But restoring sacked regional ministers could throw a spanner in the works in a region deeply divided on independence.

"If this option was put on the table, we would have to look into it and determine if it is in line with the law and justifies lifting" direct rule, Spain's central government representative in Catalonia, Enric Millo, warned on Catalan television.