LONDON • The Spanish government has vowed to do "everything within its powers" to prevent the country's break-up after three parties favouring the independence of Catalonia, one of Spain's key component parts, won a majority of seats in regional parliamentary elections.
The separatists, who together captured 72 of Catalonia's 135 regional Parliament seats in ballots held on Sunday, claim this justifies independence; "We have made history, now we will make a state," Catalan leader Artur Mas told jubilant supporters in Barcelona, the region's capital.
But Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy dismissed such claims as "nonsense".
With their own distinct history and language, Catalans have often been reluctant citizens of Spain. The first "Catalan Republic" was established as far back as 1641 and although that was quickly crushed, three further independent Catalan separatist movements flared up during the 19th and 20th centuries.
Catalan nationalists suffered grievously during the dictatorship which ruled Spain until 1975, but since then have enjoyed a large degree of autonomy, and the freedom to govern themselves in their own language.
Barcelona is one of Europe's top tourist destinations, famed for its stunning architecture, excellent food and football. Catalonia is also Spain's richest province, accounting for 16 per cent of Spain's population, and over 20 per cent of Spain's economic output.
But Spain's recent economic crisis has hit Catalonia hard, giving an impetus to separatism.
The Catalan local government led by Mr Mas held a referendum on independence last November, in which 80 per cent of the ballots cast were for independence.
However, only 40 per cent of the electorate took part, and that ballot was declared illegal by Spain's highest court. Polls conducted since have indicated that Catalans remain evenly divided over whether they want to secede.
Mr Mas now proposes to push ahead with secession without further ballots. "We would have preferred a referendum like in Scotland," he told supporters. But since this proved unacceptable to the rest of Spain, he now plans to forge ahead with creating the institutions of state, such as a diplomatic service, a central bank and armed forces.
None of this will be easy. The separatist coalition which won Sunday's vote is composed of parties which otherwise bicker on everything. They don't even agree on whether Mr Mas should remain the regional leader. Furthermore, although separatists control the local Parliament, they attracted only 47.8 per cent of the votes cast on Sunday - hardly an overwhelming endorsement of independence.
The nationalists' strongest argument is that Catalonia transfers more tax revenues to the central Spanish government than it gets back in services, and that Spain "steals" each year an estimated €16 billion (S$25.6 billion) which would supposedly be available to a Catalan independent state.
Like separatists in Scotland, Catalan nationalists also argue that independence would be cost-free and that an independent Catalonia could become a member of the European Union and operate the euro currency from the start.
Spanish economists and politicians hotly dispute these arguments.
Mr Josep Borrell, a former president of the European Parliament and a Catalan himself, recently published a book in which he calculated just how much it would cost to establish a separate state. But although he attracted favourable comments, he admits that he is converting "too few minds, and far too late".
Still, if Catalan separatists attempt to proceed with their secession, they will encounter stiff resistance. An independent Catalonia will have to apply for EU membership, and Spain has already served notice that it will veto this.
British Prime Minister David Cameron, who faces a similar separatist movement in Scotland, has also said that a solo Catalonia would end up outside the EU and would have to "take its place at the back of the queue" if it sought to rejoin. And without EU membership, there is no question of adopting the euro. Independent Catalonia will have to print its own currency, something investors and bankers dread.
Even sport is dragged into politics: Supporters of Barcelona's famed football team were warned that their team would not be able to compete in Spain's national football league should Catalonia secede.
The separatists' only chance is that Prime Minister Rajoy's centre-right government is defeated in nationwide elections scheduled in December, and that a new Spanish leadership is more amenable to their aspirations.
But they should not bet on it, for all of Spain's mainstream parties are currently against the country's break-up. At best, therefore, Spain seems condemned to years of further wrangling about the country's constitutional arrangements.
Some prominent Catalans have always doubted the wisdom of this tussle.
"We have two great cultures which we respect," points out Mr Joaquim Coll, a noted local historian and one of the leaders of the Civil Societat Catalana, a pressure group of intellectuals opposed to independence.
"We are neither abused nor hunted. So, why engage in this identity debate which impoverishes us all?" he asks.