Spain in crisis over Catalan independence bid

BARCELONA (AFP) - Spain's government grappled with a crisis over the nation's sovereignty on Friday after it promised to block Catalonia's "unconstitutional" plan for a Nov 9, 2014 independence referendum.

Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy savaged the poll plan unveiled Thursday by Catalan regional political chief Artur Mas and his political allies.

The referendum would ask Catalan voters two questions:

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

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

PM Rajoy said the poll flouted the constitution's founding principle of national unity and would deprive the entire Spanish people of their sovereign rights.

"It is unconstitutional and it will not take place," PM Rajoy told a news conference shortly after the scheme was announced.

The head of Spain's main opposition Socialist Party, Mr Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba, also flatly opposed the referendum. "It would lead Catalans up a blind alley," he warned.

Spain's newspapers reacted with indignation and dismay over the rift that had been exposed between Catalonia, where pro-independence stirrings are growing, and the rest of Spain.

Proud of their distinct language and culture and suffering from five years of stop-start recession, many of the 7.5 million people in Catalonia say they feel short-changed by the central government.

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.

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.

"Rebels stage their illegal challenge," blared the front page of conservative daily ABC.

"Mas pushes Catalonia towards the abyss... and Rajoy answers with the force of the constitution," warned rival conservative newspaper El Mundo.

Left-of-centre daily El Pais said Mr Mas was prepared to spark a constitutional crisis to reach his goals, which it described as "absolutely unattainable under the laws that the Spanish people have given him".

It warned that the dispute could lead to a "paralysis" in broader relations between Spain and Catalonia.

El Pais accused Mr Mas of agreeing to an independence poll because his coalition partner, Republican Left of Catalonia, had threatened to refuse to approve the region's 2014 budget if he failed to do so.

"With this initiative, Mas obtains very meagre political returns in the short-term," it said.

Catalan daily La Vanguardia said Mr Mas had strengthened his leadership position in Catalonia but he now faced outright opposition by the national government and main opposition party.

"There is little room for agreement. But there is time," the paper said.

Political sciences professor Francesc Pallares, at Barcelona's Pompeu Fabra University, said PM Rajoy's government should have acted much sooner to avoid such a face-off.

"Either we can rebuild bridges from one side to the other or the scenario ahead is a bit scary because there is going to be a train crash with unpredictable consequences," Prof Pallares warned.

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.

In modern history, 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.

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

But many Catalans felt spurned in 2010 when Spain's constitutional court watered down a 2006 Catalan autonomy statute, and the economic pain of Spanish-imposed austerity has fed the pro-independence fires.

Some now point to Scotland, whose leaders have called a referendum next September on independence from Britain - a move authorised by the British government.

PM Rajoy said in an interview this month that Catalonia could not hold a referendum like Scotland because Spain, unlike Britain, has a written constitution that rules out such a move.

The European Union has also warned that any new independent state would have to apply to join the bloc, subject to ratification by all member states.