Spain to split? Snap vote on Catalan independence

The president of the Spanish region of Catalonia in Spain looks set to strain further relations with the country's political establishment by calling a snap vote on independence as a general election approaches in September.

Artur Mas, the president of Catalonia, told CNBC Monday that a referendum was needed to see if the majority of Catalonians still wanted independence. The region has long pushed for independence from the rest of Spain and, despite being dealt a blow when Scotland chose to remain a part of the U.K. last year, Mas is still confident an independent Catalonia would prosper.

"Catalonia would probably be comparable to Denmark. Denmark has more or less the same population, and Austria too. Both those countries are outstanding from the economic point of view and Catalonia could be at the same level," Mas told CNBC.


"It could have an open economy, a foreign-market oriented economy (and a) cutting edge research and innovation system", he said, speaking to CNBC on the sidelines of the Mobile World Congress (MWC) in Barcelona, the "capital" of Catalonia.

Mas and other separatist movement has tried to negotiate with the Spanish government to allow it to hold a referendum on the matter but has been refused. It has also been blocked by the Constitutional Court to hold "non-binding" consultations on the matter, Mas said, meaning that there was only one way forward: elections.

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"So now we have only one way: elections. Snap elections. So that's what I'm going to do. (I'm going ) to call snap elections in Catalonia in September this year to know the opinion of Catalan people about the independence process."

Holding a referendum in an election year is bound to go down badly with the Spanish government led by Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, embattled as it already is by the rise of the popular anti-austerity party Podemos. There are concerns that the drive for independence is creating more political uncertainty in Spain ahead of the general election, which in turn could damage the economy , which is only just starting to recover from a housing market and banking collapse during the financial crisis.

The latest data showed that Spanish gross domestic product (GDP) grew 0.7 percent in the fourth quarter, and up 2 percent from the same period in the previous year. Unemployment is also falling with data on Monday showing that the jobless rate has fallen from 25.5 percent a year ago to 23.4 percent this January.

Mas said that Catalonia too was recuperating jobs but if it was independent could improve even more.

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"If (we were) independent, we would have more money and more legal capacity to take decisions, and this is what you can do for your economic structure in the country, and to help private companies to do better," he said.

Mas dismissed the suggestion that separating from Spain would damage the wider economy.

"Catalonia makes up 19 percent of the Spanish economy, but that means that you have 80 percent on the other side. And I'm sure that Spain is perfectly able to do a good job in the economic field in the next years, even in the case that Catalonia becomes a new state."

- By CNBC's Holly Ellyatt, follow her on Twitter @HollyEllyatt. Follow us on Twitter: @CNBCWorld