For years, observers warned that the impasse in Spain over Catalonia would end in a “train crash”. Catalonia’s high-speed collision is now inevitable.
On Sunday, several million people may attempt to vote in what is billed as a “binding referendum” on independence, but which the courts have banned.
For the narrow majority of Catalans who reject independence, the choice is terrifying. If they do not all vote and the separatists do, then the latter threaten to declare independence by Tuesday evening – in effect evicting them from their current country. If they do vote, the other side insists they will be acting illegally. Either way, they will be living in a Catalonia that is more polarised than it has been for decades.
For the large minority who want a separate Catalan state, the panorama is just as grim. Separatists are free to argue for independence, but to have it they must also change the Spanish constitution, which means persuading an overwhelming and improbable majority of two-thirds of Spain to back them.
Exactly how the day itself will play out remains a mystery. It looks set to be an exercise in mass civil disobedience in which some may manage to vote, while many others do not.
It may also be extraordinarily civilised, with smiling young people waving ballot papers and elderly separatists wrapped up in colourful flags or dancing sardanas. Human towers, the gravity-defying sport of some Catalans, may also be deployed as reminders of cultural exceptionalism, making it all look like a fun-loving party.
Police are expected to padlock voting centres but if protesters do not use force or break locks, there should be no reaching for batons.
Many will be wearing the uniform of the Catalan Mossos D’Esquadra police force, while civil guard, national and even municipal police forces will also take part. But despite the urgings of overexcited rightwingers elsewhere in Spain, they are likely to be restrained. They must soak up any insults and then…