BARCELONA • Lawmakers in Catalonia officially kicked off a process to secede from Spain by 2017 despite impassioned pleas against independence, in an unprecedented showdown with Madrid's central government.
All 72 pro-independence lawmakers - the majority in the regional parliament - voted for a resolution to secede from the rest of the country, drawing huge applause that drowned out opposition MPs holding Spanish flags.
Catalonia's independence movement is an increasingly prickly thorn in the side of conservative Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, who said his government would go to the Constitutional Court to challenge the resolution.
"I will sign a (legal) recourse of unconstitutionality and will ask for... the immediate suspension of this initiative and all its possible effects," he said in a televised statement shortly after the vote.
The text calls on the regional assembly to start working on legislation within 30 days to create a separate social security system and treasury, with a view to complete independence within 18 months.
The resolution has the backing of Catalan president Artur Mas' Together For Yes coalition and the smaller far-left separatist Popular Unity Candidacy.
"With this resolution, we are solemnly kicking off the construction of a state," Mr Raul Romeva of Together For Yes told regional lawmakers.
But Mr Rajoy has the support of the main opposition Socialists and new, popular centre-right group Ciudadanos.
During the debate, Mr Xavier Garcia Albiol of Mr Rajoy's ruling Popular Party told the pro-independence MPs : "I was born in Catalonia and I want to keep living here.
"While you are spending your time and efforts to break up Catalonia from the rest of Spain, 600,000 Catalans go out on the street every day to look for work.
"While you are dedicating your time to creating state structures, 1.5 million Catalans live in precarious conditions."
Catalonia, a region of 7.5 million people with its own language that accounts for a fifth of Spain's economic output, already enjoys huge autonomy in education, health and policing.
But it demands even greater autonomy, particularly where taxation is concerned, estimating that it gives more to the central government than it receives.
A 2010 decision by Spain's Constitutional Court to water down a 2006 statute giving the region more powers has added to the growing pressure for secession.
Mr Rajoy said the government's appeal to the Constitutional Court would be filed tomorrow after an emergency Cabinet meeting.
But those who crafted the declaration had anticipated this: The resolution states that the secession process will not be subject to any decision made by Spanish institutions, including the court.
The government has also raised the possibility of invoking Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution, which allows Madrid to supersede the authority of a regional government that is acting outside the law or cut off its funding.