Artur Mas, the Catalan president, will on Saturday sign a decree calling an independence referendum in the Spanish region, in a move that sets the government in Barcelona on a risky collision course with Madrid.
The decree will be issued on the basis of a new referendum law that was passed by an overwhelming majority in the Catalan parliament last Friday. It is expected to trigger an immediate legal challenge from Spain’s central government, which argues that a plebiscite on secession is not allowed under the Spanish constitution.
If it goes ahead, the Catalan plebiscite would take place on November 9, less than two months after a landmark referendum in Scotland that saw 55 per cent of voters reject independence.
After the Scottish vote, in an unmistakable allusion to Catalonia, Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy congratulated the Scots on voting to stay in the UK and observed that the referendum campaign had been conducted “with scrupulous respect for the law of the country”.
The move by Mr Mas marks the latest escalation in a long-simmering conflict between Madrid and one of Spain’s most prosperous regions. Polls show that a large majority of Catalans are in favour of holding a referendum on the region’s political future, though surveys differ on how many want a break with Spain.
The referendum scheduled for November 9 would be non-binding, unlike the plebiscite in Scotland. But Catalan leaders regard the planned vote as a crucial springboard towards independence all the same – arguing that it would help force Madrid into negotiations about a peaceful separation.
So far, however, the Catalan plan to hold an independence vote has run into opposition not just from Mr Rajoy’s government but also from the opposition Socialists. Senior ministers in Madrid have warned repeatedly that any step by the Catalan government towards holding the referendum will meet firm resistance.
Soraya Sáenz de Santamaría, the deputy prime minister, reiterated those warnings on Thursday. “When [the decree] is published, the machinery of the state will be set in motion to defend democracy, Spaniards and the rules of the game,” she said, adding that Madrid would act with “agility and speed”.
The Spanish government has already made clear that it will ask the constitutional court to suspend, and eventually strike down, Mr Mas’s referendum decree. Lawyers and analysts expect the Madrid-based tribunal to rule against the Catalan bid, leaving Mr Mas and the broader independence movement facing a difficult decision. Hardline supporters of secession want the Catalan leader to go ahead with the plebiscite regardless of any court ruling, but several officials close to Mr Mas favour calling an early regional election instead.