Catalonia sets date for vote on independence from Spain

Catalan president sets stage for clash with Madrid over referendum plan

Tobias Buck in Madrid

The government of Catalonia plans to hold an independence referendum in the region on October 1, setting the stage for a fierce legal and political clash with Spain.

Carles Puigdemont, the Catalan president, announced the date and proposed question for the plebiscite at a ceremony in Barcelona on Friday. “It is time for Catalans to decide their future,” Mr Puigdemont said.

Catalan voters will be asked: “Do you want Catalonia to become an independent state in the form of a republic?”

Spain’s government has long warned that the planned referendum is illegal, and has promised to ensure the vote does not go ahead. Madrid argues that the Spanish constitution leaves no room for regional secession votes, let alone for secession itself.

Asked how the government would respond to the planned referendum, a spokesman in Madrid said: “I cannot tell you what will happen [in Catalonia]. But I can tell you what will not happen. There will not be an illegal referendum that goes against the constitution.”

That position, which has been set out forcefully by Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy in recent weeks, enjoys broad support in the national parliament and Spain’s constitutional court. Madrid is expected to launch a legal challenge against any Catalan law or regulation that provides a base for the October referendum.

Most legal experts expect that challenge to be upheld by the Spanish courts — potentially forcing the Catalan government into a position of open defiance of the country’s judiciary.

The courts aside, Mr Rajoy and his government can fall back on a range of measuresto force the Catalans into compliance, including suspending the region’s self-governance and effectively ruling Catalonia from Madrid.

For at least some independence activists, a heavy-handed reaction from Madrid could translate into a political victory as well. They hope that a sharp escalation of the conflict in the months ahead will prompt greater interest — and possibly even intervention — from Spain’s European partners, which have so far shown little sympathy for the Catalan campaign.

“Much depends on the reaction from Madrid. If the response is very hard then the independence bloc will be able to expand its support and perhaps move closer to a majority,” said Oriol Bartomeus, a political scientist at the Autonomous University in Barcelona.

For those in the independence camp, the main challenge in any scenario will be to broaden their traditional base and keep supporters motivated after years of campaigning for independence, which culminated in the election of a pro-secession government in Catalonia in 2015.

“They will have a problem if they only get their supporters to take part in a referendum. That would mean around 2m people, and that is not a majority,” Mr Bartomeus added.

The latest poll by the Catalan CEO centre for opinion research found that 49 per cent of Catalans would say No to an independent state, with 44 per cent in favour.