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Spain fears break-up as Catalonia votes

Saturday, 24 November 2012 - 3:19pm IST | Place: Madrid | Agency: The Daily Telegraph

Madrid fears break-up of a nation as the 'occupied colony' of Catalonia votes.

Something is missing at the top of the flagpole outside the town hall in Arenys de Munt. Despite a law requiring it, the red and yellow of la Rojigualda - Spain's national ensign - is nowhere to be seen. Something else is missing inside the building itself. On the walls of Josep Manuel Ximenis's office a blank space marks the spot where a portrait of King Juan Carlos would normally hang.

But both these absences are a badge of honour for Mayor Ximenis. Instead he proudly displays a certificate declaring his town to be a "free and sovereign territory of Catalonia", independent of the Bourbon crown and the symbols of the Spanish state.

It may not be legally binding or even recognised outside of the municipal limits but it represents the strength of the desire for nationhood that is growing across Catalonia and has set the wealthy region on a collision course with Madrid this weekend.

Three years ago last September, Arenys de Munt, a picturesque town of 8,500 people 28 miles north of Barcelona, held an informal referendum on whether Catalonia should secede from Spain. Forty-one per cent of residents turned out to vote and an overwhelming 96 per cent of them said yes.

"At the time we simply wanted to start the debate, to show it wasn't just a minority of extremists calling for the impossible," explains Mr Ximenis. The plebiscite - emblematic, partial and unofficial - was repeated in the months that followed in 553 towns and villages across Catalonia. Although marked by a low turnout, it showed overwhelmingly the appetite for independence.

"We started the ball rolling, it gained momentum, and just look at where we are now. An independent Catalonia isn't just an impossible dream, it's going to happen and it's going to happen soon."

On Saturday, Catalans goes to the polls to choose a new parliament, but with the expectation that a referendum on independence for the region will be swift to follow. Artur Mas, the incumbent regional president and leader of the centre-Right Convergence and Union Party (CIU), called the snap elections with the promise that if re-elected, he would see it as a mandate to hold a vote on secession within his term of office.

Emboldened by a pro-independence demonstration that saw 1.5?million people take to the streets on Catalonia's national day on September 11, Mas shifted his party's official position on independence and said, "Let the people decide".

His speeches at campaign rallies across the region in the lead-up to the vote have been greeted by supporters with feverish choruses of "Independence! Independence!" It is music to the ears of Ximenis, who says such separatist sentiment has been simmering in the hearts of Catalans for centuries.

"Catalonia is a nation, we have our own language, our own culture, our own history," said the 50-year-old as a preamble to a brief precis of the repression of the Catalan people from the 1714 War of Succession to the years under Francisco Franco, when just speaking Catalan could result in a jail term. "Yet still we are treated as an occupied colony by Madrid and our resources exploited," he said.

Indeed, it is the current economic climate that has fuelled the independence movement and the conviction that Catalonia would fare better on its own. The long-held bone of contention is that Catalonia, the wealthiest of Spain's 17 semi-autonomous regions, whose industry accounts for a fifth of Spain's GDP, is taxed unfairly by Madrid.

The Generalitat, as Catalonia's government is known, calculates that it pays about euros 15billion more than it gets back from the national treasury every year. Catalonia wants to collect its own taxes, to control how they are spent and it seems prepared to break away from Spain to do so.

But with a clear road map yet to be outlined, the process of separating from Spain promises to be burdened with hurdles. While Catalans prize their role as citizens of Europe, EU officials have warned that membership of the union would not be automatic.

Instead, Catalonia would have to gain admission, joining the queue of a list of new European nations seeking membership, and the process would likely be blocked by a vengeful Spain.

There are also fears that big businesses and multinationals within the region could relocate, unprepared to risk a change in trade terms. Critics warn of a damaging boycott of Catalan goods by Spain if independence were to go ahead. For the Catalans, like the Scots, who will vote on independence in 2014, it's unchartered territory.

In Madrid, the central government of Mariano Rajoy has pledged to fight any move towards independence. There are fears that fellow separatists in the Basque region and even Galicia will follow suit, provoking a constitutional crisis. One association of retired and active members of the military even warned that war should be declared on Catalonia if the region broke away and others have suggested Mas should be tried for treason.

Sunday's vote comes at a time when Rajoy is trying to show stability and fiscal responsibility in his fight to keep Spain in the euro currency zone and avoid an international bail-out, while the nation suffers a double-dip recession and a 25% unemployment rate. But the trials of central government are its own problem according to many in Arenys de Munt, where scarlet and gold striped flags of Catalonia flutter from balconies.

Sonia, a 35-year-old meeting a group of other mothers for a coffee before picking up their children at the school gates, summed it up. "We're sick of being robbed. We'll be better off on our own."

There is some dissent. One middle aged man would not allow his name to be used when interviewed. "The independence issue is a nonsense and a distraction," he said. "We should be discussing how we are going to stop the flood of unemployment, survive deep spending cuts and promote economic growth."

But his is not a popular voice here. That of Jeroni Mayne, 63, a retired financial consultant pushing his nine-month-old twin granddaughters, is. "In my heart I've always felt Catalan, never ever Spanish," he said. "We are on the verge of an important and proud moment in our history." Nodding towards the sleeping girls he added: "They will grow up in Catalonia, an independent country recognised across the world, and it will be great."

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