Spain's government is asking the country's constitutional court to suspend a bid by regional leaders in Catalonia to hold an Oct. 1 referendum on independence from Spain, the prime minister announced on Thursday.
Amid deep political tensions, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy said the vote is illegal and poses an attack against Spain's and Catalonia's institutional order.
"That's something that the government and the courts can't allow," Rajoy said in a televised address following an urgent meeting of his cabinet. "There won't be a self-determination referendum because that would be taking away from other Spaniards the right to decide their future."
The pro-independence coalition in power in Catalonia, a wealthy region in northeastern Spain, claims it has the democratic mandate to deliver on a promise to seek independence and that the universal right to self-determination overrules Spain's laws.Spain's constitutional court has previously ruled that a referendum can only be called with the approval of the central authorities.
Regional president Carles Puigdemont signed the decree for the Oct. 1 vote late on Wednesday.
"Patriotic unities that go beyond the rights of citizens don't have a place in today's Europe," Puigdemont said, adding that Catalonia belongs to "the world that looks forward" by holding the referendum.
Rajoy is trying to strike a delicate balance between tamping down the secessionist defiance yet staying away from dramatic measures that would further inflame anti-Spanish sentiments, such as suspending Catalonia's autonomous powers or declaring a state of emergency, which could bring the military to the mix.
His conservative government has not disclosed what other possible measures are in the pipeline, but it has vowed to trigger actions in a "proportional" way and "with serenity."
"The Constitution can be modified but through the rules and channels established, never through disobedience," Rajoy said on Thursday.
The state prosecutor, meanwhile, announced plans on Thursday for lawsuits accusing Catalan officials involved in the possible referendum of disobedience, abuse of power and embezzlement, among other charges.
One lawsuit seeks to punish members of Catalonia's parliament who allowed a debate and a vote on the legal framework of the Oct. 1 referendum. A separate lawsuit was aimed at Puigdemont and other executive branch members of the Catalan government who signed the referendum decree.
Chief state prosecutor Jose Manuel Maza said prosecutors and police forces in Catalonia have been told to investigate and stop any actions taken to celebrate the referendum. Businesses who print tickets for the ballot, produce commercials to advertise it or provide ballot services to the Catalan government could also be legally liable.
He said the measures were aimed at "guaranteeing the constitutional coexistence framework" in Spain.
Although much of the blame for the institutional crisis has been put on the pro-independence bloc in the Catalan parliament, Rajoy's conservative government is being targeted by other political parties for letting the situation get this far.
The Catalonia region, which is centered on Barcelona, generates a fifth of Spain's gross domestic product. It self-governs in several important areas, such as police, health and education. But key areas such as taxes, foreign affairs and most infrastructures are in the hands of the Spanish government. Both Catalan and Spanish are spoken in the region of 7.5 million people, and many Catalans feel strongly about their cultural heritage and traditions.
The pro-independence bloc has argued that full control would benefit Catalonia. The idea gained support amid the high unemployment and harsh austerity measures that came as a result of Spain's 2008-2013 financial crisis.
A return to solid growth has weakened public backing for independence, however.
Catalan leaders have pledged to proclaim a new republic within 48 hours if the "yes" side wins the referendum, regardless of turnout.