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THE EURO ZONE

Show us the money

Who exactly paid for the independence referendum held in Catalonia on October 1st last year? This was the question raised by Spain's budget minister Cristóbal Montoro in an interview with the Spanish daily El Mundo on Monday. The Popular Party politician - whose 2018 spending plan has yet to be approved - has made two puzzling and almost-contradictory claims about how last October's independence referendum in Catalonia was funded.

Montoro told El Mundo that he didn't know where the money to finance the Catalan independence referendum had come from. The Spanish government has had direct control of Catalonia since last October's divisive plebiscite - plenty of time, surely, to pore over the region's books and establish how Catalan separatists got their hands on €1.6 million. That's the amount of public money that the Spanish courts maintain was unlawfully squandered on October 2017's independence referendum, although some sources said this week that the actual amount spent on the referendum is closer to €1.9 million.

In his apparently revelatory interview with El Mundo, Montoro went on to assert that he did know that the Catalan independence referendum was not funded with public money (thus implying that he at least has an inkling about how it was financed). This came as a surprise, not least because Catalonia's former president Carles Puigdemont and fifteen other Catalan politicians are charged with misappropriating public funds in last October's vote. The judge handling the Catalonia affair, Pablo Llarena, has instructed Montoro to provide concrete proof of his assertion that Spanish taxpayers' money was not used in the referendum.

Llarena is right to ask the budget minister to back up his claim, but the burden of proof doesn't only rest with Montoro. The Spanish Supreme Court said that his statements “contradicted evidence sources” it has collected during its investigation into last October's independence vote - sources that prove, we're to assume, that public money was used to finance the referendum. Well, what are these sources? The Catalan politicians who are currently in exile abroad or in Spanish prisons are, as yet, only charged with the misuse of public funds. They have yet to be proven guilty - although pro-independence Catalan politicians, it seems, are guilty until proven innocent.

The politically-charged nature of Spain's treatment of these activists has already reduced their chances of a fair trial. Yet as Germany's Justice Minister Katarina Barley has said, it is the responsibility of Spanish courts to prove that Puigdemont and his followers are guilty of misusing public funds, a crime that carries a prison sentence of up to eight years in Spain. Doing so, said Katarina, “won't be easy” and if they fail, Puigdemont will be a “free man in a free country” - i.e. Germany. In the meantime, it's up to Llarena and Montoro to show us the money.