Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 June 2019

Catalans opposing referendum fear dangerous path ahead

Spanish attorney general recommends charges of rebellion, sedition and misuse of public funds against sacked Catalan president

A man holds Spanish and European Union flags and a board reading: "Victory" outside the Palau de la Generalitat in Barcelona, Spain on October 30, 2017. Francisco Seco / AP Photo
A man holds Spanish and European Union flags and a board reading: "Victory" outside the Palau de la Generalitat in Barcelona, Spain on October 30, 2017. Francisco Seco / AP Photo

Wearing a grey University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill sweatshirt, beaming a broad grin and holding up his fingers to count, Javier Masso posed for the camera as he voted in four separate polling stations during the Catalan referendum on October 1.

The pictures posted on social media made the business consultant an overnight star to Catalonia’s silent majority — those who opposed independence and fear the referendum has set the Spanish region on a very dangerous path.

“When my friend did this, he said something for all of us who live in Barcelona but do not support the separatists,” said Alejandro Bricanto, a real estate agent who watched police motorcycles as they tore along the Gran Via de les Corts Catalanes on Monday.

“I wouldn’t vote because we all knew the outcome was already a certainty and I was afraid of the result. But Javier Masso made a stand and exposed the referendum as a fraud.”

After Spain’s constitutional court cancelled the referendum with its ruling that the regional assembly did not have the power to authorise an independence vote, a clash with Madrid was certain. Events have moved fast since 90 per cent voted to break away from Spain on a claimed turnout of 43 per cent.

José Manuel Maza, the Spanish attorney general, on Monday recommended charges of rebellion, sedition and misuse of public funds against Carles Puigdemont, the Catalan president, who oversaw the referendum. If the supreme court issues a warrant, Mr Puigdemont and his senior colleagues may face 30 years in jail.

”[They] created an institutional crisis that culminated with the declaration of unilateral independence, with total disregard for our constitution,” Mr Maza said.

The announcement came days after Madrid invoked Article 155 of the Spanish constitution to take direct control of the Catalonian administration and triggered new regional elections on December 21.

Central officials took over the powers of 150 ministers and top civil servants and the regional police chief was sacked.

The first working day after the order was issued last Friday saw a mostly orderly transfer of powers. Mr Puigdemont did not follow through on a vow to turn up at the government headquarters in central Barcelona. He also did not appear at a meeting of the executive of his Catalan European Democratic Party.

After the criminal charges were announced in Madrid, Spanish officials said the deposed leader had fled the country. A statement said he was in Belgium along with an unspecified number of "members of the dismissed Catalan government”.

Could Mr Puigdemont set up a rival government outside his homeland? Theo Francken, the Belgian secretary of state for immigration and asylum, said on Sunday Catalan politicians facing prison could be given shelter. He questioned the possibility of a fair trial in Spanish courts.

Spain’s determined defence of state unity has strong and unanimous international support. The EU has said it will not deal with a separate Catalan entity.

Meanwhile, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, spoke on the phone with King Felipe on Monday to affirm “categorical support” for the unity of the Kingdom of Spain and for the Spanish government's constitutional measures.

A statement said the alarming developments since the unilateral declaration of independence underlined the necessity of talks under the constitution to ensure the country's integrity and sovereignty.

Events have proceeded so rapidly, Barcelona residents are bewildered over how much they took for granted has changed.

A native of neighbouring Zaragoza, one hour east of Barcelona on the motorway, Mr Bricanto has begun to doubt his future in the capital of a province that generates a quarter of Spain’s wealth.

“I have lived here for eight years, first in university and then to develop my career. This situation has caused a lot of upset and a lot of mistrust. Other parts of Spain are developing hatred for Catalonia and there is total uncertainty for business," he said.

“I myself don’t know what to do. Three to six months ago I began to feel uncertainty for myself and my future. If confrontation increases I don’t know if I will end up staying or not.”

The bad blood between Spain’s national government and the local nationalists, who took power in January 2016 after winning a regional election, has alienated many ordinary citizens. Middle class Catalans are not traditionally passionate believers in independence. Instead a widespread disillusionment with Spain's heavy indebtedness, high youth unemployment and slow growth has morphed into support for separation.

For those who stop short of support for independence, greater autonomy through the establishment of a federal system would allow Catalans to keep more of their own money.

The refusal of the Spanish government led by the conservative prime minister Mariano Rajoy to start talks on Catalan demands is viewed resentfully as the starting point of the crisis.

“I was never a supporter of independence until the central government and Rajoy refused to talk to us about independence. This showed a lack of respect and was stupid,” said Joan Llopart, an engineer who was having his shoes shined on the corner of a sunlit square. “If there had been a proper referendum, it would have been 65 per cent 'Yes' to stay in Spain.

“But when we ask for change they say no. Democracy is all a big lie.”

Veterans of the independence struggle are also unsure where the crisis goes from here. At the police barricades outside the Generalitat government headquarters on St James Plaza, Jordi Miravet, a prominent economist, analyses what he sees as latest betrayal of Catalan’s quest for statehood.

The great powers ignored Catalan claims in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, not least by rejecting its petition for United Nations recognition in the 1940s when Generalissimo Francisco Franco’s Fascist dictatorship was admitted for membership.

“We have a long tradition of the fight for independence. We fought not just [dictator Francisco] Franco but many versions of dictatorship from Spain. This is could be a long struggle to resist but we will be as determined as the Russians facing Napoleon and Hitler.”

In a short video message from his hometown Girona at the weekend, Mr Puigdemont called for a new kind of democratic resistance to sustain Catalonia’s declaration of independence. Mr Miravet believes the resistance that emerges will be a moral determination not to give up the fight.

“The Catalans are peaceful, always. Our links with Europe are by the sea. We are a Mediterranean nation and we want neighbourly ties with the Spanish, the Europeans and the Africans. All the people of the world.

“We think the European people are with us but the governments are not. We know we are the future that Europe wants. It will be difficult but we will not change our mind. There will be no violence.”

The independence camp faces the danger that relative moderates like Mr Puigdemont are eclipsed in the weeks ahead by hardline factions.

Should the elections next month go against the independence block, Madrid can hand back to local control within weeks. Despite the dissolution of the assembly, it announced that Carme Forcadell would continue in her role as its president. That would allow her to convene a new session after the elections are held on December 21.

The latest polling shows voters preference for independence at 30.5 per cent, exactly the same figure as support for status quo, autonomy within Spain. The Centre d'Estudis d’Opinió poll showed a smaller number 21.7 per cent favoured a federal Spanish system.

Updated: October 30, 2017 10:45 PM