Artur Mas, the president of the Spanish region of Catalonia, has signed a decree calling for a referendum on independence.
Artur Mas wants Catalonia to hold a Scottish-style vote on November 9, but does not have the backing of the central government in Madrid.
Spain’s Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has said he will block any referendum.
Catalonia, which includes Barcelona, is one of Spain’s richest and most highly industrialized regions, and also one of the most independent-minded.
On September 19, Catalonian lawmakers voted by a margin of 106 to 28 in favor of authorizing the referendum, known locally as a “consultation”.
Mariano Rajoy and the Spanish government believe any vote would be illegal.
The prime minister is expected to take action at a special cabinet meeting early next week, and is likely to take the dispute to the country’s Constitutional Court.
However, President Artur Mas says he can use local laws to hold a vote in a matter of weeks.
Artur Mas has previously insisted that the pro-independence movement would prevail, even if it faces stiff opposition.
Until recently, few Catalans had wanted full independence, but Spain’s painful economic crisis has seen a surge in support for separation, correspondents say.
There is resentment over the proportion of Catalan taxes used to support poorer regions.
The pro-independence movement in Catalonia believes that the region can go ahead with the independence vote after the decree is signed.
Earlier this month hundreds of thousands of Catalans formed a “V” for “vote” along two of Barcelona’s main roads calling for their right to vote.
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