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Catalonia faces key test over bid to split from Spain

Emilio Morenatti / AP

Supporters of center-right Catalan Nationalist Coalition leader Artur Mas wave pro-independence "estelada" flags during a campaign meeting in Barcelona, Spain, Thursday.

GIRONA, Spain -- As in towns across this wealthy northeastern region, the maze-like cobblestone streets of Girona's medieval quarter are fluttering with flags in favor of Catalonia's independence.

But while the separatist dream of millions has never felt so close to becoming a reality, independence fervor is now coming up against the cold, hard facts of what breaking free could mean.

For this Spanish region famed for its trading prowess might be shut out of the European Union for years, a huge hurdle to doing business with its most important trading partners.

EU officials say an independent Catalonia would face the same membership conditions of any other candidate nation. 

Catalonia holds elections on Sunday that will be seen as a test of the regional government's plans to hold a referendum on independence, and one of the key issues emerging is the theoretical place of a free Catalonia in Europe. 

A survey published by El Pais newspaper this month showed that while nearly half of Catalans support independence, the number drops to 37 percent if it means being out of the EU. 

PhotoBlog: Catalans eye independence from Spain ahead of elections

Tough membership conditions aren't the only thing possibly standing in the way. The European Union's treaty states that each of the 27 member states can veto a candidate nation's accession, so a vengeful Spain could block Catalonia's entry. 

"Now we want to be a state inside Europe," said Josep Matamala, who helped create a banner combining a pro-EU slogan with the red-and-yellow stripes, blue triangle and white star of the "estelada" flag that symbolizes Catalonia's independence drive. 

'We trust Europe'
Catalonia's regional president Artur Mas, who is leading the independence charge, has voiced optimism — perhaps wishful thinking — that an independent Catalonia would be swiftly embraced into the EU fold.

In a recent speech in Brussels, he declared: "Catalonia has never in its history let Europe down, now we trust Europe will not let us down." 

Some pro-independence voters simply can't fathom being cast out of the EU. "I imagine that if faced with a majority of Catalans who vote yes for independence in a referendum, (the EU) wouldn't be able to turn its back on us," said 35-year-old Girona music teacher Merce Escarra. 

In 2010, Escarra was featured in the local press when she was asked by the owner of the building where she lives to remove the "estelada" flag from her balcony. "I said I had a legitimate right to protest and left it up, and it has been there ever since," she said. 

Two years later it is difficult to find a building in Girona that isn't bedecked with the red-and-yellow Catalan flag or the pro-independence "estelada." 

"Now there has been a boom in the pro-independence movement," Escarra said.

Money, neglect and language
Her reasons for wanting independence are representative of millions of Catalans: The region pays more than it receives back in taxes; its infrastructure has been neglected by the central government; and independence would ensure the survival of the Catalan language. 

While most of Catalonia's business community is taking a wait-and-see attitude, Jose Manuel Lara, the president of media giant Planeta, said he would move his company from Barcelona to Spain if Catalonia went independent, in order to remain based in the EU. 

Ramon Tremosa, a European parliament member from Mas' pro-independence party, said that Catalonia's fate would hinge on pressure being applied on Spain by other European powers and the multinational companies established in Catalonia, which would be anxious for a quick return to business as usual. 

"I can't imagine the 4,000 multinationals (in Catalonia) allowing themselves to be expelled from the EU, from the euro and the free movement of goods and capital, it's not realistic," Tremosa told The Associated Press. "Spain would not be able to stop it because it is heading toward a bailout." 

European law experts were uncertain about how quickly an independent Catalonia could join the EU.

Nicolas Zambrana, professor of international law at the University of Navarra, was pessimistic. "Spain would be in a good position to prevent Catalonia from returning to the EU," he said. 

And the idea of a fledgling Catalan state left out in the European cold is giving some independence supporters second thoughts. 

"It worries me," said Monica Casares, a 41-year-old mother of two who lives just north of Barcelona. "Taking into account that we would face a Spanish boycott on Catalan products for sure, and that we would also have to pay more on exports, we would have a big problem." 

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