MADRID - Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy on Friday flatly rejected the possibility of any referendum in the northeastern region of Catalonia on a split from Spain, telling local leaders to desist from attempts to hold one next year.
Catalan leaders have vowed to hold a referendum on secession before September 2017 with or without consent from the central government, although they would prefer a consensual vote like the one Scotland held in 2014. Scots voted to remain part of the United Kingdom.
"It is not possible to hold a referendum that will do away with national sovereignty and the equality of Spaniards," Rajoy told a year-end news conference, adding he was always open to talks over other issues but the law was clear that a referendum was illegal.
"This is not going anywhere, I'm offering something which is a lot more reasonable, dialogue," Rajoy said. "I ask that no more steps are taken in the opposite direction."
High unemployment and austerity cuts following an economic crisis have intensified a long-standing separatist movement in the wealthly northeastern region.
Catalans held a symbolic ballot on independence from Spain in 2014 following a legal block by the central government against a formal vote. Nearly two million Catalans voted in favor of seceding from Spain but turnout was low.
Many senior politicians involved in that vote, manned by grassroots pro-independence organizations, have since faced sanctions or trials for pursuing measures which were deemed illegal by Spain's Constitutional Court.
Pro-independence parties came to power in the local Catalan assembly in 2015. Catalan President Carles Puigdemont said on Wednesday the region would have a mandate to unilaterally declare independence if more than 50 percent of residents voted in favor of the plebiscite he wants to hold next year.
However, support for a break with Spain has ebbed over the past six months, a poll showed on Thursday.
The number of Catalans who oppose secession stood at 46.8 percent in December, up from 45.1 percent in November and 42.4 percent in June, according to the regional authority's official pollster.
Support for independence, meanwhile, was slightly up from November at 45.3 percent, but down from 47.7 percent in June, when more people had declared themselves in favor of a split than against it.