(BBC News) –Pro-independence parties in Spain’s richest region, Catalonia, are pushing ahead with a historic plan for an independent state within 18 months, after winning a majority of seats in the regional parliament.
But their campaign has found little sympathy in Madrid.
Secession is banned under Spain’s constitution and the national government has refused to countenance an official referendum.
What has happened in Catalonia?
Catalan nationalist parties won an absolute majority in the 135-seat regional assembly in a 27 September vote.
But the Junts pel Si (Together for Yes) coalition of two major separatist parties relied on the support of the radical left-wing CUP to get more than the 68 seats required for that majority.
Significantly, the three parties attracted only 48% of the vote. And the ruling conservative Popular Party, along with the Madrid-based press, were quick to point out that a majority of Catalan voters did not back independence.
But the result – and its high turnout of 77% – built on an unofficial November 2014 vote which attracted 80% support for independence.
With Spain facing a general election by the end of the year, and no party expected to win a clear majority nationally, the Catalan issue is only adding to political uncertainty.
Could Catalonia really break away?
“Long live the Catalan Republic!” With those words, the Catalan parliament’s new speaker, Carme Forcadell, addressed the chamber on 26 October.
A declaration was tabled on the roadmap for independence envisioned by Catalan leader Artur Mas.
Mr Mas wants to see the rapid creation of the institutions of an independent state – a diplomatic service, central bank, tax authority and armed forces.
In Madrid, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy reacted by saying his government would ensure the declaration would have no effect.
“We will apply the law and we will not get into the details,” he said.
Mr Rajoy relies on the courts and the constitution to block the march towards independence. Artur Mas already faces criminal charges for organising the 2014 unofficial vote.
But there is a growing demand in Madrid for the government to engage with Catalan leaders.
So far, the independence movement remains peaceful and organised, in stark contrast, for instance, to the separatist violence which plagued the Spanish Basque Country until recently.
Why independence now?
Spain’s rapid return to democracy after the death of dictator General Francisco Franco in 1975 brought devolution for Catalonia, along with Spain’s other regions.
Prosperity followed, with Barcelona becoming one of the EU’s most high-profile cities, famed for its 1992 Summer Olympics, trade fairs and its football.
But Spain’s economic crisis hit Catalonia hard, leaving it with unemployment of just under 20% in 2014 (compared with just under 24% for Spain as a whole). The region, which makes up 16% of Spain’s population, accounts for around 20% of Spanish GDP but there is a widespread feeling that the central government takes much more than it gives back.
This sense of injustice fuels the independence campaign, especially since Mr Mas was rebuffed by Mr Rajoy when he asked for greater fiscal powers in 2012.
Catalan became the joint official language along with Spanish after the return to democracy. But in recent years Spain has challenged its status as the first language of instruction in schools.
Does Madrid milk the Catalans?
It is difficult to calculate how much more Catalans contribute in taxes to Madrid each year than they get back from investment in services such as schools and hospitals because of Spain’s complex system of budget transfers.
However, Spanish government data from 2011, published only this year, show the region paid €8.5bn (£6bn) more than it got back. According to the Catalan government, the discrepancy was closer to €11.1bn – the equivalent of nearly half of Catalonia’s budget for this year.
Meanwhile, state investment in Catalonia continues to drop: the 2015 draft national budget allocated 9.5% to Catalonia – compared with nearly 16% in 2003.
While some Catalans may accept their tax money being used to help ailing southern regions like Andalusia, there is a perception that their own public services are being underfunded at the same time.
On the other hand, Spanish unionists argue that taxpayers in the Madrid region pay out even more.
Is Catalonia really a country?
Scotland’s 2014 independence referendum inspired Mr Mas and his supporters, despite the No camp’s victory. Unlike Catalans, Scots were allowed a legitimate vote on their future.
With its own language, a recorded history of more than 1,000 years as a distinct region, and a population nearly as big as Switzerland’s (7.5 million), Catalonia lays a strong claim to nationhood.
It also happens to be a vital part of the Spanish state, locked in since the 15th Century, and subjected periodically to repressive campaigns to make it “more Spanish”.
According to the most recent Catalan government data, nearly one in five adults living in Catalonia today was born in a different part of Spain, while under Franco, the proportion was even higher, at 36.7% (figures for 1970).
Depending on who you ask, Barcelona today is the capital of Catalonia – or Spain’s second city.
How will national elections affect Catalonia?
Catalonia is worth much more to Spain economically than Scotland is to the UK.
So whoever runs Spain after the general election on 20 December, they will want Catalonia to remain part of it.
But momentous changes may be afoot in the country’s national politics and it is not yet clear who will win.
The Popular Party may prefer to stick to the legal route to keep the secessionists in check.
The opposition socialists are against independence but have mooted a constitutional reform that would grant the region more powers. The anti-capitalist Podemos movement supports Catalonia’s right to a referendum.
The rise of new parties also complicates the picture in Catalonia.
The centrist Citizens (Ciudadanos) party has become the second force in Catalan politics, winning almost 18% of the vote. Notably, the party is firmly opposed to independence.
Would an independent Catalonia remain in the EU?
Independence campaigners argue the idea of a rich region like Catalonia being expelled from the EU is unthinkable.
In his BBC interview, Raul Romeva argued that 7.5 million Catalan citizens who were already part of the EU could not be removed from it. However, the region would likely have to apply to become a member from scratch, as it would need to be recognised as a state by all 28 existing members.
The EU’s executive body, the European Commission, has tried to stay out of the debate, insisting that is not for the Commission to take a position on a member state’s constitutional arrangements.
But European leaders have backed the stance of the Madrid government.
UK Prime Minister David Cameron has warned that a solo Catalonia could end up outside the EU and would have to “take its place at the back of the queue” if it sought to rejoin. And Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel said she stood with Mr Rajoy on respecting “national law”