MADRID: Spain’s Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy refused on Tuesday to countenance a Catalan quest for an independence referendum as the nation’s parliament prepared to join him in rejecting the secessionist bid.
The northeastern region of Catalonia, which has its own language and a long history of fighting for greater autonomy from Spain, sought permission from the Spanish parliament to hold a referendum on November 9.
But Rajoy’s ruling conservative Popular Party, the main opposition Socialists and the centrist Union for Progress and Democracy, are determined to prevent a breakup of Spain.
Wielding a combined 300 of the 350 seats in parliament, the three parties have already said they will vote against the petition.
“I defend that Catalonia should remain in Spain because I can’t conceive of Spain without Catalonia nor of Catalonia outside of Spain and Europe,” Rajoy told the assembly during a debate over the Catalan petition.
Rajoy repeated his argument that the vote would be illegal, since under Spain’s constitution referendums on sovereignty must be held nationally and not regionally.
The Spanish leader has warned that independence would be an economic disaster for both Spain and Catalonia, one of the country’s most productive but also most indebted regions.
“Together we all win and separate we all lose,” the prime minister told parliament.
Spain’s Constitutional Court ruled last month that a region like Catalonia could not “unilaterally” call a referendum on its sovereignty.
But the Catalan government argues that a 2006 Catalan autonomy statute which was passed by Spain’s parliament granted the region the power to hold referendums. It is unclear what Catalonia’s next move could be if the referendum is refused.
Catalonia’s regional head of government, Artur Mas, has in the past vowed to remain within the law.
He has also threatened to call snap regional elections as a form of plebiscite on the struggle for independence.
“It is clear that we will vote,” said Catalan government spokesman Francesc Homs before the start of the debate in parliament.
The regional government faces strong pressure to push ahead with the referendum.
The Catalan National Assembly, a powerful pressure group, has gathered tens of thousands of signatures on a petition urging local leaders to “exhaust all of the paths” to a referendum.
The group on Saturday unveiled a “roadmap”, which calls for the region to declare independence from Spain by April 23, 2015 — the feast day of Saint George, the patron saint of Catalonia.
Last year on September 11, Catalonia’s national day, hundreds of thousands of people formed a human chain across the region to demand independence in a rally organised by the group.
“It is not just a question of money, it has become a question of dignity,” said 72-year-old pensioner Xavier Vivanco as he sat in a square in the city of Vic, in the heart of the most pro-independence province of Catalonia.
Proud of their distinct language and culture, a growing number of Catalonia’s 7.5 million citizens resent the redistribution of their taxes to other regions and believe the region would be better off on its own.
The 2008 real estate crash that triggered a five-year economic downturn across Spain has added to the pressure for secession over the past two years.
“We have come in the name of a people, the Catalan people, who want and have always wanted to govern themselves,” Jordi Turull, the representative of Mas’s ruling conservative Convergence and Union, said at the start of the parliamentary debate. The European Union and NATO have warned that Catalonia — which has more people than Denmark and an economy rivalling Portugal’s in size — would be excluded if it broke away from Spain.
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