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Spain

Madrid blocks Catalan independence referendum

Spanish lawmakers have rejected a request by the northeastern region of Catalonia for permission to hold a referendum for independence. Catalan nationalists say they will still push ahead with a ballot in November.

Spain's Congress has rejected a proposal to allow the region of Catalonia to stage a referendum on independence late on Tuesday (08.04.2014). The vote tightens a standoff between Madrid and the northeastern region which is threatening to become a major political crisis.

Congress debated and voted on a motion which called for it to transfer the power to hold the referendum to the regional government of Catalonia, which is leading the independence campaign. The Catalan government has already scheduled a referendum for November 9.

The overwhelming result was widely anticipated, with 299 votes against and only 47 in favor and one abstention. Spain's ruling conservative Popular Party (PP) voted against the proposal, along with main opposition Socialist Party and some smaller parties. The United Left, Catalan pro-independence groups and Galician and Basque nationalists backed the motion.

Unconstitutional vote

The Spanish government said the vote supported its argument that a Catalan referendum on independence is impossible because it would violate the constitution. In March, Spain's Constitutional Court ruled that Catalonia could only stage such a ballot if changes were made to the constitution.

But in the congressional debate Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy also relied on other, less legal, arguments.

Mariano Rajoy (photo: EFE/Ballesteros)

Rajoy has said he can't imagine Spain without Catalonia

"I defend Catalonia remaining part of Spain because I can't imagine Spain without Catalonia or Catalonia outside Spain," he said. "It's a question of emotion, of feeling, of a shared history."

Rajoy even surprised onlookers by uttering a few words in the Catalan language, as he insisted that the region's culture was not repressed by Madrid, as nationalists often claim.

But nationalists vowed to push ahead with their bid for a referendum on independence, despite the vote against them.

"It doesn't all finish here, by any means," said Artur Mas, the Catalan regional premier who has led the independence campaign, immediately after the vote. "The will of Catalonia cannot be stopped by a vote in Congress."

Mas had stayed away from the debate, saying he preferred not to give his political opponents in Madrid the "great victory" of watching him lose the resulting vote in the flesh.

His decision seemed to be influenced by a similar independence plan presented to the Spanish Congress in 2005 by Juan Jose Ibarretxe, the then-leader of the Basque region. Ibarretxe suffered a humiliating political defeat when he watched as Congress blocked his proposal.

Spain's economic powerhouse

With a population of over 7 million, Catalonia has Spain's largest regional economy. While nationalists see independence as a longstanding historical aim, the recent economic crisis has strained relations between the region and the rest of the country. The Catalan government claims that it pays out too much money to the Spanish state in taxes, effectively subsidising poorer regions.

Demonstrators march during The National Day of Catalonia (photo: David Ramos/Getty Images)

Thousands of Catalans have demanded the right to vote on independence

The recent independence drive also has political causes. A 2010 decision by Spain's Constitutional Court to strike down several new powers granted to Catalonia sparked outrage. Last month's ruling by the same court drew a similar response.

Mas recently warned that he had not ruled out making a unilateral declaration of independence if he had no other alternative. With the Spanish courts and Congress now deeming a Catalan referendum illegal, the region's leader must decide whether to proceed with the November referendum as planned, without the state's blessing, or to reconsider.

Fernando Vallespin, a sociologist at Madrid's Autonoma University, said the only way to defuse the political tension could be to pursue a "new federal settlement" which gave Catalonia increased powers but not full independence. The opposition Socialists have been advocating such a plan, although neither unionists nor separatists have taken it up.

A full independence process, Vallespin said, would be deeply traumatic and difficult to see through.

"You always know how you start a divorce, but you never know how it ends," Vallespin said. "And it normally ends up creating enormous stress for both parties."

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