Catalans Make Case for Statehood With Response to Barcelona

(Bloomberg) -- For separatist politicians in Catalonia, acting like an independent state may be a lot easier than becoming one.

The authorities in Barcelona grabbed the limelight as the semi-autonomous Spanish region responded to last week’s terror attacks. Setting the stage for breaking away from Spain will be more difficult with support for independence on the wane thanks to an economic recovery and Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy adamant a referendum planned for Oct. 1 won’t happen.

It was regional government and police officials who updated the world on the hunt for the terrorists while Spanish security services complained they had been excluded from the investigation. The Barcelona and Catalan administrations -- not the central government in Madrid -- called an anti-terror demonstration that’s due to take place in the city Saturday.

Rajoy “basically left all the space for the Catalan government so they could widely flag the idea that they are a self-sufficient state,” said Veronica Fumanal, a former communications adviser to politicians including Socialist leader Pedro Sanchez and Albert Rivera, the head of Ciudadanos, the largest political party in Catalonia favoring union with Spain.

Emerging Strongly

At stake is the future of Spain’s biggest regional economy and its place in a nation that’s emerging strongly from a banking and housing crisis that drove unemployment in Catalonia to more than 24 percent.

Back in 2013 when the economy was shrinking for a third straight year, 49 percent of Catalans said they thought the region should break from Spain. Now, less than 35 percent favor independence, the lowest level in five years, the regional government’s polling agency said last month.

As far as the central government is concerned, Catalonia already enjoys the highest level of autonomy among regional administrations in Europe and possibly the world, according to an official for the prime minister’s office. She said that the Catalan government and police had acted correctly and within the framework of the law following the Barcelona attacks, along with the loyal cooperation of the other security forces.

The region’s president sees things differently, citing the Spanish government’s opposition to Catalan independence as having contributed to a decision to block the hiring of new Catalan police officers and restrict access to Europol information.

“We asked them not to play politics with security,” Carles Puigdemont told the Financial Times in an interview published on Friday. “Unfortunately, the Spanish government had other priorities.”

Catalans Make Case for Statehood With Response to Barcelona

The terror attacks put Catalonia in the international spotlight as the region reeled from the violence in Barcelona and the coastal town of Cambrils that left a total of 15 dead and more than 100 injured from at least 35 countries. After a five-day manhunt, Catalan police killed the terrorist who drove a van into crowds in Barcelona’s Las Ramblas district.

Joaquim Form, Catalonia’s interior affairs chief, and Josep Lluis Trapero, the top-ranking police officer in the regional force known as Mossos d’Esquadra, briefed the world’s press at a series of news conferences with no central government officials present to take questions or provide facts. Almost 24 hours passed before Rajoy held a press conference with Puigdemont-- who went on to hold his own briefing later.

“The fact that we acted like a state is evident,” Forn said on Catalan television channel Beteve Tuesday.

Yet Spanish security personnel complained that the Catalan government’s efforts to show that its police force can operate independently may have compromised the investigation.

National police forces were wilfully excluded from the probe, the largest National Police and Civil Guard associations said in a joint statement Tuesday. Bomb experts from the Civil Guard weren’t allowed to examine a house that had blown up before the attack and was later found to have been used by the terror cell to prime explosives.

Single Aim

“The single aim was to transmit an image overseas of a ‘self-sufficient’ Catalan state,” the police associations said in an statement.

Speaking in a joint televised press conference with Barcelona Mayor Ada Colau, the Spanish government’s representative in Catalonia, Enric Millo, declined to comment on the specific allegations made by the Spanish police associations, other than to say that co-ordination between the regional police and the Spanish police and security institutions functioned correctly at technical and political level.

Rajoy’s willingness to stay in the background may have been due to his wish to avoid confrontation at a sensitive moment, said Narciso Michavila, the chairman of polling company GAD3, which does consultancy work for Rajoy’s People’s Party.

The prime minister’s response was “in general terms fine,” Michavila said by phone. He added that the attacks may have the effect of serving as a reality check for Catalan voters that make them less willing to be swayed by political slogans.