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Spanish stalemate as Rajoy — Mas talks fail

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy (right) gestures at Catalan President Artur Mas during a meeting at the Moncloa Palace in Madrid.
‘Frank dialogue’ between two leaders over Catalan referendum sees no breakthrough

MADRID — Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and Catalan President Artur Mas failed to break the deadlock over Catalonia’s independence drive yesterday, with both holding firm on their positions when they met for the first time in a year.

The meeting had been seen as an opportunity for the two leaders to work on a possible compromise over an independence referendum that the northern region wants to hold on November 9 — two months after a similar vote in Scotland that is being closely watched in Catalonia.

After a meeting that lasted two and a half hours with Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, Catalonia President Artur Mas said the referendum issue remains deadlocked. Rajoy insisted once again the referendum was unconstitutional and he would block it, while Mas, the leader of the economically-powerful region, said he would go ahead with the vote.

However, he said there was a willingness on both sides to keep communication channels open. “My message is the same as it was a year ago. We are absolutely decided to continue with this consultation,” Mas told reporters afterwards. “(Rajoy) has reiterated that the referendum cannot go ahead because, according to the state, it is illegal. And so, there is no alternative proposal from him.”

Mas said the talks took place “in an atmosphere of frank dialogue.”

“That, in itself, is very positive,” he said. “There are always potential solutions” to disagreements, he said.

A Spanish government statement said Rajoy had reiterated to Mas that the planned referendum was illegal. The PM said the most important thing right now for all of Spain, Catalonia included, was to consolidate the recovery from a severe economic crisis the country has endured since 2008, according to the statement. Unemployment is at 25 percent.

Profound consequences

The independence campaign holds profound consequences for Spain as it emerges from a double-dip recession, with Catalonia a strong source of growth. Europe will be watching the debate closely as Scotland also prepares to hold a vote September 18 on breaking away from the rest of Britain.

Mas said he also presented Rajoy with 23 economic and social issues that affected the daily lives of Catalans. He said that, among other things, he asked Rajoy to reconsider government plans for cutbacks in funding for social services and education reforms.

Those issues could open the way for Rajoy to make political concessions to the Catalans without granting an independence referendum.

The closed-door session at Moncloa Palace in Madrid came after months of clamour by political parties and business groups for the two to try to come up with a roadmap to prevent the dispute from boiling over. But there had been little expectation of any major breakthrough.

Pro-independence sentiment in Catalonia has grown greatly in recent years, fuelled by a sense that the region deserves better economic and political treatment from Madrid. The surge stems from June 2010 when the Constitutional Court struck down key parts of a groundbreaking charter that would have granted Catalonia more autonomy and recognized it as a nation within Spain.

In the proposed referendum, the regional government wants to ask voters if they want Catalonia to be a state and, if so, should it be independent. Polls show that while a strong majority of Catalonia’s 7.5 million residents want the ballot, only around half favour severing ties.

Lawmakers in parliament, who overwhelmingly reject the referendum, argue that Catalonians alone can’t decide something that affects all of Spain.

The referendum has stirred debate about whether the 1978 Spanish Constitution should be reformed to devolve more power to the country’s 17 regions and calm territorial unease.

An opinion poll published yesterday by El País showed 62 percent of Spaniards favoured Rajoy negotiating a reform of the constitution that would satisfy Catalonia in exchange for Mas halting the ballot.

Catalonia is fiercely proud of its language and distinct cultural traditions. Many of its people are convinced that independence would benefit them economically. However, both the EU and NATO have warned such a new state would have to reapply for membership, a scenario unappealing to a people who pride themselves on their common sense and business savvy.

— Herald with AP, Reuters

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