Barcelona Stirs as Spain Warns of Separatist Tinderbox

Tensions are rising in Barcelona.

As Catalan President Artur Mas goads the Spanish courts, threatening to defy their suspension of a Nov. 9 vote on independence, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy is preparing measures to ensure he can retain control of the police in Catalonia. Politicians and civic leaders in the region who want to remain part of Spain say they have been threatened by separatists.

“There’s been a cat let out of the bag,” said James Amelang, a professor of Spanish history at the Autonomous University of Madrid. “I really think the politicians might have lost their capacity to put it back.”

Mas’s independence drive has been propelled by a surge of support on the streets, with hundreds of thousands attending peaceful rallies in Barcelona last month. As the date of the proposed vote approaches, officials in Madrid are preparing for when the force of Catalan separatism crashes into the immovable object of the Spanish constitution.

Spanish Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo warned last week that events in Catalonia could be moving too fast for the regional leader to control.

Mas “may see the political process shift away from the institutions, and particularly the regional government, and move onto the streets, which is extremely dangerous,’ Garcia-Margallo told state radio broadcaster RTVE. ‘‘When institutions lose control, we head down an unknown path.’’

Playing Chicken

Spain’s national police force put more officers on the streets of the Catalan capital this month to beef up security at government buildings, a government press officer said on Oct. 1. Europa Press reported reinforcements total about 300 policemen.

The central government has also drafted a law that would give officers from the regional police, the Mossos d’Esquadra controlled by Mas’s government, the chance to transfer to the national police force commanded by Madrid.

The draft legislation, which has still to be approved by the government, would allow officers loyal to the Spanish state to swap sides in the event of a clash.

Should Rajoy need control of police officers on the ground in Catalonia to enforce the law, he may find their loyalties are divided anyway. Some officers from the Mossos d’Esquadra have formed a group called Mossos for Independence.

‘‘It’s a game of chicken,” said Antonio Barroso, political analyst at Teneo Intelligence in London. “Mas knows that he can keep pushing the legal limits and if the central government overreacts it strengthens his rhetoric.”

Walking Tightrope

The planned vote on Nov. 9, whether an illegal referendum or a public consultation, would come less than two months after Scotland decided to remain part of the U.K. by a margin of 55 percent to 45 percent. That ballot was sanctioned by the British government and followed a two-year debate over the pros and cons of Scotland becoming an independent state.

Mas, 58, is walking a tightrope as he tries to do enough to pressure Rajoy into concessions while keeping a lid on the more radical nationalists in Barcelona.

Esquerra Republicana party leader Oriol Junqueras, Mas’s ally, says separatists should be prepared to use civil disobedience if the courts block the vote. Any protest would be peaceful “like Martin Luther King did, just the same,” Junqueras said in a Sept. 9 interview with Catalunya Radio.

Another pro-independence group called “Disobeying” planned to stop last night outside the house of Alicia Sanchez-Camacho, the leader of Rajoy’s People’s Party in Catalonia, according to the group’s website. The PP asked the regional parliament to provide protection for Sanchez-Camacho, La Vanguardia reported on Oct. 8, citing the PP leader.

Pushes, Insults

On Catalan national day on Sept. 11, Albert Rivera, the leader of the most-voted unionist party, needed a police escort after giving an interview to a local television station.

“There were some pushes, insults, even a punch,” Carlos Carrizosa, a regional lawmaker from Rivera’s Ciutadans party, told the Basque ETB television. “It shows that this process causes frustration and a schism in Catalan society.”

For Spain, the consequences are potentially far greater than they were for the U.K.

Catalonia and Scotland have roughly the same size economies, the equivalent of about $240 billion. The Spanish region makes up about 20 percent of national output while Scotland represents less than half that proportion for the U.K.

Bond Selloff

The yield on Catalan bonds maturing in February 2020 jumped 17 basis points over the past week to 2.65 percent after Mas said he plans to push ahead with the vote. The spread over Spanish debt widened by 15 points to 163 points.

In Catalonia, the argument right now is simply about the right to hold a vote. The regional government’s most recent poll showed 47 percent would back independence with 28 percent against and 25 percent either undecided or abstaining.

“This is skillfully organized around the right to vote, more than yes or no,” said Amelang, the professor in Madrid. Should Rajoy block it, he “would be showing there was a repressive state preventing the exercise of a fundamental democratic right.”

The most dramatic measure that Rajoy has available would be to suspend the regional government’s powers. That mechanism, inscribed in the 1978 constitution, has never been used and while it would strip Mas of his administrative powers, it would probably also enrage the grass-roots separatists.

“One of the big challenges in the future is how to manage this momentum in the streets,” said Barroso at Teneo Intelligence. “Pro-independence supporters have created organizations that have only one purpose. They will still be there and they have an enormous capacity to mobilize people.”

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