Protesters in Barcelona have taken to the streets to protect Catalonia's right to vote in an independence referendum scheduled for Sunday. Thousands of students and citizens are marching through Barcelona’s main avenues, plazas and the University of Barcelona, shouting “we will vote” and holding giant Catalan flags into the air.
Hundreds of Catalan firefighters marched through the streets in full gear carrying massive banners that read “I Love Democracy” with an image of a ballot box. Arriving at Catalonia’s History Museum, several firefighters climbed to the roof of the building and draped their banners over its facade. One fire squad member at the rally said that Catalan “firefighters defend peace and democracy.”
Catalan Premier Carles Puigdemont originally announced the vote Sept. 6. Since then, the Spanish central government has taken several measures against Catalan authorities and citizens in an attempt to halt the independence vote, increasing political tensions between the region and Madrid.
This month alone the Spanish government threatened to arrest 700 Catalan mayors, closed down government websites, arrested 14 high-level Catalan government officials and citizens organizing the vote. They also arrested two separatist organization leaders for sedition and deployed massive police forces to patrol the streets of Barcelona.
These measures drove Barcelona Mayor Ada Colau to send a letter today to 27 European Union mayors, asking them to step forward to create a European Commission to open a space for dialogue between the Spanish government and the Catalan regional government, saying peaceful negotiations were the only way out of political tensions. She noted that the central government’s actions are “unprecedented in Spanish democracy” and are being employed to prevent Catalan citizens voting this Sunday.
She implored her peers to take action, saying “Europe cannot wash its hands of this threat to fundamental rights and freedoms, whose safeguarding and defense ... constitute the European project’s main raison d’être.”
Speaking at news conference this morning in Brussels, Catalonia’s Director of Foreign Affairs Raul Romeva said EU authorities need to “understand that this is a big issue," adding that the Spanish government is committing a "brutal crackdown" on officials to prevent the referendum.
"Civil rights are being violated ... and the quality of democracy in Spain is being eroded," he added.
He reiterated Colau’s “call on the EU institutions ... to stand for the values and principles (of the EU treaty)."
Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy ordered approximately 5,000 National Guard and National Police members to patrol the region last week and to confiscate nine million blank ballot papers meant for the vote.
On Tuesday, he ordered the Catalan regional police force to do the same, and confiscate any materials related to the vote. All police members are being told to close any schools and planned polling stations over the weekend to prevent the vote, along with prohibiting voting boxes within 100 meters of where Catalan official plan to have a polling station.