Spotlight on Catalonia's independence vote as Spain grapples with terrorist attacks

Some commentators claim the spirit of unity fostered by the Barcelona and Cambrils attacks increase the prospects of a No vote

A man on his bike looks at a woman with Catalonian pro-independence flags on August 12, 2017 in the northen Spanish Basque city of Donostia (San Sebastian) during a demonstration in support of Catalonia and its planned referendum on independence from Madrid to be held on October 1.
The demonstration was symbolic, in a region still marked by decades of violence waged by armed separatist group ETA, and where the desire for independence remains strong despite the current peaceful times. / AFP PHOTO / GARI GARAIALDE
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Opinion in Spain is sharply divided on whether the terrorist attacks in Barcelona and the resort of Cambrils, which killed 15, harms or benefits the campaign for independence for the Spanish region of Catalonia.

Supporters of a break with the Spanish state are urging a Yes vote in the October 1 referendum, angrily opposed by Madrid.

The most recent poll, conducted by Catalan authorities before last Thursday’s atrocity — in which pedestrians were mowed down by a hired van on Barcelona’s busy central street, Las Ramblas — suggested 49 per cent of Catalans are currently opposed to secession and 41 per cent are in favour. But an overwhelming majority believe the referendum should go ahead.

In a powerful demonstration of national solidarity after the Barcelona attack, Spain’s monarch King Felipe and prime minister Mariano Rajoy appeared with regional leaders, including Carles Puigdemont, head of the regional administration, at a rally in the city’s main square, Placa de Catalunya on Friday.

Mr Puigdemont had enraged Madrid by announcing in June that the referendum would be held with voters asked a single question: “Do you want Catalonia to be an independent country in the form of a republic?”

Pro-independence campaigners say the prosperous region, which has a population of more than seven million and accounts for a fifth of Spain’s gross domestic product, has a political and economic right to sovereignty.

The government, supported by Spain’s constitutional court, rejects the validity of the referendum and will apply legal and administrative pressure in an attempt to prevent it.

Some commentators claim the spirit of unity fostered by the Barcelona and Cambrils attacks increase the prospects of a No vote, assuming the referendum goes ahead.

An editorial in the leading Spanish newspaper El Pais said the challenge now was to ensure an "effective and co-ordinated response by the government of the nation".

“Unfortunately, the brutal terrorist attack suffered by Barcelona coincides with a time of maximum political confusion in Catalonia,” it said. “An attack of this magnitude has to be a blow that restores reality to the Catalan political forces that … have made the secessionist chimera the sole activity of the political agenda in recent years.”

The newspaper said it was time to end “the democratic nonsense, flagrant violation of laws, games of deception, tactics and political opportunism”.

While the view is clearly shared by many in Spain, and — if the polls are accurate — nearly half the Catalan voters, those demanding independence are undeterred.

The region has a long history of tempestuous relations with the Spanish state.

It was among the last bastions of republican support to fall to General Francisco Franco’s nationalist forces in the Spanish civil war of 1936-39. It outlawed the revered national sport of bullfighting in 2010 and has recently been the focus of protests against the massive tourist industry seen as imposing intolerable pressure on local resources while insufficiently benefiting ordinary people.

Supporters of the regional authorities say the response of the emergency services to the Las Ramblas attack was exemplary. They also accuse the state of endangering Catalan security by denying local police access to European police intelligence-sharing, though Madrid has promised to remedy this.

"I think the attacks will have very little negative effect," a member of the 80,000-strong independence movement, the Catalan National Assembly (ANC), told The National. "They might even increase the support for independence. People have seen the high efficacy, rapidity and professionalism of our regional police [Mossos] in dealing with the the evacuation, the chase and the taking down of terrorists, road controls, keeping population informed at all times."

The 35-year-old finance sector employee, who wanted to remain anonymous, added: “Central government has been undermining the work of the Catalan parliament and government and security is not an exception.”

He cited the withholding of information to Catalan police and government action to block the hiring of 500 extra officers.

A sovereign Catalan government would give priority to police reinforcements rather than diverting resources to military spending, he said. “Most Catalans think that the need is not for an army with tanks, warships and fighters but a well-trained and equipped police, coordinating with all security forces of the world.”

A pro-independence Catalan writer, Berat Dedeu, likened the way emergency services and public authorities responded to the Barcelona attack to “a rehearsal for independence”.

He said the public had been fed the line that Mossos was a “shoddy police force” and Barcelona a city incapable of dealing with a terrorist attack.

Writing in the digital El Nacional newspaper, Dedeu accused the Spanish media of fuelling the feeling that Barcelona had lost its capacity to welcome foreigners and lacked a cosmopolitan spirit.

”All of them have had to swallow not only how the city has reacted to terror with an unprecedented maturity and solidarity unheard of on the planet, but that the people from Barcelona have applauded their own police and their emergency services, conscious of having a public service of first division quality.”

In theory, Madrid could suspend the regional government and order police to intervene to stop the referendum.

But observers say such steps are less likely than a series of legal challenges, though the government has warned that regional funding will be cut if public money is used to finance the vote.