Catalan President Artur Mas said on Wednesday that his people have the right to decide whether to break away from Spain. He will forge ahead with plans for a Nov. 9 vote on independence that Spain’s central government vows to block on constitutional grounds.
Mas, leader of the northeastern Spanish region of 7 million people, told Reuters in an interview he is seeking a legal formula for a non-binding vote, although Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has said any format is illegal.
The 58-year-old Catalan leader, president since 2010, said there is nothing that Rajoy is likely to offer him that will tamp down the surging independence movement and persuade him to call off the vote.
"In the end, the central government must abandon its political shortsightedness and leave Catalonia alone to hold the consultation," Mas told Reuters.
Two years ago, at the height of Spain's financial crisis, Mas, who built his political career as conservative budget slasher, got fed up with trying to negotiate a new tax deal with Spain's central government.
He abandoned his lifelong moderate nationalist stance — that of pushing Spain to give Catalonia more self-governing powers — and took up the radical cause of independence.
Riding a wave of pro-independence protests in Catalonia, Mas called for a referendum. He has since set a date of Nov. 9, almost two months after Scotland's scheduled independence vote.
But while Scotland's vote will be recognized by Great Britain, Spain's parliament earlier this year blocked Mas's initial bid for a referendum.
Mas said he still had legal options. He said in the coming weeks the Catalonian regional parliament would pass a law setting rules for a popular consultation to be held instead.
The Catalan leader plans to ask two questions in the Nov. 9 vote: Whether Catalonia should be a separate state and whether that state should be independent.
Mas still anticipates the central government will immediately ask Spain's Constitutional Court to block the consultation. If that happens, he will hold early elections to the regional parliament as a proxy vote on independence.
"What the Spanish state has to do is accept the consultation [on independence] and do what the British government is doing with the Scots — convince the Catalans they should remain Spanish," Mas told Reuters, adding that a "yes" vote in Scotland would be very positive for Catalonia.
Catalonia, one of 17 Spanish autonomous regions and generator of a fifth of the nation's wealth, has its own language and cultural identity and has long fought for greater autonomy.
But in the last three years, public spending cuts during a deep recession, a perception of unfair taxation from the central government and limitations on teaching in the Catalan language in schools unleashed a surge in separatist sentiment.
Seventy-four percent of Catalans want a referendum on independence, according to a May poll in La Vanguardia newspaper. The poll showed 43 percent want independence, 43 percent are opposed and the rest undecided.