MADRID: Spain's deputy prime minister warned yesterday the government has the legal power to halt a planned referendum on Catalonia's possible separation from Spain.
Soraya Saenz de Santamaria said the plebiscite would be illegal and "our legislation has many mechanisms to stop any illegality."
She spoke just hours before the two parties with most seats in Catalonia's Parliament signed an agreement that calls for a self-determination referendum in 2014 in the northeastern region whose capital is Barcelona.
The governing Convergence and Union agreed on Tuesday to hold the referendum within two years in return for the Republican Left of Catalonia's support to form a new regional government following recent elections.
The pact paves the way for Convergence and Union leader and acting regional president Artur Mas to be voted back into office by the Catalonian Parliament tomorrow.
"We aim to put the future of Catalonia in the hands of the citizens of Catalonia and to do that we want to consult them democratically," said Republican Left leader Oriol Junqueras.
The national government, however, says any referendum proposing a change in the region's status within Spain would be illegal and unconstitutional. A similar move by Spain's Basque region was rejected by the national Parliament in Madrid in 2005.
Catalonia is Spain's most economically powerful region but now the most indebted due to the crisis. It has asked for some € 5 billion ($ 6.6 billion) from a central government bailout fund.
Mas called early elections in November and proposed the referendum after Spain rejected a demand to grant the region special fiscal powers. But his party lost 12 seats in the election and was left needing support to form a minority government. Pro-referendum parties now have a majority of seats in the regional parliament.
However, Unlike the Republican Left, the conservative and business-oriented Convergence and Union has never actually come out and declared itself in favor of independence.
No specific date has been set for the referendum. And although the wording of the plebiscite question has yet to be decided, the pact says it would allow Catalonians to express by referendum whether they want Catalonia to become a European state.
European Union authorities have said an independent Catalonia would have to reapply for membership of the bloc.
Polls show Catalonians are almost evenly divided over independence, but a majority opposes it if it means exiting the EU.
FROM: THE ASSOCIATED PRESS