Spanish and Catalonian leaders begin referendum talks

Meeting seen as last-ditch effort to find common ground on independence vote

Catalonia’s regional president Artur Mas (right) and Spain’s prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, before their meeting at the Moncloa Palace in Madrid yesterday. Photograph: AP Photo/Andres Kudacki

Catalonia’s regional president Artur Mas (right) and Spain’s prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, before their meeting at the Moncloa Palace in Madrid yesterday. Photograph: AP Photo/Andres Kudacki

 

Spain’s prime minister and the secession-minded leader of Catalonia have begun talks amid a bitter dispute over the wealthy northeastern region’s plans to hold a referendum on independence in November.

Catalan president Artur Mas said the 2½-hour closed-door session with Mariano Rajoy “wasn’t the end of anything, and that in itself is quite positive”. There was a willingness on both sides to keep talking, he said.

His press conference was slightly delayed by a man who yelled “Long live Spain!” in Catalan repeatedly until being forced to leave by police.

Last-ditch opportunity

With just over three months left until Catalonia’s referendum, the meeting was widely seen as a last-ditch opportunity for the political adversaries to find common ground and ward off a potential crisis bet- ween Madrid and Barcelona.

Mr Mas said the pair addressed a wide range of issues, including the region’s economy and infrastructure, but failed to reach any kind of consensus on the November plebiscite. “I told him that we are absolutely determined, as I told him a year ago, to hold the consultation.”

Mr Rajoy said he had reiterated that the referendum could not take place as it would be illegal under Spain’s constitution.

In the absence of any alternative proposal from Mr Rajoy, Mr Mas said he would continue to push for the central government to allow the referendum to be held legally. “We want to do it within a legal framework, like the British vote,” he said.

Polls show that more than 70 per cent of Catalonia’s 7.5 million residents would like to hold a referendum. Those who would vote to sever ties with Spain hovers at around half.

In recent months there has been growing pressure on both men to discuss alternative solutions such as a reform of Spain’s 1978 constitution to transfer more powers to the country’s 17 regions. A poll published yesterday by El País suggested that this idea was popular across Spain: 62 per cent of the 600 Spaniards polled favoured the idea of constitutional reform if it could prevent the referendum and keep Catalonia in Spain.

Spain’s business community has championed this approach in recent months, worried that the secession drive could hamper Spain’s fragile economy as it emerges from its worst economic crisis in a generation. Catalonia produces a quarter of Spain’s exports, making the region a major driver of growth.

A recent survey of 100 Catalan business leaders by PricewaterhouseCoopers found that about 70 per cent wanted dialogue between Madrid and Barcelona, “almost with desperation”.

The Catalan secession movement is reeling from last week’s revelation that Jordi Pujol, the president of Catalonia for 23 years and founder of the political party now led by Mr Mas, stashed an undisclosed amount of money in an offshore account for more than three decades.

After months of denial, Mr Pujol, who remains a powerful player in the region, apologised and said the money had come from an inheritance. He had “never found the right moment to regularise” the funds, he said, adding that he was willing “to appear before tax authorities or, if needed, judicial authorities”, to expl- ain his 34 years of tax evasion.

Corruption

With Catalan nationalists often pointing to corruption in the central government as a reason to break off ties with Spain, the incident came as a blow to the independence movement. The revelations have shone a spotlight on corruption in Catalonia, including on two of Mr Pujol’s sons, both politicians who are being investigated by judges for corruption.

Mr Mas has taken steps to distance the movement from Mr Pujol, announcing that he would be stripped of his pension, titles and other perks. – (Guardian service)