Artur Mas
Artur Mas Reuters

Catalonia will vote on Sunday in regional elections and the moderate nationalist CiU (Convergence and Unity) is an odds-on favorite to win a thumping majority.

What makes this election different from previous elections is that the party's leader Artur Mas has dubbed the election a run-up to a call for a referendum on independence from Spain for the roughly 7 1/2 million inhabitants of the region.

The main argument for independence is economic. Channeling the Italian Northern League, the Catalans claim that they are effectively subsidizing the less productive areas of Spain. Indeed the per capita GDP of Catalonia is 20% higher than the Spanish average and in the middle of the EU pack.

Spain without Catalonia joins the poorer members of the union.

There is a major difference between Catalonia and northern Italy. The Italian Northern League hates Rome and the EU with an equal passion. Catalonia favors the European Union and views its Single European Market as a guarantee that its economy will continue to prosper after independence.

However one can say that the 'EU giveth and the EU taketh away'. The European Union helped foster regionalism by weakening the power of the nation state and its centrality, while also encouraging a direct link between Brussels and the regions of Europe.

The European Union is posing an obstacle to secession because the new states would then have to reapply for membership in the union. This is a process that can take years. It could mean the adoption of a new monetary system. It means the forfeiture of trade agreements, particularly those that allow free movement of goods and services throughout the European Union.

Both in Scotland and in Catalonia the assumption was that EU membership was a mere formality, but they have been disabused of this misperception. Therefore any economic gains that Catalonia could expect by going it alone would be vitiated by its - at least temporary -exclusion from the European Union.

Although Catalonia is a richer region, it carries a debt burden from a spending spree initiated by a building boom gone bust. If it were to secede, Catalonia would still have to share its part of the debt burden (when the Soviet Union broke up, Russia assumed all the debt in return for the Security Council membership, embassies and other benefits). At the same time, Catalonia would not be eligible for any EU bailout if it took itself out of the union by seceding.