'Spain without Catalonia would no longer be Spain," wrote former Spanish prime minister Felipe González in a passionate if blinkered appeal to the Catalan people not to vote for pro-independence parties in tomorrow's elections to the region's autonomous parliament.
These elections are a watershed moment for Madrid and Barcelona. They could well produce a seismic shock that will radically change the shape of a leading EU member state, though the union is focused on even bigger quakes elsewhere. Nevertheless, EU leaders such as Angela Merkel and David Cameron have expressed deep concern over the outcome.
Catalonia, situated between the southeastern Pyrenees and the Mediterranean, has long been one of the most prosperous autonomous regions in the Spanish state, a key engine of economic growth. It is also the second most populous, with nearly eight million people.
The prospect of its departure is, as González indicates, a real existential crisis for Spain, in cultural and economic terms. It is also a huge challenge to those who embrace the independence option, leading them into completely uncharted political and economic territory.
For the many Catalans who cherish their national identity but do not share the new fervour for statehood, this is a deeply troubling time. They are deeply uneasy with the rather narrow vision of Catalonia propagated by a radicalised nationalism, yet are frustrated by Madrid’s repeatedly cack-handed response.
Nothing is simple here. For a start, tomorrow’s vote is not officially a referendum on Catalan independence, but an election to Catalonia’s already powerful autonomous parliament.
However, denied the legal right to a plebiscite by Madrid, the pro-independence parties have made this election a single-issue campaign for full statehood. The major centre-right and leftist Catalan nationalist parties, though bitter rivals, have united in a single coalition. Opinion polls strongly indicate this coalition, plus another pro-independence grouping, will take a majority of seats, though perhaps not a majority of the vote.
These parties insist they will then declare Catalonia a sovereign state, regardless of the narrowness of their victory or of Spanish legality. How they can actually do this remains to be seen. But the daily warnings from the Madrid parties and media that such a step would place them outside the EU, and in bankruptcy, suggest that all concerned now see secession as a real possibility.
But how did things come to such a dramatic pass? Catalonia has long seemed pretty comfortable with its extensive powers of self-government under Spain’s decentralised “state of autonomies”.
For many years it was radical Basque nationalists, grouped around the once-formidable terrorist group Eta, who seemed the biggest threat to the stability of Spain's post-Franco settlement.
Curiously, however, the slow decomposition of Eta in recent years, with the arrest of some of its last remaining leaders just this week, has itself spawned a much more powerful peaceful independence in the Basque Country. Basque nationalists may well follow suit if the Catalan nationalists are successful in exiting Spain.
Most Spaniards are baffled, hurt and angered that so many Basques and Catalans, whose regions appear to have done so well out of the new Spanish state, are so determined to leave it. Some say the independence movements are motivated by a selfish lack of solidarity with the state’s poorer regions.
There is some truth in this argument. Conversations with both Catalan and Basque nationalists can sometimes reveal a chilling lack of empathy with those who live in areas less favoured by geography and history.
But there is also a kind of imperial myopia on the Spanish side of the quarrel. González’s open letter demonstrates this blindness almost wilfully by repeatedly referring to all Catalans as “Spaniards”.
For Catalan (and Basque) nationalists, this reflects a fundamental refusal to recognise their identity, in much the same way as most Irish people would bristle at being called “English”. For such Catalans, Spain is simply not their country, nor is there any convenient equivalent of “British” that might provide an umbrella of identity in a genuinely pluri-national federal state.
Madrid never seems to have grasped how deeply many Catalans and Basques resented the failure of the big Spanish democratic parties to include, as some of them had promised, the right to self-determination in the 1978 constitution.
It was not so much that these small nations were unhappy with the new configuration of the state after the dictatorship; it was more that they felt that no one in Madrid had ever had the good manners to recognise them as sovereign nations and ask them if they wanted to opt in or out of these arrangements. The irony is that had they been asked the question nicely at that time, they would probably have opted in.
Moderate Catalan nationalists pragmatically accepted the constitutional limits on their autonomy for 30 years, mindful of the threat of a military coup had they pressed too hard. But their peaceful efforts to gain full national and fiscal status within Spain were blankly rejected by Madrid in 2010. Their position suddenly hardened and has gathered unexpected popular momentum ever since.
If the Catalan nationalists win a majority tomorrow, Spain may pay a very high price for its failure to develop a truly pluri-national state organisation. And no one can guess what price Catalonia may pay for going it alone.
Paddy Woodworth is the author of two books on the Basque Country and has covered Spanish affairs for The Irish Times since 1979