Madrid is launching a legal appeal in a bid to thwart the latest attempt by Spain's richest region to hold a referendum on independence.
Two days after Catalan President Artur Mas approved a referendum on independence on 9 November, Spain's ruling PP government is to lodge a legal appeal against it, which will result in the referendum being suspended. At that point, after years of rumbling conflict between Madrid and Spain's richest region, the two sides' political gloves will be off.
What could be one of the shortest-lived pieces of legislation in Spanish history was solemnly signed off by Mr Mas at the weekend. The ceremony took place against a backdrop almost groaning under the weight of Catalan-flavoured symbolism, starting with the location for the signing, a stone-lined hall in Barcelona where the former nation's government met in medieval times.
And to drive home the ceremony's legitimacy, a portrait of Catalonia's patron saint, San Jordi, overlooked the signing; the pen Mr Mas used was made, naturally enough, by a Catalan company, Inoxcrom. Living up to their reputation for financial thoroughness, the referendum legislation designed by the Catalans and signed by Mr Mas reveals, right down to the last cent, its precise cost of €8,987,699.17.
But the wording elsewhere is said to be much vaguer, designed to create as many legal labyrinths as possible, and allowing more chances of outmanoeuvring appeals. Those with the right to vote, for example, are somewhat bizarrely described as having the "political condition of being Catalans".
After a few technical wobbles, an enormous stopwatch in the centre of Barcelona in the emblematic Plaza de Jaume, close to a gigantic voting urn, has now started the countdown in minutes, hours and days to the referendum. But Spain's government in Madrid, on the other hand, is adamant that Catalonia's clock will be stopped well before then. "The referendum will not take place because it is illegal," Spain's Deputy Prime Minister, Soraya Saenz de Santamaria, announced hours after the signing. The Prime Minister, Mariano Rajoy, speaking informally to journalists on an official visit to China, from which he returned yesterday, was uncharacteristically blunt: "He [Mr Mas] has landed himself in this mess."
An emergency cabinet meeting, headed by Mr Rajoy, is due today in Madrid, after which the Constitutional Court appeal will be immediately lodged and the referendum suspended, probably tomorrow.
The question of whether the referendum will go ahead regardless - and what alternatives there are - will dominate Spain's political agenda this autumn. The tension is heightened considerably by the uncertainty of what action the Catalans will take once the referendum hits today's legal roadblock.
(© Independent News Service)