Region on collision course with Madrid after clearing plans for October 1 referendum

The Catalan parliament has approved a law to hold a referendum to break away from Spain, setting it on a collision course with Madrid, which has vowed to stop it.

A majority of the regional parliament, which is controlled by pro-independence parties, voted in favour of the bill, which is designed to give a legal basis for a binding referendum vote on October 1.

The law puts the Catalan regional government in open defiance of the Spanish government as well as the country’s judiciary. The vote has been ruled illegal by the constitutional courts.

Soraya Saenz de Santamaria, the deputy prime minister, said on Wednesday that the bill was “embarrassing” and “shameful”, adding that the government had asked the constitutional court to declare the law void as soon as it was approved.

"We are defending the rule of law in Spain and democracy in Catalonia," she said.

The government has also threatened legal action against Catalan political figures involved in the vote. The state has the power to suspend Catalan self-governance, in effect ruling the region from Madrid. It can also take over the police force.

But Carles Puigdemont, president of the Catalan region, said this week that nothing would stop the vote. “Any attempt to prevent the referendum by judicial or political means is destined to fail because democracy is unstoppable,” he said.

Pro-independence politicians in Catalonia have warned that any attempt by Madrid to stop the vote would be met with a mass mobilisation of supporters to keep the voting booths open on the day.

“If the government tries to withdraw the ballot boxes, then obviously we will mobilise voters to prevent this,” said Marta Rovira of the pro-independent Catalan Republic Left party over the weekend.

The planned vote has put Mariano Rajoy, Spain’s prime minister, in a tough spot. Mr Rajoy needs to appear firm enough to appease those in the rest of the country exasperated by the Catalan attempt to break away while averting a full-blown crisis.

Many hardliners in Catalonia are hoping for an over-reaction from Madrid, which they think will bolster support for independence. Polls show that the majority of Catalans want a referendum but a minority want independence.

Support for independence, which peaked at 49 per cent in 2013, has fallen over the past few years as the economy has improved. A July poll found that just 41 per cent of Catalans favoured an independent state.

Under the terms of the new laws, the Catalan parliament will declare independence within 48 hours of a Yes vote. There will be no minimum turnout requirement to make the result binding.

Mr Puigdemont said this week that ballot boxes, voting papers and an electoral census were all ready. The question will read: “Do you want Catalonia to be an independent republic?”

Last month, Mr Puigdemont told the Financial Times that he was willing to go to jail to pursue the referendum. “I don’t want to go to prison . . . but there is nothing they can do to me that will make me stop this referendum.”