The Spanish government is already struggling economically and can scarcely afford to deal with rebellious provinces, yet this is the moment when Catalonia, its wealthy northeastern state, has decided to strike off on the road to secession.
Catalan independence 'impossible to stop'
BARCELONA // In a small office in central Barcelona, surrounded by boxes overflowing with the red-and-yellow Catalan flag, a young political activist can smell victory.
"Catalonia has to become an independent state, and it is almost impossible to stop now," said Ignazi Termes, a member of La Assemblea Nacional Catalana, an umbrella organisation of pro-independence outfits.
The Spanish government is already struggling to cope with 25 per cent unemployment, violent protests against spending cuts, and the prospect that it will have to seek a bailout from euro-zone partners. It can scarcely afford to deal with rebellious provinces, yet this is the moment when Catalonia, its wealthy northeastern state, has decided to strike off on the road to independence.
Outright independence for Catalonia, which has a strong economy based on its early industrialisation, strategic location and a booming tourism trade, has been largely the preserve of a radical fringe in recent decades, even as many of the 7.5 million Catalans hold dearly to their language and culture.
But that began to change in September 2009 when the local council in a small town called Arenys de Munt tried to hold a referendum on independence that was blocked by the Spanish authorities.
Over the next couple of years, local activists organised their own privately run votes in hundreds of towns and villages, building a momentum that finally burst into the open earlier this month when an estimated one million people took to the streets of Barcelona.
That protest on September 11, Catalonia's national day known as "La Diada", was the biggest show of support ever seen for independence.
No longer able to ignore the strength of popular feeling, the regional president, Artur Mas, declared this week that his party would now press for independence from Spain - the first time his moderate CiU party has openly called for secession.
He called early elections for November 25 and, on Thursday, the Catalan parliament voted for a referendum on independence to be held on the same day.
The central government in Madrid reacted angrily, with prime minister Mariano Rajoy saying it went against Spain's constitution and would not be permitted.
The sudden outpouring of support for independence is partly the result of the flagging Spanish economy, with Catalans increasingly bitter about propping up poorer states through four years of grinding recession. It blames an unfair tax relationship with Madrid for plunging Catalonia into €40 billion (Dh190bn) of debt.
"After 25 years of helping the others, we are now in as much trouble as them and even having to beg for money," said Agustin Paniker, a Barcelona-based historian and publisher. "This is hard for Catalans to accept."
"There is a total historical change happening," said Mr Paniker. "A lot of people who were never nationalist are now pro-independence - even people who don't speak Catalan. The young generation here has lost any respect for the idea of a unified Spain."
Even if Mr Mas is simply exploiting nationalist sentiment to consolidate his position and force financial concessions from Madrid, the momentum will prove difficult to resist. Many gave up on compromise with Madrid after the constitutional court there annulled parts of Catalonia's statute of autonomy in 2010, four years after it had come into force."We saw this as an insult," said Mr Termes. "Prior to this, people were more interested in a federal system but, after that, we realised Spain will always want to control everything."
Polls suggest pro-independence parties will do well in November. But even if that holds, there are serious doubts about whether secession is legally possible, or financially affordable. "I don't think Catalonia's economy can survive without Spain, or vice versa," said Mr Paniker. "They are obliged to find a compromise. It helps that Catalan people are not very violent by nature - they seek consensus."
Professor Francesc de Carreras, a legal expert at the Autonomous University of Barcelona, sees no possibility of Catalonia leaving Spain of its own accord, accusing Mr Mas of having "no idea" about the steps needed to declare independence. "The regional government doesn't have the powers to do it. They are not permitted by the constitution to hold a referendum - only Madrid can do so."
He argues that, far from needing further decentralisation, Spain is in desperate need of closer integration. Since the 1980s, the country has granted increasing freedom to its outlying states, in part as a reaction against the 40-year dictatorship of General Francisco Franco when regional differences were brutally suppressed. But decentralisation has now gone far enough, said Prof de Carreras.
"It is one thing to promote language and culture, but that does not have to work against the idea of a unified Spain.
"The Spanish concept of a federal state is similar to that of the US before the civil war. For economic reasons, the time has come to centralise. We need states that work together, not against each other.
"Nationalism will not bring any political or economic advantages. It will only lead to a rise of leaders with a tribal mentality."