The regional government of Catalonia has backtracked on its promise to hold a non-binding independence referendum on 9 November. Instead it is preparing to hold a symbolic vote, with no electoral roll and volunteers staffing the polling booths. This modest alternative was forced on Barcelona by the constitutional court in Madrid, which agrees that the Spanish government has a legal case against the referendum. Now that it’s gone to deliberation, a real referendum process is automatically suspended. But it looks now as though even a symbolic vote will be challenged.

My friend Joan thinks that Europe’s lofty contempt for devolution is the real culprit. Most years on 11 September, ‘national day’, he joins the crowds to commemorate the fall of Barcelona to the Bourbon armies: that was 300 years ago, and did away with institutions of self-rule that had been in place for centuries. He likes to point out that there were only 70,000 protesters in Leipzig when the Berlin Wall came down. In Catalonia, three years in a row on national day, a million people have turned out peacefully for independence (or 700,000, or 1.5 million: it depends who’s counting). ‘Our civic movement should get a peace prize, yes the Nobel. Instead we’re brushed aside. Shame on the EU.’

Others are already getting cold feet. As the showdown with central government intensifies, the threat of exclusion from the EU becomes more worrying. Madrid is happy to play it up as a deterrent, even if a non-EU Catalonia would be a blow for everyone. A relative of mine, a lawyer, wheels out the old cliché: ‘Barcelona és bona si la bossa sona’ (Barcelona’s OK as long as the money’s jingling). He sees us as Phoenicians – there’s nothing we won’t do for gain – and he has a point.

We’re seen too in some quarters as upstarts and improvisers: by comparison with Castile – one of the oldest, wiliest states in Europe – Catalonia can often look like a beginner, inventing its claims to national status on the hoof. When Pau Casals told the UN in 1971 that Catalonia had been ‘the greatest nation in the world’ with ‘the first parliament much before England’ he was drawn fatally into the Spanish game: Catalan narratives about the past are bound to fall short of Spanish ones.

For scores of local businesses and politicians, the key is not romantic nationalism, but Catalonia’s fiscal deficit – the difference between what it pays to central government and what it receives, which is 6 to 9 per cent of regional GDP. Rumours suggest a compromise is in the works between Spanish and Catalan elites on the fiscal question. If a deal is struck the nationalist middle classes won’t be happy: they’re already committed past the point of no return. Spain, they argue, is a paper tiger that will go up in smoke in the next Eurozone recession; the time is right for a unilateral declaration of independence. I wouldn’t be surprised to see some of them out on the streets this month confronting Spanish constitutional law with civil disobedience. Madrid’s appeal to reason is predictable: ‘Catalans! Accept reality. Accept the law. Live up to your reputation for industriousness. Get back to work.’