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Catalonia prepares for crucial vote Sunday

Stephen Beard Sep 24, 2015
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This weekend, voters in Spain’s most prosperous region, Catalonia, go to the polls. They’re electing a new local government, but the poll could have big repercussions for the rest of the country. Many regard the election as a vote for independence which could — in theory — lead to the breakup of Spain.

Pro-independence feelings are running high in the largely self-governing community.

“We want freedom, we want liberty,” said Viktor Sillis, a Catalan citizen attending a National Day celebration in Barcelona earlier this month. “We want to be a free country in Europe.”

His friend Jaume Serrat is also an enthusiastic separatist.

“Our economy is ready for independence. We are ready,” he said.

Opinion surveys suggest that around 45 percent of Catalans support independence, and under the electoral system, that should be sufficient to give the region’s two main separatist parties an overall majority in the regional parliament. If they succeed, they have pledged to start an 18-month-long process, which they call “the transition to independence.”

“That means setting up national government structures like a tax agency, a central bank and a social security system” said Liz Castro, a leading figure in the Catalan National Assembly. “If Spain refuses to cooperate with us, we will declare independence unilaterally.”

The Spanish government in Madrid, mindful that Catalonia represents 20 percent of the national economy, says it has no intention of cooperating with the separatists who are “contravening the constitution.”

Carlos Rivadulla, a Catalan lawyer and entrepreneur who supports the union, agreed. He said that if the separatists tried to pry the region away from Spain, the Spanish government would be entitled to arrest them, although this would be catastrophic for the whole country.

“Can you imagine the FBI arresting the governor of Arizona or Texas?” Rivadulla asked. “This would be extraordinarily damaging. Are the separatists aiming to do this in order to create even more tension in Catalonia?”

The separatists face many obstacles. If they wanted an independent Catalonia to stay in the European Union and continue reaping the benefits of membership, they would have to reapply to join. The EU is anxious to deter secession elsewhere in Europe and, therefore, said Luis Garicano of the London School of Economics, the Catalonian separatists would be rebuffed. And then they might well have second thoughts.

“Once they realize there is no future in Europe,” said Garicano, “they will say, ‘Well, we don’t want to be out of Europe, so we won’t do anything.'”

Garicano accused the separatists of huffing and puffing and putting the economy at risk. “I think this is a rhetorical exercise. But business confidence could suffer. This could be costly and painful for Spain,” he said.

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