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Catalonia: The Next Independent State in Europe?

Tuesday, 25 Sep 2012 | 3:15 PM ET
plaza reial barcelona spain
Samuel Aranda | Getty Images
plaza reial barcelona spain

Barcelona, Spain.

"Catalonia: The Next Independent State in Europe." That's the enormous banner strung across Catalunya, one of the principal squares of the city.

Sound like a joke? Not to these people. The menus in most restaurants are printed in Spanish — and Catalan.

(Read more: Could Slovenia Beat Spain to Be Europe’s 6th Bailout?)

The real power broker here is not Spanish Premier Mariano Rajoy, it is Catalan Premier Artur Mas.

This weekend, the city hosted the annual La Merce festival, a celebration of all things Catalan. The highlights was the castells, constructions of 50-foot-high human pyramids. It took place in Jaume Square, in front of City Hall.

At the end of each presentation, the participants sang Catalonian songs and waved the Catalonian flag, while the mayor and regional officials beamed from the balcony above.

Last week, on September 11, the national day of Catalonia, hundreds of thousands marched in favor of independence.

This week, the Catalan parliament is set to approve a resolution that would create a referendum on independence. Eighty-three of the 135 deputies in the regional parliament support independence.

Catalonian parties have sought guidance from Brussels on seceding from Spain.

(Read more: Spain Recoils, as Its Hungry Forage Trash for Next Meal)

As far as I can see, these Catalan independence parties want: 1) a bailout from Madrid to save them from their own regional overspending, 2) a new fiscal pact with Madrid that would let them send less money to the federal government, and 3) eventual independence.

This may sound a bit like the larger-scale drama being played out in the EU, with talk of certain strong nations (Germany) leaving the euro, but its not the same story.

(Read more: Angela Merkel Ridiculed as 'Godmother' of Europe)

Catalonia is in the same economic trouble as Madrid, and if anything, is in even worse shape due to an even greater infrastructure-spending spree and property-bubble bursting than the rest of Spain.

As for the financial crisis, Barcelona seems very much in the same state as Rome, which I had visited two months before: the bars are full, the restaurants are full, the stores and streets are full.

But scratch the surface just a bit, and you can readily see the anxiousness. In the famous resort town of San Sebastian, in the heart of Basque country, breakfast at the posh Maria Cristina hotel was interrupted by the sounds of demonstrators blaring through bullhorns and police sirens wailing.

And what about all those full stores? "Look carefully at those people," the owner of the apartment I was staying in in Barcelona said to me. "They are mostly tourists. We Spaniards have stopped spending because we are not sure what is happening."

When I asked him what would make him start spending again, he looked at his wife and they both said, "We don't know."

He had a point about the full bars, restaurants and stores. At Akelare in San Sebastian, one of the world's most famous restaurants and the epicenter of Basque cooking, the clientele on a Saturday night consisted almost entirely of Brits, Aussies and Americans. I heard no French, Spanish only among the staff, and not even any German.

And what about those widely reported unemployment numbers for Spain: 25 percent out of work, 50 percent of youth unemployed?

"Don't believe that," he said. "There is a huge black market here. Many people work but they do not report the money. If there really was 25 percent of the population with no work, there would be revolution in the streets, not just demonstrations."

—By CNBC’s Bob Pisani

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  • A CNBC reporter since 1990, Bob Pisani covers Wall Street from the floor of the New York Stock Exchange.

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