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Spain’s Constitutional Court puts another Catalan referendum law on hold

Spanish PM tells aides to remain cool in the face of one Spain’s biggest crises since end of Franco regime

Law enforcement agencies have been instructed to seize referendum material.
Law enforcement agencies have been instructed to seize referendum material. EFE

Spain’s Constitutional Court will study an appeal by the central government against the Catalan parliament’s recently passed law preparing the region’s transition into an independent republic. The court’s decision to accept the case on Tuesday automatically puts the law on hold, although it is unclear whether Catalan authorities will heed the suspension.

In its appeal, the Spanish executive claims that the Catalan transition law is “more appropriate of an autocratic regime,” and that the unique fast-track procedure employed to ensure its passage through the regional chamber was “clearly totalitarian.”

At this point he is not thinking about what might have been done in the past

Rajoy aide

Before this, the Constitutional Court had already put a freeze on another law passed by the Catalan parliament last week paving the way for an independence referendum on October 1. Also on hold is a Catalan government decree setting out rules for a new Catalan tax agency.

In the meantime, state prosecutors in Catalonia have ordered top officials within the National Police, the Civil Guard and the regional Mossos d’Esquadra police force to seize any and all items meant to help prepare or hold the “illegal self-determination” referendum, including ballot boxes, printed material and computer equipment. The judiciary police have been instructed to stop any acts by authorities, public employees or “individuals working in connivance with the former” to organize the referendum.

The Attorney’s Office in Catalonia adds a reminder to the Mossos d’Esquadra that they, like all other law-enforcement agencies, have the obligation to follow the attorney’s orders in connection with criminal investigations. The regional police force’s previous chief, Albert Batlle, recently resigned, and his successor’s views are more favorable to secession. The new chief appointed by the Catalan authorities, Pere Soler, has made derogatory remarks about Spain on record. “I hope we secede now, because I feel sorry for all you Spaniards,” he wrote via his Twitter account on October 23, 2016.

The Catalan transition law is “more appropriate of an autocratic regime”

Legal experts have cited article 155 of the Spanish Constitution as the only ordinary way – short of declaring a state of exception – that the central government could legally take over the Mossos d’Esquadra if the latter decides to cooperate with the Catalan executive’s secessionist plans.

This article allows the state to adopt “the necessary measures” to force a regional government to obey the Constitution and national laws. It authorizes the government to “issue instructions” to “all the authorities” in the region. But article 155 has never been used since Spain returned to democracy.

Keep cool

In the midst of the escalating confrontation between Madrid and Barcelona, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy is being increasingly pressured to “bang his shoe on the table,” said sources familiar with the situation.

But so far, the Spanish leader is choosing to listen to the doves rather than the hawks. “Keep a cool head,” he has told his aides, according to accounts by ministers, Popular Party (PP) leaders and opposition politicians who spoke to EL PAÍS about the matter.

The 62-year-old conservative leader’s strategy, for now at least, is to use existing laws to stop the referendum from taking place by undermining its infrastructure and logistics. His priority is to prevent any kind of street conflict.

“He is very cool-headed,” said someone who works with Rajoy on a daily basis. “At this point he is not thinking about what might have been done in the past.”

His aides say that Rajoy knows he will go down in history in terms of how he handles one of Spain’s biggest crises since the end of the Franco dictatorship.

English version by Susana Urra.

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