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Catalan leader vows to press head with independence referendum

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy (left) and Catalan leader Artur Mas shake hands before a meeting at the Moncloa Palace in Madrid, on July 30, 2014
Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy (left) and Catalan leader Artur Mas shake hands before a meeting at the Moncloa Palace in Madrid, on July 30, 2014

The leader of Spain's economically powerful region of Catalonia vowed Wednesday to press ahead with an independence referendum during talks with Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy who insists the poll is illegal.

"My message was exactly the same as a year ago, we are absolutely determined to hold the consultation," Artur Mas told reporters following a two-hour meeting with Rajoy.

He said Rajoy reiterated his long-standing position during their talks that the referendum would be illegal under Spain's constitution.

Mas, who has headed the Catalan government since 2010, began pushing for the referendum after he failed to clinch a better financial deal from the central government for Catalonia in 2012.

His conservative Convergence and Union party formed a political alliance after regional elections that year with the separatist Esquerra Republicana party (ERC) which has kept up the pressure for the referendum.

Mas upped the ante in December when he set November 9 as the date for the poll -- two months after Scotland votes on independence from Britain in a referendum authorised by London.

Rajoy has insisted the vote would be illegal since under Spain's constitution referendums on sovereignty must be held nationally and not regionally. He has vowed to block any referendum.

But Mas points to polls that show a large majority of Catalans backing his planned referendum.

He told reporters he would like the referendum to have the backing of the national government.

"We want to do it within a legal framework, like the British vote," he said in a reference to the referendum in Scotland.

- Growing pressure for secession -

Graphic with key facts on Catalonia and Spain
Graphic with key facts on Catalonia and Spain

With an economy roughly the size of Portugal's, Catalonia and its 7.5 million inhabitants -- 16 percent of the Spanish population -- have long been an engine for the country as a whole.

The region, which has its own language and distinctive culture, combines a powerful financial services sector with a strong industrial base ranging from textiles and automobile manufacturing to biotechnology.

The 1992 Summer Olympics, in part financed by the national government, helped transform the Catalan capital, Barcelona, into one of Europe's most visited cities.

But a growing number of Catalans resent the redistribution of their taxes to other parts of Spain 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 and a 2010 decision by Spain's constitutional court to water down a 2006 statute giving the region more powers have added to the growing pressure for secession.

Support for independence itself was about 45 percent in April, according to the regional government's most recent poll. That compares with about 20 percent in October 2010 before Mas took office.

Backing for independence is lower when Catalans are asked if they would still favour breaking away from the rest of Spain if this meant the region would have to leave the European Union.

Both the European Union and NATO have warned that Catalonia would be excluded if it broke away from Spain.

Mas has threatened to call snap regional elections as a form of plebiscite on the struggle for independence if the central government blocks the independence referendum.

Analysts say he could also opt to go ahead with the referendum even if it is not recognised in the hope that a large vote in favour of independence will push the central government to allow a legal poll.

The secession movement was dealt a potential blow on Friday when Jordi Pujol, Catalonia's elder statesman and a leading independence advocate, admitted his family had hidden money in offshore accounts for over three decades.

Pujol, 84, who headed the regional government of Catalonia from 1980 to 2003, had previously denied media reports of undeclared accounts.

Mas on Tuesday announced that Pujol would be stripped of his pension, office, official car and other perks.

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