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On Nov. 9, the regional parliament of Catalonia formally began the process of declaring independence from Spain, which will include drafting a new Catalan constitution and establishing a tax system and welfare programs by mid-2017. The move heightened tensions between Madrid’s central government and the northeastern region of 7.5 million people with its own language and culture. Though the breakaway campaign is further along than ever, the road ahead is long:


Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy called the Catalan move a “clear violation” of the constitution, which outlaws secession. Catalan President Artur Mas has already faced criminal charges for his role in organizing an unofficial 2014 independence referendum. On Nov. 11 the government lodged an appeal in Spain’s top court to suspend the parliament’s resolution.


Opinion polls suggest that a majority of Catalans favor a referendum on independence but are split on the question of cutting ties with Spain. Mas has struggled to form a coalition government of pro-secession parties since regional elections in September, and a leadership fight could delay the drive for independence.


With its capital Barcelona, Catalonia is one of Spain’s wealthiest and most populous regions, accounting for 20% of the country’s overall economy. But if the region does declare independence it would have to at least temporarily leave the E.U. and the euro zone, which could create economic shock waves. Wary of this prospect, major Spanish parties are now offering concessions to Catalonia ahead of general elections in December. Depending on who wins, the Catalans could yet opt for reform over independence.


This appears in the November 23, 2015 issue of TIME.

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