Catalans protest to demand succession vote, boosted by Scotland referendum

Many sported yellow-and-red shirts with the phrase 'Now is the time' and shouted 'Independencia!' in Catalan as they joined a mass protest.

Manu Fernandez/AP
People wave 'estelada' flags, that symbolize Catalonia's independence, during a demonstration calling for the independence of Catalonia in Barcelona, Spain, Sept 11. A week before Scotland votes on whether to break away from the United Kingdom, separatists in northeastern Spain were trying to convince hundreds of thousands to protest across Catalonia to demand a secession sentiment vote that the central government in Madrid insists would be illegal.

Separatists in northeastern Spain swarmed into Barcelona by the busload Thursday, waving independence flags as they demanded a secession sentiment vote that the Spanish government insists is illegal.

Many sported yellow-and-red shirts with the phrase "Now is the time" and shouted "Independencia!" in Catalan as they joined a mass protest getting a boost from Scotland's upcoming independence vote.

Catalonia regional leader Artur Mas said his government is not wavering from plans to hold a Nov. 9 referendum in the region of 7.6 million people, even though experts say any attempt is sure to be blocked by Spain's Constitutional Court. Mas has repeatedly said he will not call an illegal vote.

A recent poll suggesting that Scotland's Yes independence camp could possibly win the country's Sept. 18 vote has captivated a wide variety of groups in addition to Catalan separatists. Those include pro-independence Basques in northern Spain; Corsicans who want to break away from France; Italians from several northern regions; and Flemish speakers in Belgium demanding more autonomy, independence or union with the Netherlands.

"The dynamics at this point are with the 'Yes' side, and if the 'Yes' side actually wins it creates a strong precedent," said Hugh O'Donnell, a professor of cultural politics at Glasgow Caledonian University.

Unlike the Scottish ballot, a vote in Catalonia would not result in secession. Mas' proposed referendum would ask Catalans whether they favor secession and if the answer is yes he says that would give him a political mandate to negotiate a path toward independence.

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has vowed to block the vote because Spain's constitution does not allow referendums that don't include all Spaniards, but Mas told reporters that would be a mistake.

"The Catalan issue is one of the biggest issues the Spanish government is facing," Mas said. "It is an error to try and solve this through legal means. Political problems are solved through politics, not with legal threats."

If Madrid refuses to allow an independence vote, a go-ahead by Mas could put him in perilous legal terrain. When the northern Basque region failed to obtain permission for a similar referendum in 2005, Spain said Basque leaders could face jail if they went ahead.

The next step for Mas comes the day after Scotland's vote, when the Catalan parliament is expected to approve a measure giving him the power to call a referendum. Rajoy's government is then expected to ask Spain's Constitutional Court to rule the vote illegal and experts believe the court will do so.

If Mas sticks to his pledge not to call an illegal vote, he could hold Catalan regional elections as an unofficial referendum, with parties obliged to state where they stand on independence.

Despite sharing cultural traits with the rest of Spain, many Catalans take pride in the deep differences based on their language, spoken side-by-side with Spanish in the wealthy region that is key to helping Spain emerge from a its financial crisis.

Polls show Catalans are roughly evenly split on independence — but that figure drops significantly when people are asked if they favor an independent Catalonia outside the European Union.

Call center administrator Monica Casares, 43, from the Catalan city of Badalona, wants to be able to vote in a referendum but is undecided about independence. She says that's because of uncertainty about whether her small children would be better off in an independent Cataloniaor as Spanish citizens in the 28-nation EU.

Her husband, an independence supporter, is energized.

"He's thrilled because he thinks a Yes vote in Scotland would give more legitimacy to the independence drive in Catalonia," Casares said.

Catalonia's attempt to hold a referendum and the vote in Scotland have strong support from the Basque pro-independence coalition Bildu, which won 25 percent of the Basque region's vote in the 2012 regional election.

"Catalonia and Scotland have again put the issue of the peoples' right to decide on the political stage, showing that this is an open question in Europe," said Pello Urizar, leader of one party in the Bildu coalition.

In Italy, the leader of the Northern League party that supports independence or greater autonomy for several northern regions said his supporters "are rooting for the separatists" because independence for Scotland would send a message to the EU that other European separatists deserve the right to vote on their future.

"We are hoping that (Scotland) goes through, because it would give a breath of fresh air to a campaign that doesn't end in Scotland but continues in Catalonia and will arrive in Veneto," he said, referring to Italy's northern regions of Veneto and Lombardy.

Despite the euphoria, political scientists have found that separatism in one country doesn't promote separatism in another, said Jason Sorens, a government professor at Dartmouth College.

Scotland's independence leader says the separation process from the U.K. would not be completed until 2016 and Sorens said the impact of an independent Scotland on other areas won't be known until then.

"If Scotland votes yes and the negotiation process goes smoothly and Scotland gets into the EU quickly that might boost secessionist support, because it would show the risks of independence are lower," he said. "It could go the other way if the transition involves a lot of cost."

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