Catalonia's parliament approved yesterday (23 January) a declaration of sovereignty signalling the start of an uncertain journey towards a referendum on independence from Spain for the north-eastern region.
The non-binding and largely symbolic resolution - which states that the people of Catalonia have a democratic right to decide on their sovereignty - was passed with 85 votes for, 41 against and two abstentions in the 135-seat legislature. Two deputies were absent and five refused to vote.
The ruling Convergence and Union (CiU) political alliance and the leftist separatist Republican Left (ERC) party supported the declaration, which they had presented jointly.
A few smaller parties also supported it, after the ERC and CiU softened some wording and eliminated a reference to a "new state". But it was opposed by the Catalan Socialist Party and the centre-right People's Party.
The growing separatist movement in wealthy Catalonia - which has its own language - presents a major challenge for Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy as he fights to maintain Spanish unity and steer the country out of a deep economic and fiscal crisis.
"We're convinced the citizens must decide their future," Oriol Junqueras, leader of the Republican Left, or ERC, said during the debate leading up to the vote.
Catalan People's Party leader Alicia Sanchez-Camacho said in the debate that the resolution was not supported by a majority of Catalans and that the ERC and CiU "want to trample on the Constitution".
Rajoy's government says it will fight on constitutional grounds any attempt to hold a referendum on secession from Spain. It is widely believed that if Catalonia holds a referendum, the Basque Country would follow, potentially breaking up Spain.
The ERC and CiU, the main Catalan nationalist parties, signed a pact last month to overcome their deep divide on economic and social issues and hold a referendum on secession from Spain in 2014.
The two parties have agreed not to implement more spending cuts, as Spain's deep recession and high unemployment have fostered separatism in the industrial region, home to the country's second city Barcelona.
The declaration of sovereignty is a political tool with little more than symbolic value, analysts said.
"Its only value is it allows (Catalan President) Artur Mas to go and meet Rajoy with broad parliamentary backing in favour of a referendum," said political analyst Josep Ramoneda.
The next step for Catalonia in the referendum process will be to form a National Transition Council which will conduct research and advise on the route towards independence.
"The role of the council is to make clear that the referendum is not just the work of the government but of a broad representation of society," said Ferran Requejo, political science professor at Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona.
Catalan president Mas held early elections on November 25 to test support for his new drive for independence for the region. Many Catalans believe their region will be better off if it leaves Spain, saying their taxes go towards helping poorer regions.
European Free Alliance MEPs Jill Evans, François Alfonsi, Ana Miranda and Frieda Brepoels said in a joint statement:
"Europe needs to be ready for the prospect of Catalan independence. The European Commission cannot pretend that this isn't happening nor can they ignore the democratic will of the Catalan people."
"The European Union is a great beacon of peace and democracy throughout the world. The principles that we espouse abroad must also apply within our borders," they added.