Yet Mas is the architect of a daring attempt to carve out a new European country by achieving independence for Catalonia, a wealthy region of northeastern Spain, including the city of Barcelona, that is fiercely proud of its language and distinct cultural traditions.
If Catalonia’s regional president wins backing in a planned Nov. 9 local referendum on whether to secede, his success will not only fuel the independence cause in the nearby Basque country, it will also encourage other separatist-minded regions across the continent, such as Belgium’s Dutch speakers. In Britain, Scotland will vote on its own proposal for independence in September.
Mas says his path was set in June 2010, just months before he took power, when the Spanish constitutional court struck down key parts of a groundbreaking law that would have granted Catalonia more autonomy and would have recognized it as a nation within Spain. That legal setback after decades of political struggle only made Catalans more determined to distance themselves from the national government in Madrid, Mas said.
“There was a change of mindset,” he told The Associated Press in an interview. “Many people in Catalonia said, ‘if we continue in the same way as the last 30 years we won’t get anything, we will go backward instead of forward.’ Four years have passed and the movement has kept growing.”
In 2012, more than 1 million Catalans demanding an independence ballot took to Barcelona’s streets in the largest nationalist rally since the 1970s.
The Spanish government says it won’t let Catalonia break away. Parliament in April overwhelmingly rejected Catalonia’s petition to hold the referendum, and the government says the independence vote is impossible under the Constitution. If Mas goes ahead with the ballot, as he says he will, the government can go to court to stop it. But Mas’ message to Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy is that the vote will help ease political tensions.
“If the Spanish government and institutions don’t let us vote, the relationship between Catalonia and Spain will become even more frayed,” Mas said.
With unofficial talks with the Madrid government going nowhere, Mas said he hoped Spain’s new monarch, Felipe VI, who will be proclaimed king on Thursday, will help mediate the conflict.
“A new head of state, a new king of Spain, is always a new scenario,” said Mas. “I hope I will have the opportunity to be in touch and talk to (him) and try to convince him.”
Polls show that while a strong majority of Catalonia’s 7.5 million residents want to hold the ballot as an expression of self-determination, only around half of them are in favor of severing ties.
Mas believes a win for the “yes” vote in Scotland on Sept. 18 could boost Catalonia’s independence bid. “If in Scotland the ‘yes’ vote wins then the main advantage for Catalonia will be that the negotiation between Scotland and the United Kingdom and the European Union will give us a very direct sign” on how a new European state could fit into the EU, Mas said.
The 58-year-old Mas was born into Barcelona’s industrial bourgeoisie. Like others of his generation, he was prohibited from studying in the Catalan language — which is spoken in tandem with Spanish in the bilingual region — during General Francisco Franco’s 1939-1975 dictatorship.
Mas said that when he was young his family, like many in the region, was comfortable with a dual identity of feeling both Catalan and Spanish, but they “changed their mentality and they became more Catalan than Spanish, and with the passage of time only Catalan.”
Fluent in French and English, Mas insists one of his goals is to earn wider international recognition for the political situation of a region best known for its Barcelona football team, the flamboyant creations of Salvador Dali and Antoni Gaudi, and as a leading tourism destination.
If the courts block the November vote, Mas may be forced to put his job on the line and call early regional elections. That could endanger his leadership role in the movement, with many pro-independence voters ignoring his party in favor of another, that has a more extreme and longer-standing pledge to break centuries-old ties with the rest of Spain.
“He put all his eggs in the basket of the political process,” said Ferran Requejo, professor of political science at Barcelona’s Pompeu Fabra University. “There is no question, if the process fails, Mas fails with it.”