Catalonia sets independence referendum date, Spain seeks to press criminal charges

The Catalan parliament has greenlit a referendum on the region's secession from Spain, to be held on October 1. It followed a fierce, hours-long debate on Wednesday. Madrid denounced the move, threatening to bring criminal charges against the region’s authorities.

 
© Albert Gea

The so-called “transition bill,” designed to serve as the constitution of a sovereign Catalan state during the transition period, was championed by the pro-independence ruling coalition that submitted the motion late August. The legislation envisions the legal framework that will pave the way for a constituent assembly, tasked with laying groundwork for a brand-new Catalan Republic.

The idea, however, did not find favor with many of the local deputies, who were staunch opponents of the legislation during a gruelling 11-hour session preceding its eventual approval by 72 MPs loyal to the region's separatist government, as 52 opposition deputies of the 135-member legislature left the room in defiance.

Predictably, the outcome of the vote did not sit well with the federal Spanish government. Madrid has vowed to employ all legal means at their disposal to stop the plebiscite from going ahead, and to punish lawmakers for neglecting earlier court rulings proscribing such legislation.

READ MORE: Catalonia sets date for landmark vote on independence from Spain

 
People react at an impromptu memorial a day after a van crashed into pedestrians at Las Ramblas in Barcelona, Spain August 18, 2017 © Susana Vera

Spain’s deputy prime minister, Soraya Saenz de Santamaria, announced that the government is contesting the newly adopted legislation in the country’s constitutional court, arguing for it to be declared null and void.

“What is happening in the Catalan parliament is embarrassing, it’s shameful,” de Santamaria told journalists on Wednesday, reacting to the vote, as cited by Reuters.

On Thursday, Spain’s state Prosecutor-General Jose Manuel Maza announced his office will pursue criminal charges against members of the Catalan government and the parliament for passing the law. Maza noted the charges will be presented shortly to the Catalan High Court of Justice.

Maza told reporters he had requested the security forces to investigate any move to prepare or hold the referendum.

After reading out prepared notes, the prosecutor-general said they will “continue to act with firmness, proportionality, celerity and full subjection to legality to guarantee our constitutional framework,” according to La Vanguardia.

While the vote was a success for the Catalan elite, recent polls indicate that support for the independence cause among the local public is wearing thin.

According to a June poll, prepared by The Center for Opinion Studies, only 41.1 percent of Catalans favor independence from Spain, a decrease of over 3 percentage points compared with an earlier poll conducted in March. At the same time, the number of those who do not want to part ways with Spain reached 49.4 percent, slightly higher than in March.

Separatist sentiment in Catalonia traditionally runs high, and from time to time becomes the driving force behind massive pro-independence rallies attended by tens of thousands of people. In 2014, the region staged an informal vote on independence, during which some 80 percent voted to split from Spain. However, the vote had a poor turnout: only about a third of the region’s voters came to the polls.

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Madrid Woos Catalonia with Constitutional Reform Debate

The question of division of responsibilities comes at a particularly critical moment as the Catalan elections approach at the end of September.

Spain’s constitution could be given an overhaul as the ruling People’s Party debate whether to redefine the responsibilities of the state.

Speaking to Europa Press, Justice Minister Rafael Catala said that he was in favor of resetting the state’s and autonomous communities delimitations, contrary to the wishes of President Mariano Rajoy, who has wanted to avoid the reform in his administration.

The move comes at a critical moment, as Catalans prepare to vote in an independence referendum Sept. 27, leading Catalan commentators to conclude that the possibility of constitutional change and redivision of responsibilties is an attempt to pacify the separatists.

“That reform could be an open door to attract Catalonia to a constitutional consensus, after the 27-S elections,” wrote Carmen del Riego in Catalan newpaper La Vanguardia.

Another focus of the constitutional change, according to Catala, is the urgent need to improve the sexist system of succession in the monarchy, and the impunity that the royal family enjoys.

“The autonomous state could be defined better,” the minister said. “What could be defined better are the limitations of the state and those of the autonomous communities.”

“We could take advantage of 37 years of experience to see how the mechanisms of coordination and cooperation are reinforced. I think it is possible,” he added.

The PP has, until now, rejected any constitutional reform.

Catalonia, home to 7.5 million people and accounts for a fifth of Spain's output, has fought for hundreds of years for independence. At the beginning of the week, Catalan President Artur Mas signed a decree calling for a plebiscite over the cessation for Sept. 27, which if successful, could see the north-eastern region separating from Madrid within 18 months.

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Spanish Court Suspends Catalonia Referendum

“The Constitution is based on the indissoluble unity of the Spanish nation,” said Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy on Monday of the Catalan region's call for an independence. “Any attempt to dissolve it is radically contrary to the Constitution.”
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