Fake news, threats and referendum cast shadow on Diada

Catalans mark national day as tensions rise after Spanish high court suspended October referendum on independence.

People carry a giant Estelada (Catalan separatist flag) during a torch march in Vilafranca del Penedes
Polls suggest that unionists and independent sentiments in Catalonia are running neck-and-neck [Albert Gea/Reuters]

Barcelona, Spain – Nearly two million people are expected to crowd Barcelona’s streets on Monday for Catalonia’s national day, known as the Diada, as tensions over a referendum on its independence continue.

A Spanish high court last Friday decided to suspend the October 1 vote on the province’s independence pending a decision on its constitutionality.

This year, the national day celebration bears a special name: la Diada del Si, Catalan for the National Day of Yes.

The Yes is a rallying cry in the vote for independence. The Catalan government’s ruling coalition, Junts pel Si, or Together for Yes, is a joining of parties from across the political spectrum to achieve this end.

The majority of municipalities in the northeastern region are prepared to facilitate the vote, in spite of Madrid’s threats to prosecute any mayor who goes ahead with polling.

Playing politics

Joan Maria Pique, the international press secretary for Catalan President Carles Puigdemont, told Al Jazeera that the swell in support for an independent Catalonia has been swift.

Though Pique has always been in favour of independence, he said many in the Catalan government have switched to the secessionist camp over the past few years, and the same can be said for much of the Catalan public.

Now, polls say that unionists and independent sentiments are running neck-and-neck.

Pique explained that many Catalan “don’t feel welcome in the Spanish state” after years of unfair economic relations and recent political measures against the headstrong region.

Talks regarding financial agreements stalled in 2012. Catalonia’s then-President Artur Mas aimed to create a new “fiscal pact” that would have more evenly distributed tax income between the regional and federal governments.

Catalonia’s gross product was 223bn euros in 2016, the highest in Spain, it shares a border with France, and Barcelona is home to Spain’s most financially successful port.

READ MORE: Spanish court suspends Catalonia’s independence vote

Mas told CNN in 2012 that “if you compare the money we send to Madrid every year and the money we get back from Madrid, there is a difference – a near difference of $20bn”.

Pique confirmed that fiscal relations have not improved.

Furthermore, Catalonia is still recovering from the violent attacks committed by ISIL-linked attackers between August 16 and 17 that left 14 people dead, the majority of whom were killed in downtown Barcelona.

It should have been a moment of unity.

However, Pique said the Spanish authorities “have mixed the independentist process with the attacks”.

The Catalan police were blocked from the Interpol database by the Spanish government, Pique said, which left security forces without valuable information regarding the cell that planned the attack.

“It’s the Spanish government playing politics with security,” which risked the safety of secessionists, unionists and “everyone who visits [Barcelona],” the press secretary commented.

Spanish ‘fake news’

Pique said that it is not only the Spanish government playing politics with the attacks but also pro-union media.

El Periodico, a centre-left Catalan newspaper viewed as a pro-Madrid, published a document at the end of August, originally thought to be correspondence from the US’ Central Intelligence Agency to Barcelona’s police, warning them of possible attacks on May 25.

But the document featured grammatical errors and Spanish words in place of their English equivalent. Observers, including Wikileak’s Julian Assange, called on the newspaper’s editor to resign.

“The director of the newspaper admitted that it wasn’t real, but said that it was a recreation built from bits of information they had received from unspecified sources,” Arkaitz Zubiaga, a visiting professor at Madrid’s National University of Distance education who researches the “fake news” phenomena, as well as social media data in the context of journalism, told Al Jazeera.

“The way in which this was reported with later clarifications, and the reference to unspecified sources, made it still very questionable,” Zubiaga said.

That did not stop the “fake news” from jumping the language barrier. English-language outlets wrote about the dubious document without including information as to its questionable sourcing.

Zubiaga said the purported CIA document was only a part of the Spanish campaign against the Catalan referendum, going on to cite raids of print shops suspected of producing ballots by the Spanish Civil Guard, a national military-police force.

Madrid has also made threats of sending the Civil Guard to stop voting.

READ MORE: The case against Catalan secession

The Spanish constitution says matters of sovereignty must be decided on the national level, and Article 155 of the Spanish constitution grants Madrid the power to intervene in the running of Catalonia’s regional government.

But stopping the referendum, a democratic exercise whose outcome is far from certain, may be the more damaging option for the Spanish government.

Zubiaga said, “the democratic nature of the Spanish government’s practices is being called into question”.

New state, what next?

Catalan President Puigdemont has promised to declare independence from Spain within 48 hours if voters back secession.

A new state would emerge, populated entirely by European Union citizens, though Catalonia itself would no longer be in the EU.

This would mean the wealthy region would need to renegotiate economic ties with Spain, as well re-joining the EU.

Pique, the international press secretary for the Catalan president, said it would be in Spain’s economic interest to make these agreements.

Also, it would be difficult for Spain to block Catalonia’s EU membership without first recognising Catalonia’s independence, he claimed.

Maria Mut Bosque, a lecturer of international and EU law at the International University of Catalonia, somewhat agreed.

She told Al Jazeera that it would be beneficial for both parties to “adopt a pragmatic vision” in their future relationship.

Regarding the EU’s role, Bosque said there are two paths it could take: “The EU sometimes acts as a mere intergovernmental organisation, where the vision of the member states is the only one that prevails”.

This would mean Spain would have a say in Catalonia’s ascension.

“While other times, like in the case of Kosovo, which has not been recognised by Spain and other EU members, the EU has managed to reach an agreement,” Bosque continued.

ReAD MORe: Spain to bring charges against Catalan parliamentarians

Kosovo and the EU signed the Stabilisation and Association Agreement (SAA) in 2015, establishing free trade and other agreements between the two parties.

Scholars agree that Catalonia would have to enter the queue to join the EU behind states such as Montenegro, Serbia and others.

An accord like the SAA, or similar trade, monetary and movement agreements, which Switzerland and Andorra enjoy, could serve as a stopgap measure as Catalonia negotiates with both the EU and Spain.

Regardless of external recognition or agreements, it must be borne in mind that “an entity becomes a state as soon as it meets the minimal criteria for statehood,” Bosque said.

These criteria include territory, population, governmental institutions and sovereignty.

After the October referendum, Catalonia could meet them all.

Source: Al Jazeera