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Catalonia steps up separatist challenge with Oct. 1 vote

Associated Press logo Associated Press 9/06/2017 By MANU FERNANDEZ and ARITZ PARRA, Associated Press
The leader of Spain's Catalonia region, Carles Puigdemont, speaks during an statement in Barcelona, Spain, Friday, June 9, 2017. Catalonia's regional government announced that his pro-independence government will make a referendum scheduled for next Oct. 1, 2017 on a split from Spain, despite fierce opposition from the central government. (AP Photo/Manu Fernandez) © The Associated Press The leader of Spain's Catalonia region, Carles Puigdemont, speaks during an statement in Barcelona, Spain, Friday, June 9, 2017. Catalonia's regional government announced that his pro-independence government will make a referendum scheduled for next Oct. 1, 2017 on a split from Spain, despite fierce opposition from the central government. (AP Photo/Manu Fernandez)

BARCELONA, Spain — Catalonia's regional government on Friday chose Oct. 1 as the date for a referendum on a split from Spain, stepping up the confrontation with the country's central government, which sees the vote as illegal.

Regional president Carles Puigdemont said Catalans will be asked to answer yes or no to a single question: "Do you want Catalonia to become an independent state in the form of a republic?"

Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy's conservative government didn't comment immediately but has previously said that it won't allow the vote because it considers it unconstitutional.

The country's Constitutional Court has already invalidated previous attempts by the northeastern region to gain more autonomy. Several Catalan politicians, including former regional president Artur Mas, have been fined or barred from public office for holding a mock referendum in November 2014.

Officials in Rajoy's cabinet have said that the government will safeguard the nation's unity if Catalan politicians or the regional parliament make a formal move toward holding the vote.

"They can announce that referendum as many times as they want and delay it for weeks or hold as many events as they want," said vice president Soraya Saenz de Santamaria earlier this week. "But the referendum will not be held," she said.

Puigdemont said the decision to call for the vote was reached after efforts for over 18 months failed to establish a dialogue with Madrid.

In a highly anticipated televised statement on Friday in Barcelona following a brief meeting of his cabinet, he also said the vote was nonnegotiable because Catalans backed his plan for secession by voting for his coalition of pro-independence parties at the end of 2015.

"It is time for Catalans to decide their future," Puigdemont said, surrounded by members of his government. "It is in our hands to prove that democracy unites us all above the legitimate and healthy discrepancies that characterize mature societies," he added.

Catalonia, a wealthy region in northeastern Spain, represents a fifth of Spain's GDP and has a population of over seven million.

Separatists, who gained support as the economic crisis swelled the number of jobless, often say that the region's future is brighter outside of Spain. They also say that an independent Catalonia would better defend their strong cultural identity and Catalan language.

Rajoy has opposed those arguments and recently said that the region could lose up to 30 percent of its GDP and that it would have to seek readmission to the European Union.

Polls consistently show that a large majority of Catalans are in favor of voting to change the current relationship between Catalonia and Spain, although the number of those who back independence among them have declined recently. Members of the business community and some key political allies have also distanced themselves from the unilateral referendum.

Barcelona mayor Ada Colau, a prominent figure in Spain's new anti-establishment left movement, has rejected supporting a vote that is not agreed with central authorities.

Circulo de Economia, a civic association that includes a high number of prominent companies among its 1,300 members, urged both sides last month to resolve the conflict by finding "alternative means that are not just black and white."

Its executive director, Jordi Alberich, recently told The Associated Press that the political deadlock has not led to economic losses in the region for now. "If we enter a dynamic of radicalization and going against the law, that's a scenario that could certainly have dire consequences," he said.

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Parra reported from Madrid.

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