Spanish government raises the tone against Catalonia

Madrid (AFP) –


As anger rises over Catalonia's continued push to secede from Spain, the Socialist government in Madrid has dropped its conciliatory tone towards separatist leaders, threatening to take control of security in the region.

In a letter dated Monday, Interior Minister Fernando Grande-Marlaska warned Catalan authorities that if the regional Mossos d'Esquadra police force didn't carry out their "duties", state security forces would take over.

The letter, unveiled by Spanish media on Tuesday, comes after the radical Committees for the Defence of the Republic (CDRs) cut off the highway that links the Mediterranean coast to France during 15 hours on Saturday without the Mossos intervening.

Then on Sunday, the separatist activists forcefully raised the barriers of the highway's toll booths, letting cars through for free, again without any regional police intervention.

- Mossos tensions -

Catalonia along with the Basque Country and Navarra is one of three semi-autonomous regions in Spain that have their own police.

In the other regions, Spain's national police and Civil Guard force maintain law and order.

But in the wealthy, northeastern region of Catalonia, the Mossos are caught between a rock and a hard place in the independence movement.

Their former leaders will be tried for their alleged role in a failed secession bid in October 2017.

The police force was accused of not intervening to prevent a banned independence referendum on October 1, leading to accusations the Mossos chiefs at the time were sympathetic to the separatist cause.

Then last week, Mossos agents charged against CDR activists who were trying to stop a far-right protest.

That led the region's pro-independence president Quim Torra to call for the heads of current Mossos leaders, siding with the activists and causing more controversy.

But the region's interior minister Miquel Buch decided against this in a bid to ease tensions within the police force.

By threatening to take control of security in Catalonia, Madrid also wants to ensure a cabinet meeting planned for December 21 in Barcelona will go ahead smoothly, as radical activists promise to disrupt the Mediterranean city with protests.

- Counter far-right -

On the national political scene, Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez is trying to get back on top of things as his right-wing opponents accuse him of being a hostage of the Catalans.

The national parliament in Madrid includes several separatist Catalan lawmakers who helped Sanchez take power in June in a no-confidence vote against then conservative prime minister Mariano Rajoy.

However, earlier this month, the government's perceived lax attitude towards separatism contributed to the Socialists losing 14 seats in an election in the southern region of Andalusia.

Far-right party Vox and centre-right party Ciudadanos, which have both adopted a hardline against Catalan separatism, scored well in Andalusia.

Calls for Sanchez to be firm towards Catalan pro-independence leaders were further reinforced after Torra on Saturday urged Catalans to follow the example of Slovenia.

The Balkan country unilaterally declared independence from Yugoslavia in 1991, triggering a 10-day armed conflict with the Yugoslav army in which 62 people were killed.

"The results in Andalusia reinforced the fact that Spanish voters are veering to the right," said politics professor Oriol Bartomeus.

He added this "and the radicalisation of the situation in Catalonia are creating a scenario in which Sanchez has to make a gesture to show that the government won't allow a downward radical slide in Catalonia."

But it's a tough call for Sanchez.

His minority government is relying on the Catalan lawmakers to pass his 2019 budget in January.

If they do not support it by either voting against or abstaining, his very executive could fall before general elections believed to be planned for the fall of 2019.

And Catalonia will again be in the headlines next week after Spain's Supreme Court on Tuesday scheduled a preliminary hearing for December 18 in the trial of 18 former Catalan leaders over last year's failed secession bid. The sensitive trial is expected to start in early 2019.

"Obviously if the situation in Catalonia gets tense, it won't be possible to maintain the electoral calendar," said Bartomeus.

"Immediate elections will be called."