Antoni Castellà grew up near Barcelona’s Modelo prison in the 1970s and says he can still remember hearing the cries of Catalan nationalists held as political prisoners by the regime of Francisco Franco, the dictator who suppressed Catalan language, autonomy and culture.

For Mr Castellà, now a member of the Catalonian regional parliament for the Demòcrates party, the independence referendum on Sunday is a chance for the Catalan people to finally break free from the Spanish state after decades of what he sees as mistreatment going back to the 18th century.

On Sunday, thanks in part to the likes of Mr Castellà, Catalans are set to be asked if they want to be independent. If more than 50 per cent of voters say Yes, the parliament says it will declare independence within 48 hours — regardless of the turnout.

“A lot of people had died over the years defending Catalonia . . . This referendum is for them as well as for our future,” says Mr Castellà.

But there is an obstacle that still needs to be overcome: the entire Spanish state.

The Spanish courts and the central government say the referendum is illegal. The 1978 constitution says Spain is indivisible. As a result the organisers of the vote, which include much of the elected Catalan government, are breaking the law. Already more than a dozen officials have been arrested.

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This clash between rebels such as Mr Castellà and Madrid has brought about the greatest political and constitutional crisis in Spain since an attempted military coup in 1981. There is a chance that Catalonia will unilaterally declare independence and start attempting to collect its own taxes — in effect, attempting to form a rebel nation.

The vote is also an unprecedented challenge to the centre-right government of Mariano Rajoy. The prime minister has staked his reputation on stopping the referendum and needs to demonstrate to the rest of Spain that the Catalans cannot flout the rule of law. But, at the same time, he has to avoid a heavy hand that might inflame pro-independence sentiment.

The issue is also being watched closely across Europe and in the corridors of the EU. A Yes vote could encourage other separatist groups such as those in Scotland or Flanders.

Catalonia has been part of the Spanish state for centuries, yet many Catalans regard themselves as a separate nation. They have often campaigned for — and sometimes won — more autonomy over issues such as schooling.

But support for full independence has for decades been a fringe view, with about 15-20 per cent of popular backing. This was until Spain’s harsh financial crisis, when anger at elites became directed at Madrid. Support for independence reached a peak of 49 per cent in 2013, according to the Catalan Centre for Opinion Studies.

Barcelona's fans wave 'Esteladas' (pro-independence Catalan flags) before the UEFA Champions League Group D football match FC Barcelona vs Juventus at the Camp Nou stadium in Barcelona on September 12, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / Josep LAGO (Photo credit should read JOSEP LAGO/AFP/Getty Images)
Barcelona fans wave the Estelada, the pro-independence flag, before the Champions League game against Juventus at the Nou Camp this month © AFP

Backing for independence has since fallen to 41 per cent, but support was large enough for Catalonia in 2015 to elect a coalition government made of pro-separatist parties, which promised independence. A month ago it passed a law to hold a binding referendum, putting it on a collision course with Madrid.

Around Barcelona’s busy commercial port, preparations are already taking place. The Catalan government has been ramping up staff at its new refurbished tax authority, which it hopes will start collecting taxes once sent to Madrid.

But floating in the port are two commercial cruise-liners — the Rhapsody and the Moby Dada — leased by the Spanish state to house some of the extra 3,000 to 5,000 police officers being sent to Barcelona to block the vote.

The central government has already tried to assert itself. Armed police, working on court orders, stormed a series of Catalan government offices last week in early morning raids, and made more than a dozen arrests. The courts have imposed fines and seized millions of ballot papers while the state has increased control on Catalan finances.

But despite Madrid having the law on its side as well as the resources of the entire state, stopping voting will not be easy. Two-thirds of Catalonia’s 948 mayors have said they will provide support for the vote, along with the majority of Catalan lawmakers and hundreds of civil servants.

That puts Spain in a bind, because the central government cannot arrest everybody — or as least that is what separatists are betting.

“I am not afraid [of being arrested],” says Carles Escolà, the 39-year-old mayor of Cerdanyola del Vallès, just outside Barcelona. “We have the strength of numbers behind us.”

