Catalans are ready for a war of independence

They produce 20 per cent of Spain's wealth, say the separatists, but Madrid ignores their needs. By Alasdair Fotheringham in Girona

Although there are widespread disagreements about the cause, no one in Spain's autonomous region of Catalonia can deny that the pro-independence movement in Spain's richest region is on the rise – signified by the pro-nationalist march on 11 September that brought well over a million people onto the streets of the Catalan capital, Barcelona.

Seizing on the political traction for the separatist movement, the conservative Convergence and Union (CiU) party that governs Catalonia has brought regional elections forward by two years to Sunday. They are likely to strengthen the position of the nationalists, reinforcing the mandate of Catalonia's regional leader, Artur Más, to press ahead with a referendum on independence despite the ban on secession that is written in the Spanish constitution. If Sunday's vote triggers this move, Spain's economic woes will be compacted by a fresh constitutional crisis.

The mere suggestion of the referendum has set Catalonia's ruling coalition on a collision course with Spain's main central political parties, and created a political headache in the most turbulent of economic times for the Prime Minister, Mariano Rajoy, and his ruling centre-right Partido Popular (PP) government.

"These elections are not just the most important of our lives, they're the most important of the past three centuries," Carles Puigdemont, Girona's mayor and president of the Assembly of Municipalities for Independence, told i. His reference to the War of Spanish Succession in the early 18th century, in which Catalonia's fighters were crushed by those of Spain and France, is still a source of ire for the Catalans.

Catalonia's history, language and culture have long been a key part of separatist sentiment, but money is at the heart of this new fervour. Mr Puigdemont argues that although Catalonia produces 20 per cent of Spain's GDP, it does not receive the appropriate level of investment from Madrid, and complains of a backdrop of "permanent, endemic Catalanophobia in [Spanish] political circles".

"It's over..." he says. "We've supported Madrid governments on the left, on the right... but we've decided to try to have our own state. We owe it to our children, so that in the future they can work in all kinds of jobs, not just service industries like tourism. Madrid doesn't understand that – it isn't capable – but we do."

Mr Puigdemont talks tough, but hardline nationalists are less convinced that his party, the CiU, which traditionally took a softly-softly approach to independence, has genuine interest in a separate Catalonia.

"Artur Más is too ambiguous. He talks about Catalonia forming its own state [but] never says the word 'independence'," says Joan Vericata, a former CiU voter who now supports the small Solitaritat Catalana per la Independencia political coalition. "He doesn't put dates on anything and we must take advantage of the wave of pro-independence feeling that's here right now in Catalonia. We have to move fast."

At the other end of the political spectrum, the PP's pro-Spanish president in Girona, Enric Millo, says nationalists are cynically exploiting economic recession, and that any moves towards a referendum must be blocked.

"The pro-independence movement is apparently growing because the recession affects a lot of families and a lot of Catalans are suffering from the consequences of unemployment," Mr Millo says. "And, in the midst of all the desperation, a certain person appears looking like the Messiah with his arms open, seemingly guaranteeing the Promised Land [as Mr Más appears in CiU campaign posters] and that independence will cure all ills against this hypothetical enemy, Spain. Which is, of course, absurd.

"The fact is, Catalonia wouldn't be able to pay for its own pensions or handle the part of Spain's debt that corresponds to it. Nationalism is a toxic smokescreen for all of this [regional] government's errors."

The only area that the pro- and anti-nationalists seem to agree on is that these are the most important elections in Catalonia's democratic history. However, the PP argues that a referendum held only in Catalonia would be illegal under the Spanish constitution. To be legal, it would need to be conducted across Spain.

"What will they do if there's a majority in favour of independence, in Catalonia? They can't not listen to us," says Mr Puigdemont. "I don't think there's any way back and we shall end up with a Catalan state. I can't imagine what Spain can offer us now that they haven't offered us over the past 30 years."

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