A protestor carries a banner reading "Catalonia is not Spain" during a march in favour of Catalan independence on Sept. 11, 2012. (Stefano Buonamici/BLOOMBERG)

It was a soccer game of Super Bowl proportions: Madrid vs. Barcelona, Spain’s two main cities clashing in a legendary rivalry. But when the crowd of nearly 100,000 Barcelona fans erupted in cheers, what they were shouting was, “Independence! Independence!”

The noisy display of Catalan nationalism, the highlight of last weekend’s 2-2 draw, dramatized for a television audience of millions the new swelling of separatist fever in the Catalonia region of Spain. Although the historic quest for Catalonian independence stretches back for centuries, it has suddenly risen again to the top of regional concerns in a very current struggle — over tax money in a time of financial crisis.

“It is like a volcanic eruption,” said Oriol Pujol, a leader of the ruling regional party Convergencia i Unio, which has adopted “our own state” as its latest slogan. “When everybody was rich, nobody thought of how much it cost us to be part of Spain. But now everybody sees it.”

The spectacle of an independence struggle in one of Europe’s oldest states, an example of democracy since the Franco dictatorship crumbled more than three decades ago, has struck many Spaniards as anachronistic, particularly those who feel most strongly that they belong to a 21st-century society and a globalized economy.

For a few alarmists, it has conjured up dark references to the history of terrorism emanating from the now-quiescent Basque Country. But even for the majority of Spaniards who are confident that the tradition of nonviolent struggle will prevail in Catalonia, the challenge of separatism has reemerged when it is least welcome.

Despite a bailout, talk of secession in Catalonia

Spain is in the middle of an already-difficult struggle to overcome a debt crisis that has pushed unemployment to 25 percent and shrunk the economy for everybody in what only five years ago was one of Europe’s most booming countries. Moreover, Spain’s regions, which account for 35 percent of public spending, have contributed mightily to the problem, piling up debts with extravagant infrastructure projects and seemingly unstoppable accumulations of new civil servants.

Six of the 17 regions, including Catalonia, have gone to the central government for a bailout, forcing Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy to set aside more than $23 billion to rescue them from bankruptcy when his central administration can barely make ends meet. Catalonia alone has asked for $6.5 billion.

Nevertheless — or in part because of that — Artur Mas, president of the Catalan government, has called early regional elections for Nov. 25 that are certain to revolve around the question of Catalonia’s place in Spain. Moreover, Mas has said that in the likely case of reelection of his independence-minded Convergencia i Unio party, he will convoke a plebiscite so the 7.5 million residents of Catalonia can decide on the status for themselves.

That, officials in Madrid quickly pointed out, would be leading Catalans into separatist illegality. According to the Spanish constitution, they noted, only the central government can organize a plebiscite.

“There are legal instruments to stop this, and there is a government that is prepared to use them,” said Deputy Prime Minister Soraya Saenz de Santamaria of Rajoy’s ruling Popular Party.

Subsidizing poorer regions

Catalan nationalists have long complained that their rich regional economy gets cheated by Spain’s central government. Between 8 and 9 percent of the region’s economic output gets sent to Madrid in taxes and other levies and never returns, in effect subsidizing poorer regions that get back more than they pay in, they calculate.

Against that background, Catalans have been increasingly outraged during the past several years as the central government has imposed higher taxes and spending cutbacks to deal with the debt crisis. What was an irritation during the good times has morphed into what for many is regarded as unbearable economic exploitation for which secession is the answer.

“When the music stops, then people start blaming one another, and that is what is happening here,” said Alfredo Pastor, an economics professor at Barcelona’s IESE Business School and a former secretary of state for the economy in Madrid. “We cannot continue with the current situation.”

Beatriu Carbonelli i Peris, who owns a pharmacy in central Barcelona, said, for instance, that she and fellow pharmacists are in danger of going under because the central government has taken to delaying drug reimbursements. The money is slow to return to pharmacists, she complained from behind her pill-laden counter, but the pharmacists still have to pay drug companies upfront and make payments on their business loans on time.

“If they don’t pay up, we will have to close this drugstore pretty soon,” said Carbonelli i Peris, who also heads a Barcelona pharmaceuticals association. “This is serious, very serious. Before, I never thought about independence, but now I do.”

Unbending response

Mas made his move on new elections five days after Rajoy’s government on Sept. 20 handed down a dry “no” to negotiations on a new fiscal pact, in effect a demand that Catalonia retain more control over its $260 billion economy. The unbending response was widely interpreted here as a slap in the face to regional ambitions; Pastor described it as “beyond the pale.”

Officially, Mas explained the new elections by saying that since a new fiscal arrangement was his main platform in coming to power, he was obliged to return to the voters for another endorsement. But popular anger over rejection of the fiscal pact was running high. Moreover, Barcelona was in a defiant mood after a nationalist outpouring of more than a million people who flooded the streets Sept. 11, the day when Catalonia remembers its defeat at the hands of a royal army and its incorporation into the Spanish kingdom.

For more than a decade, Pujol said, Catalans have felt frustrated by a desire in Madrid to halt and even reverse the broad autonomy granted to Spanish regions when Franco’s centralized rule was replaced after the dictator’s death in 1975.

For them, regional autonomy was supposed to be a process, leading over the years to increased self-rule, including in the fiscal arena. But that has proved to be a dream, with national governments of the left and the right determined to restrict regional rights in the name of patriotism and economic efficiency.

“We have been working for the last 35 years with the Spanish government to make this a comfortable process,” Pujol said. “Since it has not worked out, we are going to change our objective.”

Mas, however, has been careful not to define that objective. He has said the Catalan ideal is to be part of the “United States of Europe,” but that does not exist, at least not yet. His party has said “our own state” is the goal, but without explaining how that would fit with the national government in Madrid.

Against that background, observers here said, there is plenty of room for continued negotiations with the central government after November’s elections. The hope in the regional government, they said, is that Mas at the very least will have a stronger hand with a fresh mandate and the threat of an illegal plebiscite hanging in the air.

In the meantime, sniping is intensifying between Rajoy’s central government in Madrid and the Catalans who, like Mas, have long dreamed of a more independent region with its own language, tax policies and foreign relations.

Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo, for instance, decried the independence slogans shouted during the soccer match, saying they projected a bad image of Spain as the government seeks to convince financial markets that the country is stable and on the road to recovery. But Mas immediately retorted that all Catalans have a right to express their opinions in a nonviolent manner and congratulated the fans on their “civic sense and good manners.”