People demonstrate carrying independence flags ahead of the Catalan National Day in Barcelona, Spain, 10 September 2017. (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)

By Robert Hart

Spain is in the grip of its most serious constitutional crisis in years, with the government of the north-eastern region Catalonia, the wealthiest and most powerful of the country’s 17 autonomous regions, staging a fresh bid for full independence.

The crisis has important implications for Spain and, potentially, the European Union, which has several other member states grappling with separatist movements.

After a day-long, acrimonious debate in the regional parliament in Barcelona last week, the pro-secession majority, led by Catalan President Carles Puigdemont, passed a law confirming that a referendum would be held on October 1.

The question put to voters would be: “Do you want Catalonia to be an independent state in the form of a republic?” The result would be binding and not dependent on any set level of turnout.

The Spanish government in Madrid has always insisted that any regional independence move would be illegal under the state constitution, which dictates that any such issue must be decided at the national level and all Spaniards must have a vote.

Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy angrily termed the Catalan vote “an intolerable act of disobedience” and appealed to the Constitutional Court to declare it illegal. The Court responded by formally suspending the Catalan law pending what could be months of consideration of its legality.

Spain’s Chief Prosecutor José Manuel Maza said his office would bring criminal charges against members of Catalan’s parliament and government.

But Catalan leaders say the vote will go ahead anyway.

A mandate to push for independence?

Many Catalans have long seen themselves as different and separate from the rest of Spain – a feeling regularly expressed with vigor on the region’s annual national day, Diada, on September 11.

Recent opinion polls indicate that four out of five Catalans think they should be allowed a referendum. But soundings also suggest that only about 41 percent favor full independence, with about 48 percent against.

The current push for secession gathered real force in 2010 when Spain’s Constitutional Court threw out key parts of a ground-breaking charter that would have given Catalonia greater autonomy and recognized it as a nation within Spain.

In 2014, the Catalan government defied the Constitutional Court by staging a non-binding independence poll. Some 80 percent of those who voted backed separation, but turn-out was less than half of those eligible to vote.

In 2015, regional elections for the Catalan parliament returned a slim majority of secessionist lawmakers, headed by Puigdemont, who took this as a mandate to push the independence drive even harder.

An economy as big as some small EU countries

Things moved from a simmer to a boil in June this year when Puigdemont made a direct call for a vote to be held on October 1 after what he said had been 18 months of waiting for dialogue with Madrid.

Spain says it cannot discuss a referendum unless the Constitution is changed, while the Catalan government says its right to self-determination must be respected first before any constitutional talks can proceed.

In the background looms the world economic crisis of 2008-13 that brought harsh austerity measures to Spain and surging unemployment — up to 25 percent nationwide and over 40 percent for the under 25s — which has only recently eased as Spain’s economy has regained strength.

Catalonia has plenty of reasons to feel uneasy about its situation within the embrace of Spain, and it also has reasons to feel good about itself – most of them precisely the reasons why Spain is so keen to keep it in the national fold.

With a population of 7.5 million, the region is one of Spain’s most dynamic economic forces, generating a fifth of the country’s 1.1 trillion-euro economy. Its gross domestic product is about 215 billion euros, the largest of the Spanish regions and almost as big as that of some of the smaller European Union countries.

An economic powerhouse with its own cultural traditions

It has its own police force and extensive powers in health and education. But areas such as taxes, foreign affairs, defense, ports, airports and trains are run by the Spanish government.

It also has its own cultural traditions and its own language, Catalan, which was suppressed during the 1939-1975 dictatorship of General Francisco Franco. The language is spoken by nine million people in Catalonia, Valencia, the Balearic Isles, Andorra and, historically, in the town of Alghero in Sardinia.

Catalonia boasts a strong capital in the Mediterranean port city of Barcelona, a thriving center of business, arts, culture and tourism.

Lauded for its staging of a supremely successful Olympic Games in 1992, Barcelona is also home to one of the world’s greatest soccer teams, FC Barcelona. One of the team’s — and Spain’s — greatest stars, Pep Guardiola, now manager of English Premier League club Manchester City, has spoken out in favor of Catalan independence.

Barcelona was, of course, in world headlines last month when a van driven by a terrorist plowed down the city’s iconic central pedestrian street Las Ramblas, killing 13 and injuring more than 100.

Spanish King Felipe and Prime Minister Rajoy hurried from Madrid to show solidarity after the attack, standing shoulder to shoulder with President Puigdemont. They came again for a later memorial for the victims in the central Plaza de Catalunya, receiving boos as well as applause from crowds of tens of thousands.

Will it happen?

So, the Catalan leadership say the vote will take place. The Spanish government and constitution say it can’t.

If there were a vote and the separatists won, what would it mean for both parties? It is hard to see who would win and easier to see how both might lose.

Catalonia has a powerful economy, but many of its goods come from the Spanish state. Spain in return relies on Catalonia’s industrial products and export facilities. In short, each seems to need the other.

Seen from outside, a split does not look attractive. The EU, reeling from Brexit and nervous that Catalan secession could inspire other euro-nationalists to follow the same path, has made clear that an independent Catalonia could not seamlessly join the group. It would have to apply for membership like any other candidate. And Spain could block it.

All this has the makings of a classic and very damaging case of a seemingly irresistible force meeting an implacably immovable object.

Checkmate or stalemate?

(Want more decoding of Spanish politics? Look no further.)

Robert Hart was a correspondent and regional editor for Reuters for more than 35 years, reporting on the Vietnam war, West Germany during Chancellor Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik and as bureau chief in Spain for five years in the 1990s. In between he was Asian News Editor based in Singapore and Latin America Editor, based in Buenos Aires during the military “dirty war” of the late 1970s.

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