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In Brussels they discuss integration; in Spain the talk is of separation

Marchers wave Catalonian nationalist flags as they demonstrate on Catalan National Day, in Barcelona this year. Photo: Reuters / Albert Gea

Even by the standards of euro summits, the one that’s just ended in Brussels was dull. And that is saying something.

Small steps were taken towards banking union, a workable compromise with the UK avoided the usual one vs 26 stand-off, and everything else was kicked down the road for a few more months.

With the euro off the critical list, upgraded now to merely ‘chronic’, some of the urgency has gone.

They are still heading down the road towards ‘a genuine Economic and Monetary Union’, but the foot has been taken off the accelerator.

While all eyes were on the council chamber in Brussels, significant developments were passing almost unnoticed in Catalonia.

Elections there last month weakened the position of the Catalan President, Artur Mas, but parties who favour separation from Spain remained firmly in the majority.

The question was whether they would be able to work together.

Catalan President Artur Mas during a news conference last week in Barcelona. Credit: Albert Gea / Reuters

It seems that the two biggest, the CiU of Artur Mas and the more radical ERC, have done a deal that will mean a government in Barcelona with a clear majority, and with a commitment to hold a referendum on independence by the end of 2014 at the latest.

No firm date, but a firm deadline. The stage is set for the mother of all confrontations with Madrid.

There were big questions about whether these two parties were going to be able to find enough common ground to govern effectively. They broadly agree on separation from Spain, but not on much else.

The CiU are economically fairly conservative, committed to a degree of austerity to try and get Catalonia’s budget back under control.

The ERC are avowedly left-wing and bitterly opposed to the regime of cuts. Not a happy mix, but they have, it seems, found common ground, though the details of their new hybrid economic policy are still not clear.

ERC (Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya) spokeswoman Simo during a news conference in Barcelona Credit: Albert Gea / Reuters

But on the independence vote the road ahead is now well marked. What is not known is what Madrid intends to do about it. They insist such a vote would be unconstitutional, and elements within the armed forces have even spoken about intervening to prevent it.

Just how far Madrid would go to block politicians in Barcelona remains the great unknown.

If the vote were to happen, the result is far from certain.

When given the option of 'independence within the EU’, there is a clear majority of Catalans in favour. But when asked whether they would still vote ‘yes’ it if it meant exclusion from the EU, support drops markedly.

And with the recent letter from Jose Manuel Barroso clarifying that a newly independent state would have to reapply for membership, and with Madrid likely to veto any such application, a referendum may not necessarily go the way the separatists would like.

It needs hardly be said, of course, that Edinburgh will be watching this very closely.

The one thing that Madrid will not do is allow a newly independent Scotland to move painlessly back into EU membership, precisely cause of the precedent it would set for Catalonia, and possibly the Basques too, further down the road.

Scotland's First Minister and leader of the Scottish National Party Alex Salmond. Credit: Reuters / David Moir