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Opinion Catalonia’s referendum plan pushes Spain to the brink

Imagine the reaction if a Quebec government tabled legislation in the dark of night calling for a binding sovereignty referendum three weeks from now. If a majority of the National Assembly's members passed the bill within hours by cutting off debate. If Ottawa responded the next day by going before the Supreme Court to have the referendum law invalidated. If Quebec's leaders vowed to defy the court and hold the referendum anyway, at the risk of going to prison.

All on the eve of Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day.

Thankfully, Canadians are not likely to face this kind of political heart attack any time soon. The days of Quebec sovereigntist leaders threatening a unilateral declaration of independence were cut short by the Supreme Court of Canada's 1998 ruling on the illegality of a UDI and the conditions under which the rest of Canada would be obligated to negotiate Quebec's secession.

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The heart-attack scenario described above is now a painful political reality in Spain, however, after Catalonia's separatist government last week pressed ahead with plans for a binding Oct. 1 referendum on the region's separation. Literally overnight – the referendum bill was tabled in the early hours of last Wednesday to catch Madrid off guard – Spain was thrust into its worst constitutional crisis since its transition to democracy four decades ago.

While a previous Catalonian government tried to go down the same path in 2014, it ultimately backed down and instead held a merely symbolic independence vote. But Catalonia's current President, Carles Puigdemont, insists there will be no turning back this time. Most people seem to believe him.

Indeed, he and the Junts pel Si (Together for Yes) coalition that holds a majority of seats in the Catalonian parliament went further than any previous government last week by passing not only a binding referendum law, but by adopting legislation that lays out the terms of Catalonia's transformation into an independent republic within 48 hours of a Yes victory. Mr. Puigdemont vowed to respond to Madrid's "tsunami of lawsuits with a tsunami of democracy" by letting Catalonians choose their political future.

Whether this is a reckless act of political brinkmanship or a calculated gambit aimed at calling Madrid's bluff remains to be seen. But the timing of Mr. Puigdemont's move is hardly in doubt. Hundreds of thousands of Catalonians typically march in Barcelona each Sept. 11 to mark the anniversary of the city's fall to the Spanish crown in 1714. Turnout at the Diada march is a gauge of separatist fervour and Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy's vow last week to "do everything necessary" to stop the referendum promises to stir up a naturally defiant crowd.

Fate would have it that neither Mr. Rajoy nor Mr. Puigdemont is a moderate on the constitutional file. While the two leaders briefly stood together after last month's terrorist attacks in Barcelona and Cambrils, it was not long before they had resumed their mutual antagonism. Indeed, Mr. Rajoy's People's Party is fiercely opposed to special status for Catalonia and initiated a successful legal challenge to a 2006 constitutional deal – negotiated by the previous Socialist government – that would have recognized Catalonian nationhood and granted the region additional powers. The deal's demise helped rejuvenate Catalonia's separatist movement.

The standoff between Mr. Puigdemont and Mr. Rajoy threatens to take Spain down a dangerous path, one with unpredictable consequences. The crisis is made all the more intractable by the fact that each leader depends on a political base that rejects all compromise – Mr. Rajoy is backed by conservative Spaniards who see separatists as fanatics, Mr. Puigdemont by a coalition of Catalan-speaking voters on the right and left united in their visceral desire to throw off Madrid's yoke.

It is all coming to a head just as the country is emerging from a decade of economic pain to lead Europe in growth, much of it thanks to a booming Catalonia. The region is home to Spain's biggest economy. But a report by Dutch bank ING recently warned that the costs of a so-called Catalexit from both Spain and the European Union "could proportionally exceed that of Brexit" for Britain. Separatist leaders insist the region's exclusion from the EU would only be temporary.

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Polls show a strong majority of Catalonians want a vote on self-determination, but that the Yes side would lose it. Mr. Puigdemont is betting Madrid's hard line will put his side over the top if he gets to hold his referendum on Oct. 1. That may be why Mr. Rajoy is so determined to stop him.

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