Almost exactly five years ago, in September 2007, Spain’s King Juan Carlos paid a visit to Catalonia. Hundreds of separatists staged a turbulent protest against him. Some burned likenesses of the Spanish monarch. The separatist protest dovetailed with another noisy event – the satirical weekly El Jueves published a racy caricature of the king’s son, Prince Felipe, having sex with his wife. As though that were not enough, Catholic and conservative forces in Spain issued calls for the annulment of the monarchy. The monarchy became a viable political target; suddenly, the future of the institution seemed cloudy.

Right around this time, another Iberian “king” paid a visit to Israel. This was Jordi Pujol, who is known as “King Pujol” in Catalonia; for almost a quarter of a century, he headed affairs in the autonomous region, converting a land that was trampled and oppressed under the Franco regime into the country’s most prosperous area. During his visit, “the father of the Catalan nation” who retired in 2003 as the region’s president, explained to Haaretz that the Catalans were fed up with the country’s central government. They were angry about their region’s outdated infrastructure and felt alienated by the way the regime in Madrid put obstacles in their path, blocking Catalan bids for more autonomy, Pujol added.

Pujol, who is now 82, always preached and acted in ways that accentuated Catalan distinctiveness, yet he long opposed Catalan independence, dismissing that goal as an absurdity. His “subjects” sided with that outlook, for the most part. For this reason, Pujol emphatically told Haaretz, “No danger is posed to the unity of the Spanish kingdom. There is no danger now, and there won’t be for the next 50 years.”

Yet kings are not always endowed with the gift of prophecy. Some 1.5 million people, about a fifth of Catalonia’s population, turned out three weeks ago for the largest independence demonstration ever to be staged in Barcelona. One of those participants was a certain Jordi Pujol. His successor, Catalan Prime Minister Artur Mas, decided last week to hold regional elections in November 2012, two years ahead of time. His goal is to turn the elections into a referendum on Catalan independence. Officially, the Spanish constitution bans such a referendum.

Conducted against the backdrop of Spain’s acute economic crisis, polls released around the time of the huge demonstration in Barcelona indicate that 51 percent of Catalans currently support separation from the kingdom. Only 19 percent of Catalan respondents oppose independence. Does this mean that the economic crisis that has toppled close to a dozen governments in Europe might actually bring about the collapse of one the European Union’s member states?

Alfons Lopez Tena, one of the main leaders of the separatist movement, has no doubts on this issue. Speaking in a telephone interview with Haaretz, Lopez Tena, who heads the Catalan Solidarity for Independence party, stated emphatically: “Within two to five years, Catalonia will be an independent state.”

For 21 years, Lopez Tena was a member of the Convergence and Union (CiU) party, which was headed by Pujol and is now headed by Mas. He quit this party two years ago and founded a new, more militant party.

“The CiU didn’t do enough on behalf of independence and to improve our status in Spain,” he explains. “The moment it joined the regional parliament, in 2010, our party won four seats; I expect that the party will now strengthen itself dramatically. That’s because unlike past elections, this campaign will focus on the question of independence, and not on social issues. We’ve proven that we take a hard line on this [independence] issue.”

Q: Support for the separatist movement has doubled since the economic crisis erupted in 2008. Do you owe your popularity to the millions of unemployed workers and an economy that is likely to shrink another 2 percent this year?

“It would be a mistake to attribute our popularity solely to the economic crisis. That’s just one of many topics. The main subject is the attitude displayed toward us by the Spanish central government. It relates to us as a minority that doesn’t deserve equal rights. Our honor and freedom is what stands at the center of this awakening of the separatist movement.

Even had the economic crisis not occurred, we’d still win a majority today. Catalans today are united: We literally have no common language with the Spaniards.”

Q: In the business community, many believe that Catalonia cannot survive on its own, owing to its great dependence on Spain.

“That’s a completely erroneous view. Our exports are equal to those of Spain, while imports are double those of Spain. Our GDP is equivalent to that of Israel or Denmark and double that of Slovakia, for example.”

Q: “Catalonia, the newest state in Europe” was the lead slogan of the recent independence demonstration in Barcelona. But Spain is liable to veto Catalonia’s inclusion in the EU and an EU spokesman has clarified that the organization is not set up in a way that would allow it automatically to accept for membership a state that has splintered from one of its member nations.

“All of the Catalan parties want to become part of the EU. Since we are today part of that organization, we believe it will accept us as a full member. The statements made by the spokesman you mention have been denied [by EU officials]. The EU did not express opposition when the question of Flemish independence was under consideration; nor did it call for Scotland to scrap the referendum it plans to hold in 2014, which could lead to its departure from the United Kingdom.”

Q: Historical experience teaches that separation is a contagious phenomenon. What sort of connections do you maintain with other separatist movements in Europe, and outside of the continent?

“We have close connections with the Flemish, and recently the possibility of devising joint  strategy with the SNP (Scottish National Party) was discussed at a joint conference that  included Basque, Sardinian and Corsican participants. We don’t have any connection with Kosovo or any other Balkan state that was on the other side of the Iron Curtain, and whose culture is unlike that which developed in Western Europe. We have forged contact with Quebec – the separatist movement in Quebec is a model for us. But in contrast to the situation in Canada (and Britain), Spain does not allow us to stage referenda about independence. Thus, we need support from the EU, the United States and the international community as a whole.”

Q: Unlike the Basque movement, you have never resorted to violent struggle. Might this change, should Madrid frustrate your campaign for independence?

“We would under no condition follow that [violent] path. That’s not how things are done in a democratic country. We initiated cooperation with the Basque only after members of that  movement decided two years ago to abandon the use of terror. Before that time, we only conducted unofficial talks with them, and in these talks we urged them to desist from the use of terror; we made it clear that in the absence of such a renunciation of violence, we would not collaborate with them.”

Q: The population of Spain as a whole is considered very pro-Palestinian, but in Catalonia, particularly among separatists, many figures are very supportive of Israel. Why is this so?

“Israel sought independence, and gained it. It revived its language and has for 65 years dealt with the hostility of the nations surrounding it. That explains our support of Israel and the Jewish people. On a personal level, I define myself as being pro-Israel and pro-Zionist.  These are views I inherited, in my family. I well remember the concern that filled our house at the time of the Six Day War. I was a boy at the time, 10 years old, and we all prayed for Israel's survival.”

Q: But today the Palestinians are the ones seeking independence.

“At least half of the members of my party are members of the Catalan Friends of Israel Association. Israel is a democratic state, and we support the steps it takes for survival, and the survival of the Jewish people. We have no intention of criticizing what its government does. We seek cooperation with Israel, and we hope it will support our independence movement. It is clear that an independent Catalonia will be a close friend of Israel – there’s no doubt about that.”