Analysis: a look at the events behind the unprecedented situation around this weekend's referendum in Catalonia about independence from Spain 

What’s the background to the current situation?

Last June, the Catalan First Minister, Carles Puigdemont, fixed October 1 as the date for a referendum on independence from Spain. This put the Catalan government on a collision course with the conservative Spanish government led by Mariano Rajoy. The latter’s attitude to this direct challenge was to dismiss it, confident that he had the law on his side and this referendum would never materialise. But October 1 is fast approaching and the situation is heating up day by day.

Who actually has the law on their side?

The Spanish government is brandishing the constitution in order to stop the Catalan government from going ahead with the referendum. This constitution, approved in 1978, marked the beginning of the democratic period in modern Spain after Franco’s death and granted the historic regions – the Basque Country, Catalonia and Galicia - the right to draft statutes of autonomy in recognition of their specific particularities regarding history, language and culture. However, the constitution has a caveat: the unity of Spain can never be compromised and the army is the guarantor of this status quo.

The start of Catalan autonomy

The Catalan statute of autonomy approved in 1979 soon fell short of Catalan nationalist aspirations. By 2000s, the Catalan First Minister, Artur Mas, had his mind set on reforming it to allow for further devolution of powers, especially on fiscal issues. He found the socialist prime minister in power in Spain at the time, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, open to the idea. The new statute was finally approved in the Catalan parliament in 2006, but it had to get over the hurdle of approval by the parliament in Madrid. Madrid approved a version of the statute in which certain curtailments had been introduced. To add insult to injury, from the Catalan nationalist standpoint, the People’s Party (PP) took the statute to the Constitutional Court, which in 2010 ruled that 14 articles in the text were unconstitutional.

The financial crisis

Around the same time, the full force of the economic crisis hit Spain and by 2012, Catalan public accounts carried a large deficit and the central government in Madrid had to come to the rescue. This financial humiliation for the richest region in Spain by GDP revived the belief that the funding arrangement in place with Madrid was depriving Catalonia of a legitimate income went to subsidise less wealthy regions in Spain.

The Catalan National Assembly

By then, Catalan aspirations to decide the nature of their relationship with Spain had been taking shape. In 2012, the different civic movements working on the ground were catalysed into a single association called the Catalan National Assembly (ANC). The ANC displayed its full force when it organised the largest-ever gathering of people on Catalonia’s national day, the Diada, in 2012.  Around one and a half million people filled the streets of Barcelona in a festive mood, sporting esteladas (separatist Catalan flags) and demanding independence.

With Scotland planning its own independence referendum for September 2014, the Catalan government decided to test the waters and chose November 9 as the date for a referendum. The Spanish Constitutional Court speedily declared it in breach of the constitution, and on this occasion the government – in the hands of the Conservative party CiU - decided to turn it into an informal consultation. Two million of the six million Catalans on the electoral register voted, with 80 percent in favour of independence.

The run-up to the 2017 referendum

Since then, Catalonia has been riding a political rollercoaster. A 2015 regional election was interpreted as a plebiscite on the issue of independence. 48 percent of the votes went to pro-independence parties, and a further 22 percent voted for parties in favour of holding a referendum on the matter. On the other hand, the electoral results made it quite difficult for the winning coalition of nationalist parties of different political persuasions to rule. In the end, the radical leftwing separatist party CUP would only lend their support to the coalition if the previous First Minister, Artur Mas, was not re-elected. They finally accepted the current First Minister, Carles Puigdemont.

Inevitably the new Catalan executive was spurred on by its more radical coalition partner ERC and kingmaker CUP into fast-tracking a proper referendum. By the end of 2015, the Catalan government announced its "disconexion" from Spain and started to work on a road map towards independence if the future referendum produced a yes vote. 

Attempts to establish some form of dialogue with Madrid have always been thwarted by a recalcitrant Rajoy and his mantra "there is nothing to talk about". Mainstream Spanish media have been running articles on the disasters that would befall Catalonia if it became an independent republic: expulsion from the EU, an unviable economy, international companies going somewhere else and, as if it could get any worse, FC Barcelona being unable to play in La Liga.  

Trying to halt the referendum

A series of measures have been taken by the Spanish institutions. The High Court of Catalonia, the highest level of the judiciary at regional level, has ordered the police to confiscate paper ballots and referendum leaflets and close internet accounts promoting the referendum. Some members of the current Catalan government have been arrested and charged over their roles in organising the coming referendum. The Catalan police, Mossos d’Esquadra, are now under the direct control of the Interior Minister in Madrid. A week ago, the Spanish Finance Minister took control of the Catalan accounts.

In response to these measures, thousands of Catalans of all ages covered in esteladas have been protesting peacefully on the streets and in the universities for their right to vote. Meanwhile, Puigdemont is accusing Madrid of imposing a state of emergency in Catalonia.

What now?

Undoubtedly, what the Catalan government is doing is illegal. Within the current legal framework Catalans will never be able to go to the polls to decide on independence, though laws and constitutions can be changed.

The Spanish prime minister is holding tight to a constitution that cannot resolve this impasse without alienating a large section of the Catalan population for generations to come. Judging by the latest developments, Rajoy seems adamant on dealing with this political problem by deploying extra police officers and the Guardia Civil (a police force with military status) to the region. He could even decide to trigger article 155 of the constitution which would allow Madrid to suspend autonomy in Catalonia. 

Rajoy’s actions are also likely to yield good electoral results for his party in Spain, where fighting "the enemy within" has always proven a very effective political strategy.

But whatever you may think of the political showdown between Rajoy and Puigdemont, what is at stake in Spain now is the right of historic nationalities to decide democratically on their future. The fact is nobody currently knows what will happen because we are in uncharted territory. The referendum may not take place, but on October 2, Catalans will continue to demand the right to decide.