Hundreds of thousands of Catalans are marching in Barcelona on their national day, The Diada de Catalunya, demanding independence, or at least autonomy, from Spain.

For Catalan nationalists, September 11 marks the day in 1714 when Catalan soldiers were defeated by troops loyal to King Philip V of Spain after laying siege for 13 months in Barcelona.

The Irish Times newspaper reported that the Catalan movement is exhibiting the fiercest separatist sentiments in Spain since democracy was restored to the country in the mid-1970s.

Nationalists have also distributed flyers to both citizens and tourists written in English: “We have a dream – freedom for Catalonia.” Others are carrying a banner which reads: "Catalonia, a new European state."

Spain’s ailing economy – and the accompanying austerity program imposed by Madrid -- is likely accelerating the desire for Catalans to finally form their own independent state.

During the march, the president of Catalonia, Artur Mas, declared: "Catalonia produces sufficient resources to live better than we live," in a direct reference to what Catalans view as excessive tax demands from the central government in Madrid.

He added: "There is no more urgent battle or challenge than fiscal sovereignty, and now more than ever."

Mas is part of the Convergència i Unió (CiU) party, the nationalist alliance that governs Catalonia. While CiU has traditionally espoused greater autonomy, rather than outright independence, the storms of separatism are now gathering force.

On the northeastern edge of the country, Catalan represents 15 percent of Spain’s population, but produces about one-fifth of the country’s GDP. With 700,000 jobless, Catalan’s unemployment rate (22 percent) is somewhat below the national average of 24 percent.

The Times reported that economists estimate that Catalans pay out €12 billion more in taxes per year to the central government than they receive back in terms of social services. Some Catalans believe the actual gap is closer to €16 billion.

Given its own dire financial straits, the Catalan government asked Madrid for a bailout of €5 billion in order to assist in the financing of a €42 billion debt. Such a flush of aid would, in the minds of some Catalans, simply lead the central government to tighten the screws on the region.

“While austerity is locking people up in a room without a view, burying their resources and hopes, independence offers them the hope of a political dream,” Catalan broadcaster and columnist Josep Ramoneda told the Times.

Carles Brugueras, a documentary film-maker, told the Guardian newspaper: "For a long time, Catalonia has been generating a lot of resources for Spain but the fiscal balance has been very unfair.”

Similarly, law student Laura Nuñez, declared: "We're economically the most powerful part of Spain because of industry and tourism and we contribute more than other Spanish regions."

Catalans have other grievances with Madrid other than the current economic malaise – nationalists want more prominence given to the Catalan language and less interference in local affairs by the central government. In a symbolic ‘break’ from the dominant Castilian culture, the Catalan parliament outlawed the sport of bullfighting in 2010.

However, according to the Guardian, the desire for independence is not universal among Catalans – just about 51 percent support the formation of their own state (although this figure has doubled since the onset of the financial crisis in 2008).

“The reality of independence would be extremely difficult to implement,” said political scientist Fernando Vallespín.
“This is a game of poker between Catalonia and the rest of Spain -- there’s a clamor for independence, but many in Catalonia would in fact settle for just more autonomy.”

Catalans are also apparently sensitive to the way other Spaniards regard them as disloyal and troublemakers

"I'm fed up with the way we're criticized whatever we do," said Gemma Soler, a secretary, according to the Guardian.
"And I'm tired of having to justify myself wherever I go in the peninsula, that we're not the extremists they make us out to be, as if we went around burning cars and flags all the time."

The conservative government of new Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has criticized the statements of Catalan nationalist, especially those of Mas.

"Catalonia has serious deficit and employment problems and this is not the moment for messing around or disputes or controversy," he said prior to the march.