In this Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2017 photo, Catalan Mossos d'Esquadra officers, left, try to stop demonstrators shouting slogans against Guardia Civil officers during a protest in Barcelona, Spain. As Catalonia's separatists hurtle toward a conflict of unprecedented proportions with Spain over a referendum on secession, almost unbearable pressure is mounting on the very men and women who swore to uphold the law in the northeastern region. (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)
A member of the Catalan Mossos d'Esquadra police tries to stop demonstrations against Madrid last week © AP

Similarly, the organisers are hoping that the police will not be able to close voting booths. Neus Lloveras, a pro-independence mayor of the town of Vilanova i la Geltrú, says the wish of millions to do something as simple as vote cannot be prevented: “Will the police on the day really turn against the people?”

She adds: “It is no longer important what Madrid says, because we are working with Catalan law here.”

The Spanish state said that it was going to directly co-ordinate all police operations in Catalonia amid fears the local Mossos d’Esquadra police force were too sympathetic towards independence. However, the proposal was rejected over the weekend by the Catalan government. The Mossos are a semi-autonomous local police force, although much of their funding comes from Madrid.

While police have seized vast quantities of election material, the Catalan government says it has contingency plans in place. Catalan activists are also trying to mobilise people power. About 40,000 people took to the streets of Barcelona last week to protest against the raids.

“We will never back down,” Ana Garcia, a 21-year-old protester wearing a Catalan flag, told the FT last week.

Both sides, in short, say they have the force to impose their will on the other. Both also have unstable minority governments, which means neither can afford to lose this round.

Catalan president Carles Puigdemont told the FT late last month that he was willing to go to jail if it meant holding a vote. Mr Rajoy, meanwhile, has staked his reputation on enforcing the rule of law. He says a referendum is “impossible” and has threatened greater “evils” for those helping with the vote.

Spain’s opposition Socialist party and the conservative Ciudadanos party has so far broadly supported Mr Rajoy on the Catalan question, saying separatists must abandon their plans for a referendum on independence and respect Spanish law. They believe that there are few votes to be won in the rest of Spain by siding with the pro-independence Catalans on this issue.

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“Neither side is going to back down,” says Oriol Bartomeus, political scientist at Autonomous University Barcelona. “The next step could be clashes on the streets, the detention of the Catalonia government . . . Catalonia might well explode.”

The battle in Catalonia on Sunday will initially be fought over numbers. Madrid is looking to prevent as much voting as possible and the post-election debate will probably focus on the number of ballots cast, the rate of abstentions and the level of Yes votes.

But whatever the result, the Spanish government will declare the vote illegal and illegitimate. If there is a majority Yes vote, the Catalan government will almost certainly declare victory. The bigger question, according to analysts, is about how much violence there is around Sunday’s vote and what comes next.

Investors are pricing the risk of an immediate move to Catalan independence at nearly zero. The referendum is illegal under Spanish law, and Brussels and other European capitals have made clear that only a legal split with Spain would be recognised. Some pro-independence Catalonians acknowledge that independence — at least in the short term — is not likely.

But many hardliners see a longer game, hoping that harsh tactics by Spanish police on Sunday will boost the separatist cause, making them seem like the victims of an overbearing Madrid government that wants to stomp on their democratic right to choose.

“Many in the independence movement want to see the government detain them, to help bolster the cause,” says Mr Bartomeus.

BARCELONA, SPAIN - JULY 1: Picture dated July 1936 showing Republicans of leftist parties demonstrating in the streets of Barcelona against Franco's attempt to overthrow the Spanish Republic. (Photo credit should read STF/AFP/Getty Images)
Republicans on the streets of Barcelona demonstrate against Franco's attempt to overthrow the Spanish Republic in 1936 © AFP

The second question is what happens next. If Mr Puigdemont does declare independence following the vote, Mr Rajoy will have two choices. He could behave as the Italian government did in 1996 when Umberto Bossi declared the independence of Padania in northern Italy — and simply ignore it.

But most analysts say this will not be politically feasible in the current climate in Madrid, which means Mr Rajoy could feel obliged to use one of the several so-called nuclear options available to the Spanish government, including triggering article 155 of the 1978 constitution to suspend Catalan autonomy, or arresting senior government figures.

