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Catalan leaders will take their campaign for independence from Spain to a new level, with a plan to establish the region’s own diplomatic service, central bank, tax authority — and possibly even its armed forces.

The plan could be put into practice as soon as next month, provided that voters in the prosperous northern region hand a sufficiently large majority to pro-independence parties in a regional election on September 27. “This is not about declaring independence immediately. This is about starting a process that leads to an independent Catalan state,” Artur Mas, the Catalan president, said in an interview with the Financial Times.

“One crucial task for the next government will be to create the state structures that will succeed those of the Spanish state: the tax authority, for example, which we have already worked on for the past year and a half, or social security or the central bank,” he added.

The idea of building a state within the Spanish state — sure to infuriate Madrid — comes after the central government has repeatedly rejected pleas from Mr Mas and others to allow a formal referendum on Catalan independence.

The pro-independence camp has responded by styling the regional election, less than three weeks away, as a quasi-referendum on independence. If their parties win an outright majority, they have vowed to establish a government lasting no longer than 18 months to carry out the institutional spadework that would lead the region towards independence.

Such a government would include, for the first time, a minister in charge of external affairs, tasked with setting up a Catalan diplomatic service. “We currently have commercial offices, and offices abroad that deal with tourism and culture. But we don’t yet have a network of external services like a state has. All that will have to be designed by the future government in the next 18 months,” Mr Mas said. Aside from building the institutions of a future independent state, the legislature would also initiate the process of drafting a separate Catalan constitution.

The most sensitive task, he added, would be to prepare “the design” for a future Catalan military. “Defence is the most delicate of all these aspects, and there is no consensus about this in Catalonia,” Mr Mas said. “But my party and I personally believe that Catalonia has to remain part of Nato. And as a member of Nato we have to pay our dues . . . It would be impossible for Catalonia not to have its own defence structure, even though it would be a light one.”

Spain’s conservative government, which also faces re-election this year, insists that regions have no right to determine their own political future — let alone to secede from the Spanish state.

In recent years, however, Catalonia’s pro-independence movement has tested that stance to the limit. Independence rallies have drawn hundreds of thousands of protesters on to the streets of the prosperous region — a spectacle that is due to be repeated on Friday, when Catalans mark their national day. Last November, Mr Mas and the regional government also organised an informal independence poll in which 2.3m Catalans took part. Though the vote had no legal consequence, it was widely seen as another sign of Catalan disaffection with Spain, which has heightened in recent years by disputes over financial burden-sharing and demands for greater regional autonomy.

“In the past three years we have made more progress than in the previous three centuries,” Mr Mas said, speaking in the sumptuous medieval palace in the centre of Barcelona that is the seat of the Catalan presidency.

This month’s regional election is intended to mark the beginning of the Catalan endgame — by delivering a genuine popular mandate for a break with Spain. To that end, Mr Mas’s conservative Convergencia Democratica party has formed a common electoral list with the left-wing Esquerra Republicana movement — the first time the two main pro-independence parties have joined forces. Together with a smaller, far-left pro-independence party known as CUP, the list hopes to secure an absolute majority in parliament — with the power to press ahead with the statehood plan.

“If we have a majority in parliament on the night of September 27 we will continue with the process. If we don’t have a majority, it is evident that the process cannot continue,” Mr Mas said.

Critics argue that Mr Mas and his allies are putting the electoral bar too low. They note that the region’s electoral system will allow the pro-independence bloc to win an absolute majority in parliament with as little as 45 per cent of the vote — much less than would be needed in a straight in/out referendum along the lines of the Scottish plebiscite last year.

Mr Mas acknowledged that an absolute majority of votes would give even more “strength and legitimacy” to the independence push than a majority of seats in parliament. But he insisted that the result would be valid all the same: “In a parliamentary election you count seats not votes.”

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
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