x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 22 November 2017

Madrid seizes Catalan finances in bid to halt independence referendum

This is the first time since the death of General Franco that the central government has taken control of Catalonia’s funds

A pro-independence supporter pastes a poster calling for people to vote Yes in the planned independence referendum. AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti
A pro-independence supporter pastes a poster calling for people to vote Yes in the planned independence referendum. AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti

As the date for the ‘banned’ Catalan independence vote looms, Madrid has stepped up its efforts to block the referendum.

The Spanish government has seized control of the finances of Spain’s richest region to prevent it from using public money to fund the staging of the referendum due to take place on October 1.

This is the first time since the death of dictator General Franco in 1975 that the central government has taken action to hold the purse strings of Catalonia.

Madrid, which has branded the referendum illegal, says the move was taken because the separatist local government has refused to cancel the vote.

Spanish economy minister Luis de Guindos has warned that Catalonia’s economy could shrink as much as 30 per cent and unemployment could double if it gains independence.

The region is responsible for about a fifth of Spain’s gross domestic product and around a quarter of Spain’s exports. It’s unemployment rate is 5.3 per cent lower than national levels.

Cristóbal Montoro, the Spanish finance minister, said increased control by the central government over Catalan finances would continue as long as the “exceptional” situation continued.

Last week the government threatened legal action against anyone involved in organising the vote. The country’s chief prosecutor has said jailing the region’s top politician could not be ruled out.

Spain’s paramilitary national police force confiscated more than 1.3m pro-independence posters, flyers and pamphlets over the weekend.

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Voters will be asked “Do you want Catalonia to be an independent country in the form of a republic?” in a vote which some fear could enflame public discord to mirror the levels seen at the start of the Ukrainian revolution in 2014.

Although polls suggest the referendum result will play in the Spanish government’s favour, the majority of Catalans want the opportunity to vote on the matter.

Catalonia has experienced an upsurge in support for independence in recent years after a deep economic crisis left increasing numbers of its 7.5 million population feeling they would be better off forming a separate nation rather than sharing their taxes with Madrid and poorer regions.

This is not the first time such a vote has been attempted in the autonomous region.

Artur Mas, the former leader of Catalonia, was banned earlier this year from holding public office for two years, after being found guilty of disobeying a Spanish court when his government staged a non-binding independence vote in Catalonia in 2014. He was fined 36,500 euros (Dh161,350)

The non-binding 2014 vote saw just under 40% turn out, but of those who voted, 80% did so in favour of independence. Despite being declared illegal, Catalonia’s government has promised that the referendum will be binding.

Adding to the uncertainty of the situation, experts and politicians seem unable to judge what impact, if any, the terror attacks which struck the Catalonia capital of Barcelona and nearby Cambrils in August.

The senseless violence initially united those who are strongly pro-independence, pro-unity and everything in between. But as life began to return to normal, the tensions rose to the surface once again as politicians on either side began to squabble and point fingers of blame over security weak spots.