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Jul 30, 10:53 AM EDT

Leaders of Spain, Catalonia hold secession talks


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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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Associated Press writer Barry Hatton in Lisbon contributed to this report.

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