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September 21, 2017

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A watesrshed moment for the Catalan crisis

For over a year now we have been insisting that our readers should keep the Catalan separatist challenge to Spain on their radar as one likely source of political instability in Europe. We have also warned that things must come to a head by September, as at least one of the key players would have to stage a big climb-down if a major clash was to be avoided. Yesterday turned out to be just that watershed moment in the Catalan crisis. 

The Guardia Civil confiscated nearly ten million ballot papers, and additional supporting material such as voter lists and tally forms, for the illegal referendum scheduled for October 1st. This was a day after intercepting voter cards and notices for voters to man the polling stations. Without voter rolls or ballots, the referendum - organised in defiance of a Spanish constitutional court injunction - is now almost certain not to take place. But it hardly matters any more, because the situation has progressed to the next stage. The reason is that the police operation also involved the arrest yesterday morning of up to sixteen Catalan government officials, in connection with the investigation into the organisation of the referendum. The risk now is that the conflict will move to the streets. The development to watch out for over the next ten days or so - and especially after the week-end - is whether protests will escalate and how the Spanish security forces will control them. A glimpse of the scale of protests that took place yesterday, not only in Catalonia but across Spain, can be had at hashtag #CatalunyaNoEstasSola.

The arrests, involving mostly members of the Republican left of Catalonia ERC, the junior partner in the Catalan regional government, derailed yesterday's government control session in the Spanish parliament. The ERC national MPs left the session after a heated exchange with Mariano Rajoy over the arrests of their fellow party members. Then the senior partner in the Catalan government, the liberal party PDECat, and the Catalan sister party of Podemos, En Comú Podem, followed suit. Both had similarly heated exchanges with finance minister Cristóbal Montoro before also leaving the session. Reportedly, PP MPs jeered the departing Catalan MPs with "Don't come back!" 

The Catalan MPs will be back today, however, because the plenary session will debate the conclusions of a committee of inquiry on the alleged use of police resources by the previous interior minister Jorge Fernández Dïaz against political opponents - Podemos and the Catalan separatists. Nevertheless, at least the PDECat has suggested that they might permanently empty their seats in the Spanish parliament. Though no decision has been taken, the mere suggestion indicates the level of the breakdown of political dialogue.

The message from the Spanish government, both in yesterday's control session and in a rare institutional message from PM Rajoy later in the evening, is that all that has been going on in Catalonia for the past two weeks is the police and the courts enforcing the law and defending the rule of law from the violations of the Catalan regional government. The focus on judicial process and law enforcement allows the Spanish government to deny the existence of an underlying political problem which will still be there after October 1st, whether an independence referendum takes place or not, and whether massive street protests ensue or not.

In fact, yesterday's arrests were not initiated by the state prosecutors who can be presumed to be under political control of the justice ministry. The police operation was ordered ex-officio by a judge investigating the organisation of the Catalan referendum since February, when former judge - and then ERC senator - Santi Vidal boasted that the Catalan tax office had stolen the taxpayer data for its voter database, as we reported at the time.

There is some controversy about whether the judge followed the appropriate procedures in this case, and critics are questioning his political motives. The court case under investigation is the result of a criminal complaint filed among others by the far-right party Vox, over the Catalan tax office's alleged data protection violations. Fringe parties in Spain often become plaintiffs in court cases in order to raise their public profile. The case has since expanded into an investigation of the referendum. Legal sources tell El Diario that two related cases that have since been opened at the Catalan high court should normally have led to the lower-court case being transferred to the higher court.

The judge's choice of people to arrest is also revealing: they stop at the deputy secretary of economy and finance of the Catalan government, because as a political appointee he does not enjoy immunity from prosecution. Targeting his boss, deputy Catalan PM and ERC leader Oriol Junqueras, would have forced the case to be moved to the Catalan high court. Jordi Nieva-Fenoll elaborates on these court procedure issues in a short analysis for Agenda Püblica.

Our other stories

We also have stories on how the Rutte III government has overruled Rutte II; on whether it is legitimate for Macron to rule by decree; on Germany’s warped debate about monetary policy; on the multiple dangers faced by the car industry; on the need to get serious in the Brexit negotiations; on whether a December deadline for the third Greek review is realistic; on whether the FDP would be wise to claim the job of finance minister in a CDU/CSU/FDP coalition; and on our latest blog post on the poisonous influence of the AfD on German politics.

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