Spain found itself on the verge of a full-blown sovereign crisis on Saturday, after the "rebel region" of Catalonia rejected giving more control to the central government in defiance of authorities in Madrid who are trying to suppress an independence referendum on Oct. 1.
As tensions rise ahead of the planned Catalan referendum on October 1, and as Madrid's crackdown on separatist passions took a turn for the bizarre overnight when as we reported Spain’s plan to send boatloads of military police to Catalonia to halt the referendum backfired with dockers in two ports staging a boycott and refused access, on Saturday Spain's Public Prosecutor's Office told Catalan Police chief Josep Lluis Trapero that his officers must now obey orders from a senior state-appointed police coordinator, Spanish news agency EFE reported on Saturday.
The Catalan Police, however, disagreed and as Bloomberg reports, the SAP union - the largest trade group for the 17,000-member Catalan Police, known as Mossos d'Esquadra - said it would resist hours after prosecutors Saturday ordered that it accept central-government coordination. The rejection echoed comments by Catalan separatist authorities.
“We don’t accept this interference of the state, jumping over all existing coordination mechanisms,” the region’s Interior Department chief Joaquim Forn said in brief televised comments. “The Mossos won’t renounce exercising their functions in loyalty to the Catalan people.”
The Mossos are one of the symbols of Catalonia’s autonomy and for many Catalans the prosecutor’s decision may be reminiscent of the 1936-39 Spanish Civil War and subsequent dictatorship of Francisco Franco, when the Mossos were abolished.
In a joint press conference today with the Catalan home affairs minister Joaquim Forn and the Mossos chief Josep Lluís Trapero, Forn said that the move by Spain was "unacceptable".
“We denounce the Spanish government’s will of seizing the Mossos, as they did with Catalonia's finances" Forn said adding that that "the Catalan government does not accept this interference, it bypasses all the institutions that the current legal framework already has in place to guarantee the security of Catalonia." Additionally, Trapero expressed his intention to not accept the measure, which he described as "interference by the state", and also warned that "it skips over all the bodies of the legal framework to coordinate the security of Catalonia".
Earlier on Saturday, El Pais reported that Civil Guard Colonel Diego Perez de los Cobos, chief of staff of the Interior Ministry’s security department, was named by a prosecutor to coordinate the efforts of the Civil Guard, the National Police and the local Mossos. Spanish media reported unnamed Home Office sources as saying the measure did not mean withdrawing any powers from the Mossos formally, but rather requiring them to submit to a joint coordination operation to stop the Catalan referendum taking place on October 1.
However, shortly after the reshuffling, Catalan police chief Josep Lluis Trapero rejected giving up control to the central government during a meeting with the heads of the other police forces on Saturday, adding that all possible legal challenges would be studied. According to La Vanguardia Trapero "protested at that meeting about the decision to impose central government control" on the regional police force.
Also on Saturday morning, as the police meeting in Barcelona took place, the regional interior minister, Forn, published a defiant message on Twitter: "We will encounter many difficulties. The state wants to take control of our self-government, but they will not stop us! #HelloRepublic".
Ironically, as Bloomberg writes, while Mossos chief Trapero reports to the regional government, his force’s funding is mostly provided by Madrid and it’s supposed to take orders from judges and prosecutors from across the country. Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution lets the central government take control of a regional administration if it poses a threat to the national interest. Rajoy has already made moves in that direction.
Earlier this week, the budget ministry took over management of Catalan’s finances and will issue paychecks to more than 200,000 public workers in the region, including the police.
That said, any more direct challenge to the Mossos would be fraught with risk because Trapero, its leader, has become something of a local hero since leading the response to the terrorist attacks in August. Separatists are selling T-shirts with his face printed on them.
According to Reuters, the Catalan government also believes that the Mossos takeover bypasses the Catalan statute - article 164 - and constitutional law and the Spanish prosecutor that ruled in favour of Madrid taking control had overstepped his legal boundaries, saying that it had no power to rule on who had the authority to issue orders to Mossos.
The prosecutor had ordered that the Catalan police, the Spanish National Police and Spain's Guardia Civil be managed from the Ministry of Home Affairs in Madrid. The decision, according to the prosecution, aims at "reinforcing the operation to prevent crime and to keep public order" a week before the October 1 independence referendum.
The decision was announced during a meeting between the prosecutor and the chiefs of the three police forces.
The disobedience will fuel further speculation the Mossos will not work with the national Civil Guard in Spain’s largest regional economy. The standoff came a day after Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s government acknowledged it’s sending more reinforcements to help control street demonstrations and carry out a separate court order to halt the vote.
Additionally, the latest move by Madrid will also increase the tension between the two sides which increasingly looks like it could descend into a direct confrontation as neither side appears to be willing to back down.
Catalan President Carles Puigdemont speaking a pro-independence rally
Carles Puigdemont, Catalonia’s president, called the independence vote in an attempt to push the secession movement forward after decades of political and legal fights over the region’s traditions and language. Since Rajoy took office in 2011, he’s had persistent clashes with separatists seeking to foment a backlash against Madrid. Catalonia is home to about 7.5 million people, or 16 percent of the population, but accounts for a fifth of the economy, on a par with Portugal and Finland.
Several pro-independence groups have called for widespread protests on Sunday in central Barcelona. “Let’s respond to the state with an unstoppable wave of democracy,” a Whatsapp message which was used to organize the demonstration read.
The Catalonian government opened a new website on Saturday with details of how and where to vote on Oct. 1, challenging several court rulings that had blocked previous sites and declared the referendum unconstitutional.
“You can’t stem the tide,” Catalonia’s president Carles Puigdemont said on Twitter in giving the link to the new website.
But Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy insisted again that the vote should not go ahead. “It will not happen because this would mean liquidating the law,” he said at the PP event in Palma de Mallorca. Acting on court orders, the Spanish state police has already raided the regional government offices, arrested temporarily several senior Catalan officials accused of organizing the referendum and seized ballot papers, ballot boxes, voting lists and electoral material and literature. The finance ministry in Madrid has also taken control of regional finances to make sure public money is not being spent to pay for the logistics the vote or to campaign.
How this escalating clash between Madrid and Catalonia is resolved over the coming week will define the fate of Spain for years to come.