Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy adresses a Senate extraordinary plenary session in Madrid on Friday © EPA

All observers of modern Spanish politics have been aware of the Catalan question for decades. But very few believed that it would ever come to this: a formal vote in favour of independence by the Catalan parliament, in defiance of the Spanish government in Madrid.

For occasional visitors to Barcelona, it has been tempting to treat Catalan nationalism as a piece of colourful local theatre — something that gave an extra edge to “El Clásico”, the football matches between FC Barcelona and Real Madrid. But nothing too serious. The Catalan independence movement lacked the violent, threatening edge of Basque nationalism — which spawned its own terrorist movement in the form of ETA.

For that reason, until recently even the authorities in Madrid seemed much more concerned by the secessionist threat from the Basque country than from the Catalans.

But the language of the two sides in the dispute has long been unsettlingly harsh.

It is common to hear Catalan nationalists refer to the Spanish government as “fascists” — an evocation of the Franco era, when all manifestations of Catalonia’s separate identity were stamped upon.

At the same time, it has long been apparent that many non-Catalan Spaniards are angered and offended by Catalan nationalism — with its edge of cultural superiority, its insistence on the use of the Catalan language and its rewriting of local history books to foster a Catalan identity.

Many in Madrid argue that the Spanish government has been too indulgent of Catalan nationalism for too long. With that thought in the background and a rising atmosphere of confrontation, the risk of a resort to force is very real. As one foreign observer in Madrid puts it: “I have lost count of the number of times I have been told that ‘Two tanks in the Plaça de Catalunya and this will all be over’.”

It will be left to future historians to debate exactly why, after bubbling away for decades, the Catalan issue boiled over in 2017. Some in Spain blame the years of austerity and high unemployment that followed the financial crisis of 2008, arguing that the last real upsurge of Catalan nationalism took place in the 1930s. In that sense, the upheavals in Spain could be seen as part of a general perturbation of Western politics that has also led to the election of Donald Trump and to Brexit.

Others could point to much more specifically Spanish origins of the crisis. It is arguable that the asymmetric federalism of the Spanish constitution — adopted as part of the country’s transition to democracy — was intrinsically unstable.

Other parts of the post-Franco settlement, in particular the “pact of forgetting”, in which all sides agreed to bury the grievances of the Spanish civil war, may also have been ultimately untenable.

Spain’s membership of the EU was meant to have been a crucial part of the creation of a modern, democratic state. But the existence of the EU has also made the idea of an independent Catalonia seem more plausible, since it made it possible to argue that an independent Catalonia could be a prosperous small state under the EU umbrella.

In the event, the EU has given absolutely no encouragement to the Catalan separatists. That helps strengthen Spain’s hand as it deals with the Catalan crisis. The Spanish government also has the law on its side. It also faces a divided Catalonia, with around 50 per cent of the Catalan public thought to oppose Catalan independence.

The danger however is that the Rajoy government will overplay its hand. A very heavy-handed response from Madrid could easily backfire and create the clear majority for Catalan independence that currently does not exist.

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