Civil servants in Catalonia might not know which way to turn if the Spanish region holds an independence referendum that Madrid deems illegal.
Catalonia President Carles Puigdemont on Friday announced that he would go ahead with a vote on Oct. 1, despite Madrid’s opposition, drawing a sharp rebuke from Spain’s central government and concern from public workers.
They will be called upon to organize a referendum, which the Spanish Constitutional Court has ruled is unlawful, by carrying out such steps as opening schools to serve as polling stations or policing the 7.5-million-strong region in Spain’s northeast.
As a result, they might be forced into a delicate position — having to choose between obeying their immediate superiors and facing possible sanctions for disobeying Spanish law, or sticking by the constitution.
“Many have called us, concerned,” said Joan Escanilla, president of the Catalan branch of Spain’s CSIF civil servants union, which has close to 9,000 members in the region out of a total of 300,000 public workers. “The problem that we civil servants have is that we’re in the middle of the railway tracks and we’re going to be hit by one train or another.”
In Catalonia, like in the rest of Spain, civil servants are first and foremost under obligation to respect the Spanish constitution.
If they disobey orders by their Catalan bosses, they could face disciplinary sanctions.
However, if they obey, they will go against Spanish law and will therefore face sanctions, which might even entail losing their jobs.
Josep Miquel Milagros, an agent in Catalonia’s Mossos d’Esquadra police force, summed up the situation: “I’m pro-independence, but I’m not going to risk my salary.”
The 17,000-strong Mossos d’Esquadra force is under the control of the regional government, but is also bound to respect Spanish law.
“We could find ourselves between a rock and a hard space,” said Milagros, who is also spokesman for the USPAC police union. “As police officers, we have to obey the law, we have no other choice.”
Exactly how Catalonia is going to go against Madrid and organize a referendum deemed illegal by the courts remains unclear.
In a bid to circumvent all the legal and practical challenges in organizing such a vote, the regional government has drafted a law seeking to extract Catalonia from Spain’s legal system.
It is expected to present the bill in the next few weeks to the regional parliament, where pro-independence lawmakers have an absolute majority.
The law will in theory force all civil servants who work in Catalonia to obey the regional government come what may, further raising the stakes for public workers.
“Those who don’t obey will be sanctioned,” pro-independence lawmaker Lluis Llach said recently at a conference.
However, just like the referendum itself, the law will likely be suspended by the Constitutional Court.
On Friday, Spanish government spokesman Inigo Mendez de Vigo said Catalonia’s regional executive was not only under obligation to respect the law and protect the rights of all Catalans, but also “preserve the neutrality of all Catalan civil servants.”
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