Leaders of Spain, Catalonia hold secession talks

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Leaders of Spain, Catalonia hold secession talks
Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy (L) and president of Catalonia's regional government Artur Mas pose before a meeting at the Moncloa place in Madrid on July 30, 2014. Rajoy recently recognized a 'problem' between the central government and Catalonia, which accounts for 20% of Spain's wealth, with the situation being totally blocked for two years and the region experiencing a strong push for independence. The region intends to organize a referendum on self-determination on November 9, despite fierce opposition from Madrid. AFP PHOTO / PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU (Photo credit should read PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU/AFP/Getty Images)
Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy (L) and president of Catalonia's regional government Artur Mas speak during a meeting at the Moncloa place in Madrid on July 30, 2014. Rajoy recently recognized a 'problem' between the central government and Catalonia, which accounts for 20% of Spain's wealth, with the situation being totally blocked for two years and the region experiencing a strong push for independence. The region intends to organize a referendum on self-determination on November 9, despite fierce opposition from Madrid. AFP PHOTO / PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU (Photo credit should read PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU/AFP/Getty Images)
President of the Catalonian Government Artur Mas speaks during a press conference after a meeting with the Spanish Prime Minister at the Moncloa palace in Madrid on July 30, 2014. The leader of Spain's economically powerful region of Catalonia said Wednesday he was 'determined' to press ahead with an independence referendum in November despite opposition from the national government. AFP PHOTO / PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU (Photo credit should read PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU/AFP/Getty Images)
President of the Catalonian Government Artur Mas speaks during a press conference after a meeting with the Spanish Prime Minister at the Moncloa palace in Madrid on July 30, 2014. The leader of Spain's economically powerful region of Catalonia said Wednesday he was 'determined' to press ahead with an independence referendum in November despite opposition from the national government. AFP PHOTO / PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU (Photo credit should read PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU/AFP/Getty Images)
President of the Catalonian Government Artur Mas speaks during a press conference after a meeting with the Spanish Prime Minister at the Moncloa palace in Madrid on July 30, 2014. The leader of Spain's economically powerful region of Catalonia said Wednesday he was 'determined' to press ahead with an independence referendum in November despite opposition from the national government. AFP PHOTO / PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU (Photo credit should read PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU/AFP/Getty Images)
President of the Catalonian Government Artur Mas speaks during a press conference after a meeting with the Spanish Prime Minister at the Moncloa palace in Madrid on July 30, 2014. The leader of Spain's economically powerful region of Catalonia said Wednesday he was 'determined' to press ahead with an independence referendum in November despite opposition from the national government. AFP PHOTO / PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU (Photo credit should read PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU/AFP/Getty Images)
President of the Catalonian Government Artur Mas speaks during a press conference after a meeting with Spanish Prime Minister at the Moncloa palace in Madrid on July 30, 2014. The leader of Spain's economically powerful region of Catalonia said Wednesday he was 'determined' to press ahead with an independence referendum in November despite opposition from the national government. AFP PHOTO / PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU (Photo credit should read PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU/AFP/Getty Images)
President of the Catalonian Government Artur Mas arrives to a press conference after is meeting with Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy at Moncloa palace in Madrid on July 30, 2014. The leader of Spain's economically powerful region of Catalonia said Wednesday he was 'determined' to press ahead with an independence referendum in November despite opposition from the national government. AFP PHOTO / PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU (Photo credit should read PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU/AFP/Getty Images)
President of the Catalonian Government Artur Mas arrives to a press conference after is meeting with Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy at Moncloa palace in Madrid on July 30, 2014. The leader of Spain's economically powerful region of Catalonia said Wednesday he was 'determined' to press ahead with an independence referendum in November despite opposition from the national government. AFP PHOTO / PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU (Photo credit should read PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU/AFP/Getty Images)
MADRID, SPAIN - JULY 30: (L-R) Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and Catalonia's President Artur Mas meet at Moncloa Palace on July 30, 2014 in Madrid, Spain. Catalonia's President and leader of the Catalan Convergence and Unity party (CiU) Artur Mas met Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy to resolve a dispute over the plans to hold a secession referendum in Catalonia on November. The meeting took place just after the historical leader of Catalan nationalism, Jordi Pujol, who ruled Catalonia for 23 years, resigned to all privileges after committing tax fraud for decades. (Photo by Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images)
Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy (C) and president of Catalonia's regional government Artur Mas chat during a meeting at the Moncloa place in Madrid on July 30, 2014. Rajoy recently recognized a 'problem' between the central government and Catalonia, which accounts for 20% of Spain's wealth, with the situation being totally blocked for two years and the region experiencing a strong push for independence. The region intends to organize a referendum on self-determination on November 9, despite fierce opposition from Madrid. AFP PHOTO / PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU (Photo credit should read PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU/AFP/Getty Images)
Catalonia's regional president Artur Mas, right, and Spain's Premier Mariano Rajoy, left, gesture before a meeting at the Moncloa Palace in Madrid, Spain, Wednesday, July 30, 2014. Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and the leader of the economically powerful Catalonia region Artur Mas are holding a crucial face-to-face meeting Wednesday in what could be a last chance for the two men to resolve a bitter dispute over the region’s plans to hold a secession referendum in November. (AP Photo/Andres Kudacki)
Catalonia's regional president Artur Mas gestures during a press conference at the Generalitat Palace in Barcelona, Spain, Tuesday, Oct. 14, 2014. Mas called a press conference amid speculation he will discuss the future of an independence referendum the central government in Madrid says would be illegal. Plans for the Spain's powerful northeastern region of Catalonia to hold a secession referendum Nov. 9 look decidedly uncertain as a pro-vote party says Mas told them the poll cannot go ahead. (AP Photo/Manu Fernandez)
People opposed to the independence of the Catalonia region of Spain, hold Catalan and Spanish flags as they celebrate a holiday known as "Dia de la Hispanidad" or Spain's National Day in Barcelona, Spain, Sunday, Oct. 12, 2014. Spain celebrates the day Christopher Columbus discovered America in the name of the Spanish Crown. (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)
Students protest against a decision by Spain’s Constitutional Court which found that a vote for a referendum in Catalonia would be unconstitutional, Barcelona, Spain, Wednesday, Oct. 8, 2014. The regional government of Catalonia says it will heed a decision by Spain's top court suspending its plans to hold an independence referendum but vows to continue efforts to hold a vote. Pro-secession supporters have called for demonstrations outside town halls later Tuesday to protest the suspension. (AP Photo/Manu Fernandez)
Students wearing white masks and a black cross covering the mouth protest against a decision by Spain’s Constitutional Court which found that a vote for a referendum in Catalonia would be unconstitutional in Barcelona, Spain, Wednesday, Oct. 8, 2014, The regional government of Catalonia says it will heed a decision by Spain's top court suspending its plans to hold an independence referendum but vows to continue efforts to hold a vote. Pro-secession supporters have called for demonstrations outside town halls later Tuesday to protest the suspension. (AP Photo/Manu Fernandez)
Balconies are decorated with "estelada" flags, that symbolizes Catalonia's independence, and a banner encouraging people to vote for a referendum in Catalonia, in Barcelona, Spain, Tuesday, Sept. 30, 2014. The regional government of Catalonia says it will heed a decision by Spain's top court suspending its plans to hold an independence referendum, but vows to continue efforts to hold a vote. (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)
A fan waves a Scottish national flag alongside others waving 'Estelada' flags, that symbolize Catalonia's independence during the Champions League Group F soccer match between Barcelona and Apoel at the Camp Nou stadium in Barcelona, Spain, Wednesday, Sept. 17, 2014. (AP Photo/Manu Fernandez)
People wave “estelada” flags, that symbolizes Catalonia's independence, during a demonstration calling for the independence of Catalonia in Barcelona, Spain, Thursday, Sept 11, 2014. A week before Scotland votes on whether to break away from the United Kingdom, separatists in northeastern Spain were trying to convince hundreds of thousands to protest across Catalonia to demand a secession sentiment vote that the central government in Madrid insists would be illegal. AP Photo/Manu Fernandez)
Pro independence supporters gather outside the Generalitat Palace, the main head office of the Government of Catalonia, as Catalonia's regional president Artur Mas, signs the decree to call the referendum in Catalonia in Barcelona, Spain, Saturday, Sept. 27, 2014. The president of Spain's powerful northeastern region of Catalonia on Saturday formally called an independence referendum Nov. 9, the latest secession push in Europe and one of the most serious challenges to the Spanish state of recent years. (AP Photo/Jordi Borras)
People wave “estelada” flags, that symbolize Catalonia's independence, during a demonstration calling for the independence of Catalonia outside of the Parliament of Barcelona, Spain, Friday, Sept. 19, 2014. A day after Scotland rejected breaking away from Britain, the regional parliament in Spain's Catalonia is expected to grant its leader the power to call a secession referendum that the central government in Madrid says would be illegal. Banner reads, 'On 9 Nov, we will vote.' (AP Photo/Manu Fernandez)
People wave “estelada” flags, that symbolize Catalonia's independence, and Spanish flags during a demonstration calling for the independence of Catalonia outside of the Parliament of Barcelona, Spain, Friday, Sept. 19, 2014. A day after Scotland rejected breaking away from Britain, the regional parliament in Spain's Catalonia is expected to grant its leader the power to call a secession referendum that the central government in Madrid says would be illegal.(AP Photo/Manu Fernandez)
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By CIARAN GILES

