BARCELONA, Spain: The president of Spain’s powerful northeastern region of Catalonia on Saturday formally called an independence referendum, the latest secession push in Europe and one of the most serious challenges to the Spanish state of recent years.
The Spanish government of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy insists the referendum, planned for Nov. 9, is illegal and won’t take place.
Catalan leader Artur Mas signed the decree to call the referendum in a solemn ceremony in the regional government headquarters in Barcelona, flanked by most of the region’s political leaders who support the vote.
“Like all the nations of the world, Catalonia has the right to decide its political future,” said Mas.
Pro-independence sentiment in the economically strong region, where the Catalan language is spoken side-by-side with Spanish, has surged in recent years, fueled by a sense that the region deserves better fiscal and political treatment from Madrid.
The announcement comes a week after Scotland voted against breaking away from Britain.
Rajoy, who was flying back from China Saturday, is expected to hold an emergency cabinet meeting within days on the issue. The Spanish government plans to challenge a recently-passed Catalan law permitting the independence referendum before the Constitutional Court, which it hopes will suspend it and halt the vote.
Spain’s constitution doesn’t allow referendums on sovereignty that don’t include all Spaniards, and experts say its Constitutional Court would rule the vote illegal.
Mas has suggested that if a referendum can’t be held he may call early elections, which could be turned into a yes or no vote on independence.
“We are open to negotiating the conditions of the referendum until the last moment,” Mas said.
While Mas called the referendum, hundreds of pro-independence supporters gathered in the square in front of the Catalan government building in the center of Barcelona, with many wearing or waving pro-independence flags and chanting “independence.” The crowd cheered when an electronic clock counting down the days until the referendum was set in motion on the side of a building overlooking the square.
“Today is a day to celebrate. We are very happy and satisfied that president Mas has called the referendum,” said Carme Forcadell, the leader of a pro-independence group that has pushed for the referendum by organizing rallies in the past three years.
Unlike the Scotland vote, a pro-secession result in a referendum in Catalonia wouldn’t result directly in secession but Mas says it would give him a political mandate to negotiate independence.
In the referendum, Mas wants to ask Catalans two questions; first, if they think Catalonia should be a state, and, if so, should it be independent.
Polls indicate most Catalans favor holding the referendum but are roughly evenly split on independence. Pro-independence fervor fades when people are asked if they favor an independent Catalonia outside the European Union, as the region has been warned would happen.
The referendum has stirred debate about whether the 1978 Spanish Constitution should be updated to accommodate Catalonia’s demands for more power while maintaining the 17-region country unified. Separatist sentiment is also very strong in the northern Basque region.