Catalonia parliament approves plan for secession from Spain

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People hold "estelada" or pro-independence flags at Parliament in Barcelona, Spain, Monday, Nov. 9, 2015. (AP/Manu Fernandez)

BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — The regional parliament of Catalonia launched a plan Monday to set up a road map for independence from Spain by 2017, defying warnings from the central government in Madrid that it is violating the nation's constitution.

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy pledged to halt the effort.

The chamber, based in the northeastern city of Barcelona, passed the secession resolution in a 72-63 vote.

The proposal was made by pro-secession lawmakers from the "Together for Yes" alliance and the extreme left-wing Popular Unity Candidacy (CUP). The groups together obtained a parliamentary majority in regional elections in September that they presented as a stand-in plebiscite on independence after the central government in Madrid refused to allow an official referendum.

Spain's government reacted swiftly Monday. In a nationally televised address, Rajoy said his government will appeal the decision at the Constitutional Court, which has in the past blocked moves toward independence.

"Catalonia is not going anywhere. Nothing is going to break," Rajoy said.

He added he would meet with the leader of the main opposition Socialist Party, Pedro Sanchez, to forge a common front against the separatists.

The resolution passed by the Catalan parliament in its first postelection session declared "the start of a process toward the creation of an independent Catalan state in the form of a republic" and a "process of democratic disconnection not subject to the decisions by the institutions of the Spanish state."

While separatist lawmakers celebrated the result in the chamber, opponents held up Spanish and Catalan flags.

"There is a growing cry for Catalonia to not merely be a country, but to be a state, with everything that means," said Raul Romeva, head of the "Together for Yes" alliance.

Catalan branches of Spain's ruling conservative Popular Party and the Socialist and the Citizens opposition parties had filed appeals to halt the vote, but Spain's Constitutional Court ruled last Thursday that it could proceed.

"You want to divide a country by raising a frontier within the European Union," Citizens regional leader Ines Arrimadas told separatist lawmakers.

The Constitutional Court is expected to quickly rule that the law is illegal, but the resolution specifically orders the regional government not to heed the decision of Spain's highest court. It gives the incoming government 30 days to start working on a new Catalan constitution, which would later be voted on in a referendum by the summer of 2017, and begin establishing a new tax office and social security administration.

Pro-secessionist parties won their majority in September on the strength of just 48 percent of the vote. Anti-independence lawmakers say that denies separatists a legitimate democratic mandate to break away from Spain.

As well as warnings from the EU that an independent Catalonia would have to ask to be admitted to the bloc, separatist forces also face an internal dispute that could slow or even derail the independence push.

Later Monday, the parliament began what is expected to be a long, heated debate over whether Artur Mas should continue for a third term as regional president.

While his "Together for Yes" alliance backs him with 62 votes, it is short of the required majority of 68. The anti-independence parties are against him, and the CUP has said it won't support Mas because of his conservative austerity policies and the corruption investigations involving his Convergence Party.

The parliament has until Jan. 9 to form a government or a new election must be called.

By then, Spain will have held a national election — on Dec. 20 — and the issue of how to handle the situation in Catalonia will play a crucial role in whether the Popular Party can hold onto power.

Polls consistently show that while the majority of the 7.5 million Catalans support holding an official referendum on independence like Scotland, they are evenly divided over whether to break centuries-old ties with the rest of Spain.

Separatists have held massive pro-independence rallies since the Constitutional Court struck down key parts of a law that would have given more power to the wealthy and industrialized region in 2010.

The ranks of lifelong secessionists, who feel that the Catalan language — spoken along with Spanish in the region — and local traditions can only flourish in an independent state, have been joined by those suffering through Spain's economic problems and who believe that Catalans pay more than their fair share in taxes.

"The Spanish state has consistently frustrated our aspirations. That's why we are where we are," Mas said. "Catalonia is a country on the move. No lawsuit, threat or fear can stop the desire of millions of people."

Analysts say that with the regional and central governments on a collision course, they will eventually be forced to negotiate a way out of the impasse.

"The social and political pressure from Catalonia will provoke a political response in Madrid," said Jordi Matas, professor of political science at the University of Barcelona.