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 in recent years.
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 Mr. Mas.
Two hours after Mr. Mas spoke, Deputy Prime Minister Soraya Saenz de Santamaria said the Spanish government will hold an emergency cabinet meeting within days so the referendum can be challenged before Spain’s Constitutional Court.
“This referendum will not be held because it is unconstitutional,” she told reporters during a rare Saturday press conference.
Pro-independence sentiment in the economically strong region, where the Catalan language is spoken side-by-side with Spanish, has surged in recent years, fuelled by a sense that the region deserves better fiscal and political treatment from Madrid.
The announcement came a week after Scotland voted against breaking away from Britain.
Polls indicate most Catalans favour holding the referendum but are roughly evenly split on independence. Pro-independence fervour fades when people are asked if they favour an independent Catalonia outside the European Union (EU), 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.