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Even some of the proudest Catalans worry that splitting from Spain is a bad idea

Despite their nationalist fervor, many in the country’s most prosperous region reject a rift with Madrid.

Catalonia protest 01 29 2014Enlarge
Not everyone agrees. (David Ramos/Getty Images)

BARCELONA, Spain — It's easy to view Catalonia's independence debate in black and white.

In one camp, Catalan nationalists are fighting for the freedom of a region with a distinct language and culture. Against them stand Spanish nationalists determined to resist the secessionists' push to break up their country.

The reality is more complex.

Although there’s been a surge of support for separatism in recent years, polls suggest that only between 35 and 44 percent of Catalans have decided to vote for independence if a referendum proposed by their regional government is held as scheduled in November.

Among the undecided and those opposing independence are many Catalans who, although proud of their region's history, culture and language, are profoundly disturbed at the prospect of severing its link with Spain.

"In our society, there are people who feel entirely Catalan, others who feel more Catalan than Spanish, there are some who feel equally Catalan and Spanish and some who feel more or less entirely Spanish," says Matias Alonso, secretary general of a political party called Citizens, founded in 2006 to oppose separatism.

"You have to respect that and not let the government impose its view on everyone."

Citizens tripled its representation in the Catalan parliament in 2012 elections.

Still, a majority of seats went to two nationalist factions: the conservative Convergence and Union of Catalan Prime Minister Artur Mas and the more radical Republican Left of Catalonia.

Separatist sentiment received a boost from the economic crisis, which fueled resentment at Catalan taxes sent to subsidize poorer parts of Spain. The refusal of the authorities in Madrid to cede more autonomy to regional authorities created more ill will.

After a pro-independence demonstration in September 2012 that drew up to 1.5 million people to the streets of Barcelona, Mas announced he would give Catalans the chance to vote on independence.

However, the referendum remains in doubt because the Spanish government has declared it unconstitutional and insists it won't take place.

Whatever happens, Catalans opposing the drive for independence are in a delicate position thanks to Spain's painful 20th-century history.

During the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939, Catalonia was a bastion of resistance to future dictator Francisco Franco’s Nazi-backed forces.

After he conquered the region in 1939, Franco suppressed Catalan identity, centralizing power in Madrid and severely restricting use of the Catalan language.

His death in 1975 prompted a restoration of regional autonomy and a flowering of Catalan culture with the vibrant city of Barcelona as its symbol.

Nevertheless, the Franco era’s legacy runs deep. Many Catalans fear being associated with those years of oppression if they seek to swim against the separatist tide.

"If you say something in a newspaper or whatever media against the nationalist thesis, you will start being attacked and insulted in a matter of hours,” says political consultant Xavier Roig. “They'll call you Fascist, espanolista [lover of Spain], all sorts of insults.”

Roig is a veteran of the opposition Socialists' Party of Catalonia, whose official line opposes independence. He contends that the main separatist parties discourage dissent by keeping a firm grip on much of the region's media and civil society.

"There is a terrible pressure exerted on public opinion on the part of the Catalan government," he said in an interview.

In the current mood, Roig says, speaking out against secession can jeopardize Catalans' job security and business opportunities.

"There is a spiral of silence,” he says. “If you don't agree with these official policies, you tend to avoid talking about them. If you’re against the official thesis, it can be more difficult for you to get a contract... there could be reprisals."

For some Catalans, however, the dangers of independence outweigh any fear of speaking up.

"Independence would be a disaster for Catalonia," insists Francesc de Carreras, professor of constitutional law at the Autonomous University of Barcelona and one of the founders of the Citizens party.

A onetime resistance activist against the Franco regime, De Carreras says secession would oblige Catalonia to leave the European Union, which would lead to diplomatic and economic isolation as the new country is cut off from its export markets in Spain and the rest of the EU.

Scanning the Barcelona skyline from his apartment, De Carreras also cites "sentimental" reasons for opposing breaking with Spain, saying a split would ignore generations of historical ties, two-way migration, intermarriage and friendship between Catalans and other Spaniards.

"The Catalan nationalists have this idea that we're different, that we come from the north, from the Empire of Charlemagne, not from Spain,” he says. “That ignores everything that's happened over the past 1,200 years, it's absurd.”

In September, Catalans will mark 300 years since a military defeat that nationalists commemorate for what they see as having ended the territory’s traditional rights to self-rule.

Opponents fear that the tricentennial, combined with referendum preparations, will be used to whip up secessionist agitation that could result in a dangerous standoff if the Spanish authorities continue to block the independence vote.

"Right now, we are heading to a full fledged conflict between Catalonia and Spain and that will be very bad both for Catalonia and for the rest of Spain," says Miquel Iceta, a member of the regional parliament representing the Socialists' Party of Catalonia.

"It's not too late," he said. "We’ve reached a dead end, so we should take a step backward and see which are the problems that have driven us all to this issue."

The Socialists propose a federal solution that would devolve more powers to the regional authorities while keeping Spain intact. Iceta points to Germany, Canada and Australia as possible models.

For that to work, the party says, Spain's constitution should be revised to grant greater recognition of the multilingual and multicultural nature of the state.

It says the powers of various levels of government should also be better defined, with regions getting greater control of their finances. And that regions should be given greater representation in Madrid through a new federal parliamentary chamber.

"With federalism, we would live in the best of two worlds," Iceta says. "To address the issues of the 21st century, like globalization, it's better to be in a federalist system than to break apart in an independent state."

So far however, there's little sign the nationalists in either Barcelona or Madrid are prepared to contemplate such a compromise. Even the Catalan Socialists are divided: three lawmakers defied the party line to vote in favor of the independence referendum in parliament last week.

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The Socialists propose a federal solution that would devolve more powers to the regional authorities while keeping Spain intact. Iceta points to Germany, Canada and Australia as possible models.

For that to work, the party says, Spain's constitution should be revised to grant greater recognition of the multilingual and multicultural nature of the state.

It says the powers of various levels of government should also be better defined, with regions getting greater control of their finances. And that regions should be given greater representation in Madrid through a new federal parliamentary chamber.

"With federalism, we would live in the best of two worlds," Iceta says. "To address the issues of the 21st century, like globalization, it's better to be in a federalist system than to break apart in an independent state."

So far however, there's little sign the nationalists in either Barcelona or Madrid are prepared to contemplate such a compromise. Even the Catalan Socialists are divided: three lawmakers defied the party line to vote in favor of the independence referendum in parliament last week.

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/regions/europe/spain/140129/catalonia-referendum-independence-spain