Spain already is another country for many in Catalonia

|     Joseph Wilson & Raul Gallego Abellan     |

SABADELL, Spain (AP) – The challenge facing Spain as it moves to stifle the push for independence in its proud and wealthy Catalonia region goes beyond stopping plans by separatist politicians to hold a referendum on secession.

Thousands of Catalans already feel as if they live in another country in all but name.

The red and yellow Spanish flag rarely appears on balconies across the region. Instead, pro-independence flags with a white star and blue triangle and red-and yellow stripes adorn streets marked by signs printed in the distinct Catalan language that bears about as much similarity to Spanish as does Portuguese.

“We say, ‘What do they say in Spain?’ It is an expression that has been said countless times,” Montserrat Coca, the owner of a shop which sell goods produced in Catalonia, said. “We are Catalans; it’s as simple as that.”

Spain’s Ministry of Justice has warned that local officials who facilitate the October 1 independence vote the Catalan government called last week risk criminal prosecution, yet over 600 of Catalonia’s 948 municipalities say they intend to open polling stations. It remains unclear what position officials will take in Barcelona, the regional capital.

People walk along a street decorated with Catalan flags in Sabadell, near Barcelona, Spain, September 7. Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s office says members of his cabinet are meeting Thursday to react to plans by Catalan leaders who have scheduled a vote on the region’s secession from Spain. – AP

Coca, 59, did not always favour independence. Her transformation mirrors those of scores of people in her hometown of Sabadell and across Catalonia, where the central government in Madrid is often seen as a distant troublemaker that takes more in taxes than it returns in services and roads, schools and hospitals.

Sabadell’s pro-secession mayor, Maties Serracant, cites as a tipping point the 2010 ruling by Spain’s Constitutional Court that struck down key parts of a proposed charter that would have granted Catalonia greater autonomy and recognised it as a nation within Spain.

The court’s decision, combined with an economic downturn from which Spain has only recently recovered, pushed neutral Catalans into the self-government camp previously occupied mainly by residents with generations-long roots and for whom independence is an age-old question of identity.

“For me and for many others, the move from just feeling Catalan to wanting to live in our own country has gone very, very fast,” Serracant said. “It’s not just economic, it’s the sensation that everything that has come from Catalonia in recent years hasn’t even been heard or is just ignored.”

Many Catalans also have bitter memories of the prohibitions on the use of the Catalan language under the 1939-1975 dictatorship of Spain’s Gen. Francisco Franco. Since the return to democracy, Catalonia has achieved important levels of self-governance. School lessons are conducted mainly in Catalan. The region has its own police force, and runs a public health service.