For a fourth consecutive year, hundreds of thousands of pro-independence Catalans are gearing up to rally today to break away from Spain, kicking off a fresh secession bid in a push to carve out a new European nation.
After the central government rejected efforts by separatists to hold an independence referendum, Catalan politicians are now heading toward a September 27 regional parliamentary election with candidates staking out positions for or against an independent Catalonia.
The north-eastern region of 7.5 million people is marked by fierce pride in Catalan language and traditions.
The massive rally for the Catalan National Day holiday on September 11 marks the kick-off of campaigning for secessionists who say Catalonia is culturally different from Spain, doesn’t get back what it pays in taxes - and that independence is the only way forward.
The latest effort follows rebukes to requests for greater self-governance by the Madrid central government.
The protest also starts an end-game for the independence drive because the election results will determine whether the region embarks on an 18-month “path to independence” or puts its secession aspirations on hold. Madrid has vowed to block any formal secessionist process.
Pro-independence parties need to win at least 68 seats in the 135-member regional parliament to push their effort forward, and polls show they’re on track to win a slim majority.
“If there is a clear result for Yes, it would be a very powerful message that Catalans want to move toward a Catalan state,” said Artur Mas, Catalonia’s regional president and the top-ranking politician in the secessionist camp, which includes parties from across the political spectrum. Failure to win a majority, however, would mean a setback of years, if not longer, for a movement based on generations-old dreams of a Catalan state, boosted in recent years by Spain’s economic downturn.
Mr Mas says the campaign marks a now-or-never historic moment because if the Yes side fails, “the first big party will be in Madrid that night. And that day (secession opponents) can then say that this doesn’t have a future.”
But a separatist electoral victory would set them on a collision course with Madrid and could cause a ripple of secessionist fervour around Europe.
Former European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso and British Prime Minister David Cameron have said regions like Catalonia that secede from a European Union member state would have to apply for re-admittance.
And investors cringe at the uncertainty an independence drive would create for Spain’s economy, just as it recovers from a punishing recession and is finally reducing a 22 per cent jobless rate.
“Independence is not feasible, it would produce a social crisis that would be terrible for Spain and would interrupt the economic recovery,” the Spanish Finance Minister Cristobal Montoro warned the country this week.
While Scotland rejected independence from the United Kingdom last year in a referendum, a victory for the Catalan separatists could jumpstart secession sentiment in areas of Europe where it has waned or lies largely dormant like Spain’s Basque region, Flemish-speaking Belgium and Northern Italy.
But even if pro-independence supporters win a significant majority, analysts predict that they will be unable to convince European nations to recognize a unilateral declaration of independence.
Such a declaration would happen only after regional lawmakers spend 18 months drafting a constitution, setting up institutions and forging laws for the new state.