The production was as dramatic as any other the National Theatre in Barcelona has seen. There, on July 4th, the president of Catalonia’s government, Carles Puigdemont, announced plans to hold a unilateral referendum on independence from Spain on October 1st. The draft law he unveiled says that, whatever the turnout, if those voting in favour outnumber those against, within 48 hours the Catalan parliament will declare independence. To Mr Puigdemont’s supporters, this is a national epic. To Mariano Rajoy, Spain’s conservative prime minister, it is “authoritarian delirium”. He is determined that it should not take place. Mr Puigdemont’s push follows five years of secessionist agitation in Catalonia, one of Spain’s richest regions, whose 7.5m people make up 16% of its population.
Separatism was fuelled partly by the Constitutional Tribunal’s rejection of parts of a new statute that would have granted the region more autonomy. But the main drivers were nationalist politicians in Barcelona who blamed euro-crisis austerity on Madrid. In a regional election in 2015, parties campaigning for independence won, but only just: the ruling coalition got 48% of the vote but 53% of the seats in the parliament.
Mr Puigdemont invokes “the legitimate right to self-determination of a thousand-year-old nation”. National and international law is against him. Spain’s constitution of 1978—approved by over 90% of Catalan voters in a referendum—granted the regions great autonomy. But it affirmed “the indissoluble unity of the Spanish nation”. Only the Spanish parliament can change the constitution. Catalonia’s own autonomy statute, which Mr Puigdemont’s law would replace, can only be amended by a two-thirds majority of its parliament. And the Council of Europe, which Mr Puigdemont consulted, said in June that any referendum must be carried out “in full compliance with the constitution”.