MADRID — A week before a highly contentious Catalonia independence referendum, the Catalan president continued to defy warnings from Spain’s national government to call off the Oct. 1 “self rule” vote.
“It will proceed because we had foreseen a contingency plan to guarantee it, but moreover it will proceed because it has the support of the immense majority of the population,” Carles Puigdemont said in an official televised statement from Catalonia’s capital city, Barcelona.
The remarks fanned the flames of the latest separatist campaign in an embattled European Union, a bloc of 28 member states with their own respective histories and often-fragile national identities. Brussels said it would not interfere with the Catalan referendum. But while most European leaders have avoided speaking out against the referendum directly, many wish to avoid a successful precedent for a breakaway region welcomed into the bloc, given the number of similar regions across Europe that might soon try to do the same. Most share the opinion of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose representatives told Reuters that Berlin has “great interest in the maintenance of stability in Spain.”
E.U. officials have sought to make clear the uncertain future that would befall any newly independent region. “If there were to be a ‘yes’ vote in favor of Catalan independence, then we will respect that opinion,” said Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, in a YouTube broadcast earlier this month. “But Catalonia will not be able to be an E.U. member state on the day after such a vote.”
That warning has been enough to discourage similar separatist campaigns in recent years, such as the Scottish referendum in September 2014, when 55.3 percent of voters ultimately opted to remain in Britain, which had not yet voted to leave the E.U.
Recent polls suggest that the same may hold true in Catalonia: A majority of the roughly 7.5 million Catalans said they want the right to vote, but less than half supported a split from Spain, according to a survey conducted by the Catalan government in July.
Those statistics have not deterred Catalan officials.
Puigdemont’s latest statement came hours after he openly defied Madrid by tweeting the link to a newly created Web page listing where the polls would be on Oct. 1. The move was the latest step in a week marked by escalating tensions between Spain’s national government and leaders from the northeastern region. The previous Web page was ordered shut down by a judge six days after launching.
A climax of the conflict came Wednesday, when Spanish Civil Guard officers raided the Catalan regional government’s offices, effectively halting preparation for the secession vote, which Spain continues to deem unconstitutional.
In images that shocked observers around the world, police confiscated election material, including 10 million ballot papers, and arrested 13 officials on a warrant from a Barcelona-based judge. Among those arrested was Josep Maria Jové, secretary general of economic affairs for Catalonia, the right hand of the region’s vice president, Oriol Junqueras.
That court-ordered search was the Spanish government’s clearest attempt at blocking the secession vote since the Catalan parliament approved a law two weeks ago to hold the referendum on Oct. 1, claiming that the region would declare independence within 48 hours if the majority were to vote yes. There will be no minimum voter turnout.
“If you care about the tranquility of most Catalans, give up this escalation of radicalism and disobedience,” Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy said Wednesday night in a 10-minute statement to news organizations that reaffirmed his commitment to protecting Spanish law.
Tens of thousands of people protested Wednesday by waving the pro-independence flag and chanting slogans in Catalan. By Thursday, smaller rallies saw them occupy Barcelona’s main thoroughfare and gather in front of the High Court of Justice in Catalonia, demanding the release of those being held.
While Catalan leaders accused Spain of a “totalitarian attitude,” Spanish authorities denounced the “attacks and pressure tactics” that the pro-independence coalition government is using to push what they called an illegal vote. Both sides call the other “undemocratic.”
Spanish prosecutors warned Catalan mayors last week that any official participating in preparations for the vote would be charged with civil disobedience, abuse of office and misuse of public funds. Some 700 mayors responded days later by meeting with Puigdemont in a public show of support.
Barcelona Mayor Ada Colau defied Madrid by committing to open polls in Spain’s second-largest city. The Catalan National Assembly, a pro-independence civic group, boasts thousands of volunteers and 6,400 ballot boxes across Catalonia to facilitate the vote.
The latest political jockeying comes after years of brinkmanship. Critics of the referendum say that the regional leaders have intentionally misled the Catalan population, harassed opponents at home and orchestrated a standoff with Madrid. Critics of the Spanish government, however, argue that Rajoy’s unwillingness to negotiate with the locally elected secessionists only fueled resentment and led to a missed chance to nip the movement in the bud.
Supporters of Spanish unity also question the credibility of a vote that flouts the law, with lopsided voter turnout and no legal oversight or census. By comparison, the Scottish referendum of 2014 took place with the British government’s full approval.
For now, the Spanish government has responded to the escalating tensions mostly with stopgap measures.
Earlier this week, Spain’s finance minister signed an order limiting new credit and requiring central authorities’ supervision for every payment of nonessential services in Catalonia to ensure that no public money is used for the referendum.
That move caused jitters among Catalan civil servants, who were concerned that salaries would not be paid at the end of September. But the Catalan government calmed fears by transferring salaries five days early.
Meanwhile, the Spanish government decided to delay calling the vote on the 2018 General Budget, which was scheduled for Friday.
Some analysts suggested that the move pointed to the government’s need to keep the door open for negotiating greater financial autonomy for Catalonia as a deterrent for the vote. In fact, in an interview with the Financial Times published Thursday, Spain’s economy minister reiterated the government’s offer to discuss giving Catalonia more money if it gives up the October referendum.
With little more than a week to go, both sides are refusing to flinch.
The Catalan government has digitized the ballot so voters can print it out and take it to the polls.
Spain’s Interior Ministry has deployed four cruise ships packed with 4,000 police to three ports in Catalonia to prevent the independence referendum, amid concerns over the divided loyalties of the regional police.
Local authorities were forced to let the ships dock because they carried a ministerial order. But Barcelona’s dockers association announced that, if asked, they would refuse to service the vessels.
But, as they also noted, the Spanish ships had not requested any such service.
McAuley reported from Paris.