BARCELONA Catalan President Artur Mas said on Wednesday his people have the right to decide on breaking away from Spain and he is forging ahead with plans for a Nov. 9 vote on independence that the central government vows to block on constitutional grounds.
Mas, leader of the northeastern Spanish region of 7 million people, told Reuters in an interview he is seeking a legal formula for a non-binding vote although Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has said any format is illegal.
The 58-year-old Catalan leader, president since 2010, said there is nothing that Rajoy is likely to offer him that will damp down the surging independence movement and persuade him to call off the vote, which he calls a "popular consultation".
"In the end, the central government must abandon its political shortsightedness and leave Catalonia alone to hold the consultation," Mas said in an interview in the Pedralbes Royal Palace in Barcelona.
Two years ago at the height of Spain's financial crisis Mas, an economist who built his political career as conservative budget slasher, got fed up with trying to negotiate a new tax deal with Spain's central government and made a dramatic switch.
He abandoned his lifelong moderate nationalist stance - that of pushing Spain to give Catalonia more self-governing powers - and took up the radical cause of independence.
Riding a wave of pro-independence protests in Catalonia, Mas called for a referendum. He has since sent a date of Nov. 9, almost two months after Scotland's independence vote.
But while Scotland's vote is legal and will be recognized by Great Britain, Spain's parliament earlier this year blocked Mas's initial bid for a referendum.
Mas said he still had legal options. He said in the coming weeks the Catalonian regional parliament would pass a law setting rules for a popular consultation to be held instead.
This is a non-binding vote which will not lead to a unilateral declaration of independence. However, Mas said it will give him a mandate to seek a new relationship with Spain, including more power over taxes, welfare spending, police, infrastructure, and education.
The Catalan leader plans to ask two questions in the Nov. 9 vote: whether Catalonia should be a separate state, and whether that state should be independent.
Mas still anticipates the central government will immediately ask Spain's Constitutional Court to block the consultation and if that happens he will hold early elections to the regional parliament as a proxy vote on independence.
"What the Spanish state has to do is accept the consultation (on independence) and do what the British government is doing with the Scots, convince the Catalans they should remain Spanish," said Mas, adding that a "yes" vote in Scotland would be very positive for Catalonia. Opinion polls indicate Scotland will not vote for independence.
A SEPARATE IDENTITY
Catalonia, one of 17 Spanish autonomous regions and generator of a fifth of the nation's wealth, has its own language and cultural identity and has long fought for greater self-rule.
But in the last three years, public spending cuts during a deep recession, a perception of unfair tax treatment from the central government, and limitations on teaching in the Catalan language in schools unleashed a surge in independence sentiment.
Seventy-four percent of Catalans want a referendum on independence according to a Feedback poll for La Vanguardia newspaper in May. The poll showed 43 percent want independence, 43 percent are opposed and the rest undecided.
Mas rejected criticism that his separatist fervor is driven by political opportunism.
"I have taken the most uncomfortable position possible, fighting against the status quo and the established powers," said Mas.
If Mas is prevented from holding the consultation and calls early elections, opinion polls show his center-right CiU alliance would lose to radical independence party Republican Left of Catalonia and he does not rule out a pact in the future.
"This is a time in Catalonia when we have to unite in a joint effort, do things in a new way. When we are divided, in Madrid they are toasting us with champagne," he said.
Prime Minister Rajoy and Mas have resisted pressure from political and business leaders to negotiate a solution to their impasse. Mas told Reuters he was open to dialogue with Rajoy, but only on how to reshape Catalan-Spanish relations after the popular vote on independence.
He said a separate Catalonia would enjoy 15 billion euros more in tax revenue every year. Rajoy's government disputes the figure, saying it does not take into account Catalan benefiting from the Spanish military, monarchy and other institutions.
Analysts say Mas must abandon the referendum if he wants to negotiate a way out with Rajoy.
"Rajoy will not concede on any profound changes as long as the Catalan government continues pushing for a referendum," said Antonio Barroso, political analyst with Teneo Intelligence, a consultancy.
Expectations are high in Catalonia over a vote on independence and some fear violent protests if there are no polls on Nov. 9.
"I forecast tension and that's not the best scenario. That is why we are trying to bet on dialogue and negotiation," Mas said.
Visitors to Catalonia are often stunned at the depth of separatist emotions and the ubiquitous presence of the pro-independence flag - a white star in a blue triangle against the red and yellow stripes of the official Catalan flag.
"I was actually shocked to discover the intensity of feeling," Nobel Peace Prize laureate Desmond Tutu told Reuters on Tuesday before receiving a Catalan reward for global service.
The recognized expert on reconciliation - one of only a handful of international figures to speak to the Catalan issue - urged the two sides to seek dialogue.
Catalonia has drawn little support in its international diplomatic campaign to explain its separatist quest.
Mas said that if a large majority of Catalans show they want independence, Europe and the euro zone have to be practical and allow them to stay in the EU and the single currency.
He said his government would present a series of studies this summer to explain the benefits of Catalan independence.
"If Catalonia ended up outside the euro and the EU that would be because Spain wanted to take revenge and block them out of everything," he said.
(Editing by Giles Elgood)