Spanish police have discovered a mass of documents directly related to a banned Catalan independence referendum scheduled for 1 October.
Early on Tuesday, the Guardia Civil arrived at offices of Spain’s biggest private delivery company, Unipost, in the Catalan city of Terrassa.
Catalan police officers scuffled with pro-secession protesters trying to block the street outside.
Catalan leaders are defying a court order to halt the vote.
They are trying to organise the referendum, despite a series of attempts by the national government to prevent it going ahead.
The Madrid government has been backed up by Spain’s Constitutional Court, which suspended the referendum law passed by the Catalan parliament.
Some 7.5 million people live in Spain’s well-off north-eastern region. Although opinion polls have been rare, one survey commissioned by the Catalan government in July suggested that 41% of voters backed independence while 49% were opposed.
Stacks of boxes of envelopes found
One of the most important aims for the national authorities is to stop voting cards being sent out in the first place.
As the police raid continued throughout the day in Terrassa, to the north-west of Barcelona, little was said about what had been seized. But it eventually became clear that they had succeeded in finding some of the most significant election material to date.
Among the documents were stacks of boxes containing hundreds of envelopes with the Catalan government’s logo. The envelopes were suspected of containing voting cards.
In earlier raids, only posters and other promotional election literature had been found.
A local judge in Terrassa authorised police to seize the envelopes and open one to assess whether a company official may have been involved in “misappropriating public money” for the 1 October vote.
Up to 200 local people gathered outside the Unipost offices, placing flowers on police vehicles. For more than two hours they stopped a local judiciary official from entering the building. Catalan police eventually intervened to let the official through.
As the standoff went on, the mayors of three small Catalan towns appeared in court on suspicion of helping the vote take place.
Spanish prosecutors have opened an investigation into more than 700 local mayors who have backed the referendum. If voting does go ahead, it will take place in Catalonia’s schools and municipal buildings.
The Spanish government has also moved to take control of the region’s finances, in an attempt to stop public money being spent on the vote.
A deadline for the Catalan leadership to abandon the vote has run out, with Spain preparing to take over funding of most public services, including the payment of workers’ salaries.
However, the vice-president of the Catalan government, Oriol Junqueras, went to the Supreme Court on Tuesday to appeal against the decision. Accusing the national government of irresponsible behaviour, he said he was confident the appeal would in effect suspend Madrid’s move.
The Catalan administration had all the resources it needed to meet its obligations, he said.
Control of Catalonia’s finances
“It is a total irresponsibility. They are leading us to an administrative collapse,” Catalonia’s vice president Oriol Junqueras said Monday, adding the measure was “unprecedented”.
Spain’s conservative government announced Friday it would take over the payment of essential services and public workers’ salaries in Catalonia to prevent it from spending money on the referendum slated for October 1st.
Catalonia’s pro-separatist government challenged the measure in Spain’s Supreme Court but a court spokeswoman told AFP it was “in force” and would not be suspended while judges rule on its legality.
“It is a de facto suspension of Catalonia’s financial autonomy,” said Alain Cuenca, an expert on the regional financing at the University of Zaragoza who opposes Catalan independence.
Spain’s regions pay taxes to the central government and are then given a quota to spend on health care, education and public infrastructure.
Catalonia, which is roughly the size of Belgium and home to around 7.5 million people, receives about €1.5 billion ($1.8 billion) a month from Madrid to cover essential services.
“This means that from now on (Catalan leaders) no longer have their money,” said a spokeswoman for Spain’s budget ministry.
They won’t have the right to carry out any “extra expense” beyond those already foreseen, she added.
“Does this mean they have less autonomy? Of course! But the seriousness of the measure goes hand in hand with the seriousness of the events,” said Francisco de la Torre, a lawmaker with the centrist Ciudadanos party, an ally of Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s conservative government.
Madrid announced the measure after the Catalan government said it would no longer comply with a request made in July that it provide weekly accounts of its spending to ensure no money was being used to stage the contested referendum.
Junqueras said the freezing of the accounts is a disguised way of taking away Catalonia’s autonomy, a measure which could in principle only take place after a debate and a vote in the Senate, Spain’s upper house of parliament.
“This implies not being able to devote one euro to spending in sectors such as industry, commerce, agriculture, livestock, culture, research, sports, youth, social affairs, housing” which are considered to be non essential, he said.
For Madrid, paying the salaries of the roughly 170,000 employees of the Catalan regional government will not be an easy task.
Spain’s central government will needed their complete details such as bank account info or the number of sick leave days they have in order to calculate the amount they are due.
Turn off tap
Junqueras avoided answering if his government would provide this information, saying only at a news conference on Tuesday that “we will act with our usual normality”.
If it does not, Spain’s central government will “turn off the tap” of financing for the region since this means the Catalan government “is not cooperating, that they don’t want the salaries of public workers to be paid by Madrid, the budget ministry spokeswoman said.
Joan Escanilla, president of the Catalan branch of Spain’s CSIF civil servants union, said the risk that salaries will be paid late was a “real worry”.
“Think of all that people who have to pay their mortgages, the problems they could have with their banks,” he said.
The Catalan government downplays the risk.
“We have all the resources to face our obligations,” said Junqueras.
About a quarter of Catalonia’s revenues comes directly from certain taxes which it collects itself as well as from university tuition fees.
The Catalan government probably “still has a bit of margin” to pay salaries during the month of September, said Cuenca.
To prevent it from using this money, Madrid has asked banks to control all movements in the accounts and credit cards managed by Catalan leaders.