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Catalonia sets Nov. 2014 date for independence poll

Catalonia's regional president Artur Mas speaks during a press conference in Barcelona, on December 12, 2014
Catalonia's regional president Artur Mas speaks during a press conference in Barcelona, on December 12, 2014

Leaders in debt-laden Catalonia promised Thursday to hold a vote on November 9 on breaking away from Spain, but the national government branded their independence bid a "historic error" and vowed to block it.

Catalan parties agreed on a date for a poll that would offer a chance to redraw the map of Spain by creating a new, independent state between Spain and France, setting up a showdown with the Spanish government.

Interior Minister Jorge Fernandez Diaz slammed the referendum drive, which he said was dividing Catalans.

"It is causing unprecedented social confrontation in Catalonia. It is a historic error... It is really pitiful," he told reporters.

Led by Catalonia regional president Artur Mas's governing CiU alliance, the parties agreed to put two questions to voters:

- "Do you think that Catalonia should be a State, yes or no?"

A young boy holding a Catalan flag smiles during a pro-independence rally in Barcelona, on September 11, 2013
A young boy holding a Catalan flag smiles during a pro-independence rally in Barcelona, on September 11, 2013

- "If yes, do you want that State to be independent, yes or no?"

"We have an agreement in principle to hold the consultation next year" on November 9, Mas told a news conference.

Madrid has branded such a referendum illegal and refuses to countenance the break-up of Spain.

"The poll will not be held," Justice Minister Alberto Ruiz-Gallardon told reporters.

"Our constitution does not authorise any region to hold a consultation or referendum on questions that affect national sovereignty and concern all of us Spaniards."

Proud of their Catalan language and culture, but suffering in an economic crisis, many of the 7.5 million people in Catalonia say they feel short-changed by the central government which redistributes their taxes.

Demonstrators wave Catalan flags as they call for independence from Spain, during a rally outside the Pedralbes Palace in Barcelona, on October 23, 2013
Demonstrators wave Catalan flags as they call for independence from Spain, during a rally outside the Pedralbes Palace in Barcelona, on October 23, 2013

Despite the fierce opposition by Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy's conservative government, Mas said he believed Catalonia could negotiate with it to hold the vote legally.

Catalonia was there at the symbolic birth of Spain when Queen Isabella of Castile and King Ferdinand of Aragon, a region that included Catalonia, married in 1469.

Now Catalonia accounts for one-fifth of Spain's total output and an even greater share of its exports.

Despite long being considered an engine of Spain's economy, Catalonia has suffered, like the rest of Spain, from five years of on-off recession that have thrown millions of people out of work.

In the crisis, Mas has pushed for Catalonia to get greater powers to raise and spend its own taxes. Rajoy's resistance to that has fuelled the push for independence.

A recent poll by the Catalonia Centre for Opinion Studies showed that those favouring greater autonomy or outright independence far outweighed those who wanted to stick with Spain.

Catalans rally against independence during a demonstration in Barcelona, on December 6, 2013
Catalans rally against independence during a demonstration in Barcelona, on December 6, 2013

On September 11, Catalonia's national day, hundreds of thousands of Catalans massed in a vast human chain stretching across the region to demand independence.

The national day recalls the conquest of Barcelona by Spanish king Philip V's forces in 1714.

Spain's regions gained a large degree of autonomy, including responsibility for health and education, after the 1975 death of General Francisco Franco, who had centralised power in Madrid.

Some of the parties in Catalonia's parliament oppose independence but Mas said Thursday's agreement had the backing of a majority.

An anti-independentist Catalan wearing glasses and an umbrella hat bearing colours of the Spanish flag takes part in a demonstration for the unity of Spain at Catalunya square in Barcelona on October 12, 2013
An anti-independentist Catalan wearing glasses and an umbrella hat bearing colours of the Spanish flag takes part in a demonstration for the unity of Spain at Catalunya square in Barcelona on October 12, 2013

Mas said he hoped that "the people of Catalonia can express their opinion in the polls and freely decide their future, as is happening elsewhere in the European Union".

Scottish leaders have called a referendum next September on independence from Britain -- a move authorised by the British government.

Rajoy said in an interview published on December 8 that Catalonia could not hold a referendum like Scotland because Spain, unlike Britain, has a written constitution that rules out such a move.

EU authorities have said Catalonia would exit the European Union if the region broke from Spain.

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