If he does nothing, he risks looking weak. But if he goes ahead, analysts say, he risks permanently scarring relations between Catalonia and Spain and adding to support for the separatists, potentially even pushing long-term support over the 50 per cent mark.

“Rajoy is in a nearly impossible position,” says Lluis Orriols, professor of political science at Carlos III university in Madrid. “He has to uphold the rule of law, but this risks further inflaming separatists’ feelings in Catalonia and adding to problems in the long term.”

BARCELONA, SPAIN - SEPTEMBER 24: Spanish Police vans are parked next to a ferry ship, rented by the Spanish Interior Ministry to house National Police and Civil Guard police officers, at Barcelona port on September 24, 2017 in Barcelona, Spain. Spain's government announced yesterday measures to exert more control over the Catalan Autonomous Police, Mossos d'Esquadra. More than 4,000 members of the Spanis National Police and Civil Guard are being deployed in Catalonia, accomodated on three ferry boats moored at Barcelona and Tarragona ports. The Catalan goverment is keeping on its plan to hold a referendum, due to take place on Octorber 1, which has been deemed illegal by the Spanish government in Madrid. (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)
Moored in Barcelona: a ship rented by Madrid's Interior Ministry to house police and civil guards ahead of Catalonia's referendum © Getty

There is one path forward to heal relations between Catalonia and Spain, say analysts. This is a “third way” of talks about a new deal that could give the region more power and autonomy.

In 2006 a grand accord — the Estatut — was agreed by both parliaments to grant new powers to Catalonia, only to be struck down in 2010 by Spain’s constitutional court. In 2012, the Catalan president asked for talks with Madrid about greater financial autonomy, only to be denied.

But Luis de Guindos, Spain’s finance minister, held out an olive branch to Catalonia in an FT interview last week, saying that once independence plans are completely “dropped”, then “we could talk about a reform of the funding system and other issues”.

He said the government was today more open to the demands made in 2012 over financing. Spain’s other political parties have also since called for dialogue with Catalonia once demands for full independence are dropped.

Such talks would require a different political atmosphere in Barcelona, however, and probably a new Catalonian government.

“If Rajoy arrests senior politicians or uses article 155, this will be a big shock and it is hard to see the moderates getting back into power in Catalonia,” says Pablo Simón, professor of political science at Carlos III university. “Today the prospect of talks between Barcelona and Madrid looks very distant.”

This article was updated on September 27 to reflect that the Catalonian government was elected in 2015

View from the EU: Brussels voices rule of law fears over ‘tricky affair’

The rising tensions over Catalonia have caused growing anxiety in the EU at a time when sensitivities are already high over the strength of the rule of law in member states.

The row over the Spanish region’s referendum on Sunday differs in a fundamental respect from concerns about growing autocracy in Poland and Hungary— in this case, Brussels has offered support to Madrid’s stance that it is upholding the rules.

But the Catalan case raises the stakes for the EU because it is becoming edgier and is happening in a core member state. Developments such as last week’s Spanish national police raids in Catalonia have also made people jumpy in Brussels about what one official describes as a “very tricky” affair.

The EU has said it does not pick sides on the question of Catalonian independence. But officials have consistently echoed Madrid’s line that any referendum or other political process must be consistent with the Spanish constitution.

But people across the political spectrum in Brussels have also begun including the Catalan case in wider discussions about efforts to uphold the rule of law in the union. Many conservatives are backing the Spanish state against what they portray as a unilateralist independence movement that could embolden similarly minded secessionists elsewhere.

Manfred Weber, chair of the right-leaning European People’s party group in the European Parliament, which also includes the Popular party of Mariano Rajoy, Spain’s prime minister, told the Financial Times this week that Spanish laws and court judgments must be respected.

But, asked about his view of last week’s arrests of Catalan officials, Mr Weber took a more cautious line that chimes with wider worries in the EU over the direction of events. “It’s a difficult situation,” he said. “It’s not easy to decide from outside what is correct and what is not correct.” Michael Peel

Letter in response to this article:

By not taking sides, EU sends self-determinists the wrong message / From Randhir Singh Bains, Gants Hill, Essex, UK

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