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Published: Friday December 13, 2013 MYT 1:30:09 AM
Updated: Friday December 13, 2013 MYT 1:30:11 AM

Catalonia sets referendum date next year, Spain says it won't happen

Catalonia's President Artur Mas gestures during a news conference presenting the government plan at Generalitat de Catalunya Palace in Barcelona June 11, 2013. REUTERS/Albert Gea

Catalonia's President Artur Mas gestures during a news conference presenting the government plan at Generalitat de Catalunya Palace in Barcelona June 11, 2013. REUTERS/Albert Gea

MADRID (Reuters) - Separatist parties in Spain's Catalonia region set November 9 next year as the date for a proposed independence referendum on Thursday and agreed the wording, but the Spanish government immediately poured cold water on the plan.

Catalan regional government head Artur Mas said the vote, which the Spanish government says would be unconstitutional, would ask two questions: "Do you want Catalonia to be a state?" and "Do you want that state to be independent?"

Calls for independence in Catalonia, a wealthy industrial region of northeastern Spain which accounts for a fifth of the country's economic output, have grown as a prolonged Spanish recession and cuts in public spending have hit the area, creating a headache for Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy.

Mas argued that there was a way for the vote to be held legally, but within minutes of his statement, Spanish Justice Minister Alberto Ruiz-Gallardon said the vote could not take place because Spain's constitution would not allow it.

"Our constitution does not allow any region to organise a vote or a referendum that concerns national sovereignty," Alberto Ruiz-Gallardon told national radio.

The ambiguous wording of the proposed first question: "Do you want to be a state?" was aimed at satisfying parties who wanted more independence from Madrid without separating altogether and at attracting as many voters as possible, political analysts said.

The Catalan government has been talking about a possible referendum since late last year and a Metroscopia poll in newspaper El Pais last month showed that 46 percent of Catalans favour separatism versus 42 percent who wish to remain within Spain.

Rajoy's People's Party and the main opposition Socialists have both dismissed Catalan breakaway rhetoric, which has become more voluble against a backdrop of similar movements in Europe. The most notable is in Scotland where a vote to decide on independence from the United Kingdom will be held on September 18 next year.

Both of Spain's mainstream parties have lost support in Catalonia as tensions with Madrid have risen. Conversely, rejecting independence for Catalonia - 15 percent of Spain's electorate - has backing in the rest of Spain.

But stopping a vote taking place could prove tricky, one political analyst said.

"I think they will call a referendum and, whatever its result, the Catalans end up winning ... because, although the result is not binding, it is a very powerful weapon with which to exert pressure," said Rafa Rubio, who teaches constitutional law at Madrid's Complutense University.

Catalonia has strong historic and cultural roots and its own language, aside from Spanish. It already has a high degree of autonomy, but wants more say over taxes and public spending.

"Rajoy is worried, but his character is to leave things for time to deal with, and this is an issue which over time continues to grow and worsen," Rubio said.

The parties who agreed the wording of the referendum represent 64 percent of the Catalan regional assembly.

"Mas ... is leading Catalonia down a blind alley," said Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba, leader of the Socialist party.

(Additional reporting by Inmaculada Sanz; Editing by Julien Toyer, Mark Trevelyan and Susan Fenton)

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