In 2006 Catalonia won considerable autonomy, which was then overturned by the Supreme Tribunal in 2010 at the behest of the current ruling conservative Popular Party (PP). That 2010 decision fueled the growth of the Catalan independence movement, and in 2012 separatist parties in the province were swept into power.
Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy's PP is pretty much an afterthought -- 19 out of 135 seats -- in Catalonia where several independence parties dominate the Catalan legislature. The largest of these is Province President Artur Mas's Convergencia i Unio (CiU), but the Esquerra Republicana de Cataluyna (ERC) doubled its representation in the legislature.
That doesn't mean they agree with one another. Mas's party tends to be centrist to conservative, while the ERC is leftist and opposed to the austerity program of the PP, some of which Mas has gone along with. The CiU's centrism is one of the reasons that Mas's party went from 62 seats to 50 in the 2012 election, while the ERC jumped from 10 to 21.
Unemployment is officially at 25 percent -- but far higher among youth and in Spain's southern provinces -- and the Left has thrown down the gauntlet. Over 100,000 people marched on Madrid last month demanding an end to austerity.
Rajoy -- citing the 1976 constitution -- refuses to allow an independence referendum, a stubbornness that has only fueled separatist strength. This past January the Catalan parliament voted 87 to 43 to hold a referendum, and polls show a majority in the province will support it. Six months ago, a million and a half Catalans marched in Barcelona for independence.
The PP has been altogether ham-fisted about Catalonia and seems to delight in finding things to provoke Catalans: Catalonia bans bull fighting, so Madrid passes a law making it a national cultural heritage. The Basques get to collect their own taxes, Catalans cannot.
How would the EU react to an independent Catalan? And would the central government in Madrid do anything about it? It is hard to imagine the Spanish army getting involved, although a former minister in the Franco government started Rajoy's party, and the dislike between Madrid and Barcelona is palpable.
There are other fault lines on the continent.
Will Belgium split up? The fissure between the Flemish-speaking north and the French-speaking south is so deep it took 18 months to form a government after the last election. And if Belgium shatters, does it become two countries or get swallowed by France and the Netherlands?
The South Tyrol Freedom Party (STFP) is gearing up for an independence referendum and pressing for a merger with Austria, although the tiny province -- called Alto Adige in Italy -- has little to complain about. It keeps 90 percent of its taxes, and its economy has dodged the worst of the 2008 meltdown. But some of its German-Austrian residents are resentful of any money going to Rome, and there is a deep prejudice against Italians -- who make up 25 percent of South Tyrol -- particularly among those in the south. In this way the STFP is not very different than the racist, elitist Northern League centered in Italy's Po Valley.
It is instructive to watch the YouTube video on how borders in Europe have changed from 1519 to 2006, a period of less than 500 years. What we think of as eternal is ephemeral. The European continent is once again adrift, pulling apart along fault lines both ancient and modern. How nations like Spain and Britain, and organizations like the EU, react to this process will determine if it will be civilized or painful. But trying to stop it will most certainly cause pain.