Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy vowed on Thursday to block an attempt by Catalan leaders to hold an independence referendum on Nov. 9 next year.
A few hours after Catalan political chief Artur Mas unveiled the date and wording of the poll, the Spanish leader refused even to countenance a break-up of the nation.
“It is unconstitutional and it will not take place,” Rajoy said at a news conference.
“This initiative collides head-on with the foundation of the constitution, which is the indissoluble unity of the Spanish nation,” the prime minister said.
Mas said a majority of parties in Catalonia backed the referendum.
“There will be time for the Spanish state to negotiate with the Catalan institutions over how to hold this consultation in accordance with existing legal norms,” Mas said.
Proud of their distinct language and culture and fed up after five years of stop-and-start recession, many of the 7.5 million people in Catalonia want to redraw the map of Spain, saying they feel short-changed by the central government which redistributes their taxes.
However, Rajoy swiftly squashed any hope that Madrid would consider allowing the creation of a new nation nestled between France and Spain.
“No government can surrender what belongs to the Spanish people,” the Spanish leader said.
Rajoy said he regretted initiatives that “splinter society, feed division and generate deep uncertainty.”
He called directly on Mas to respect “the political commitment he assumed not to break the law.”
EU President Herman Van Rompuy, who was in Madrid for talks with Rajoy, told reporters at the same news conference that he was “confident” Spain would remain united.
He further warned that any new and independent state would have to apply to become a member of the EU, subject to ratification by all member states.
Catalonia now accounts for one-fifth of Spain’s total output and an even greater share of its exports.
However, a recent poll by the Catalonia Centre for Opinion Studies showed that those favoring greater autonomy or outright independence far outweighed those who wanted to stay a part of Spain.
Many Catalans point to Scotland, whose leaders have called a referendum in September next year on independence from Britain — a move authorized by the British government.
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.