MADRID (AP) - The leader of the economically powerful Catalonia region held firm in a meeting with Spain's prime minister on Wednesday, saying he intends to push ahead with a secession referendum in November despite the central government's vows to stop it from happening.

After a 2 1/2 hour meeting with Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, Catalonia President Artur Mas said the referendum issue remains deadlocked. However, he said there was a willingness on both sides to keep communication channels open.

Mas said the talks took place "in an atmosphere of frank dialogue."

"That, in itself, is very positive," he said. "There are always potential solutions" to disagreements, he said.

A Spanish government statement said Rajoy had reiterated to Mas that the planned Nov. 9 referendum was illegal and would be blocked. Rajoy said the most important thing right now for all of Spain, Catalonia included, was to consolidate the recovery from a severe economic crisis the country has endured since 2008, according to the statement. Unemployment is at 25 percent.

The independence campaign holds profound consequences for Spain as it emerges from a double-dip recession, with Catalonia a strong source of growth. Europe will be watching the debate closely as Scotland also prepares to hold a vote Sept. 18 on breaking away from the rest of Britain.

Mas said he also presented Rajoy with 23 economic and social issues that affected the daily lives of Catalans. He said that, among other things, he asked Rajoy to reconsider government plans for cutbacks in funding for social services and education reforms.

Those issues could open the way for Rajoy to make political concessions to the Catalans without granting an independence referendum.

The closed-door session at Moncloa Palace in Madrid came after months of clamor by political parties and business groups for the two to sit down and try to come up with a roadmap to prevent the dispute from boiling over. But there had been little expectation of any major breakthrough.

Pro-independence sentiment in Catalonia has grown greatly in recent years, fueled by a sense that the region deserves better economic and political treatment from Madrid. The surge stems from June 2010 when the Constitutional Court struck down key parts of a groundbreaking charter that would have granted Catalonia more autonomy and recognized it as a nation within Spain.

In the proposed referendum, the regional government wants to ask voters if they want Catalonia to be a state and, if so, should it be independent. Polls show that while a strong majority of Catalonia's 7.5 million residents want the ballot, only around half favor severing ties.

Lawmakers in parliament, who overwhelmingly reject the referendum, argue that Catalonians alone can't decide something that affects all of Spain.

The referendum has stirred debate about whether the 1978 Spanish Constitution should be reformed to devolve more power to the country's 17 regions and calm territorial unease.

An opinion poll published Wednesday by leading newspaper El Pais showed 62 percent of Spaniards favored Rajoy negotiating a reform of the constitution that would satisfy Catalonia in exchange for Mas halting the referendum. The survey by the private firm Metroscopia quizzed 600 people and had a margin of error of 4.1 percent.

Catalonia, whose capital is Barcelona, is fiercely proud of its language and distinct cultural traditions. Many of its people are convinced that independence would benefit them economically. However, both the European Union and NATO have warned such a new state would have to reapply for membership, a scenario unappealing to a people who pride themselves on their common sense and business savvy.

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