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Independence, the Catalan Way

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"It needs to happen in my lifetime. We have wanted and deserved it for too long." Emma, a student studying in Barcelona, is a Catalan Independiste. She belongs to the 50% of the population of Spain's north-eastern region who would like to see Catalonia split from the Spanish state to form an autonomous country. And her cause is steadily gaining tangible political progress.

Rallies in September saw 1.5 million people take to Barcelona's streets to demand independence for Catalunya. Since then the movement has catapulted into the world's attention, although few outside of Catalonia thought the movement would come this far. Indeed, for months Spain's central government in Madrid has been hoping that Catalonia will quieten down. Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy and his government have refused to open a dialogue on the issue and obstinately asserted that Spain's "most-treasured jewel" will never become a separate state. This is in contrast to David Cameron's co-operation thus far concerning the movement to Scottish independence. Whilst Cameron may have recently trumpeted the "unbreakable bonds" between England and Scotland, in October his government nevertheless granted the Scottish Parliament the right to hold a legal referendum on independence. He said this was out of "respect" for the Scottish people and it does seem to have somewhat quashed the blaze of righteous anger that was driving support for the Scottish National Party. A January poll saw 23% of Scots desiring independence.

In Catalonia, however, things are rather more complicated. A referendum on Catalan independence is illegal under the 1978 Spanish constitution. A small matter such as this is not enough to slow the movement's progress, however, and a referendum has nevertheless been promised for 2014. To do this the Catalan President Artur Mas struck a deal with the left wing party Esquerra Republicana, flummoxing commentators who believed the two parties to be too politically incompatible to co-operate. In recent weeks, the Catalonian parliament has also symbolically declared the north-eastern area a sovereign entity, an attempt to circumnavigate the 1978 constitution. It would seem the Catalans will not allow the Madrid government to reject the issue as an irrelevance any longer.

Emma faces 50% youth unemployment if she stays in Spain. The trials of Spain's economy during the financial crisis have been well documented and support for Catalan independence has increased four fold since 2008. Economically, Catalonia certainly is a 'jewel' for Spain. The region accounts for approximately 20 per cent of Spain's economic output, whilst holding only 15 per cent of the population. This output is obviously closely tied to the Spanish state, with independence problematising these ties, but it would seem that the region would enjoy a more secure economic independence than Scotland, with questions being raised about the country's economic clout even taking North Sea Oil into account. Catalonia also pays €12billion more in taxes per year to Madrid than it gets back to spend, again in contrast with Scotland's current relationship with England. These figures are accompanied by the reckless public spending and significant central government payouts of recent years as well as continued refusal by the Madrid government to engage with Catalan concerns.

It looks increasingly, therefore, as if this 'jewel' of a region may not be Prime Minister Rajoy's to possess for much longer. Western Europe has not seen major changes to international borders since the First World War and the delicate balance of the Eurozone would be shaken by Catalan independence - perhaps fatally. For many Catalans, however, their political concerns are more immediate and Emma may well see independence for Catalonia earlier than we, and the Spanish government, think.