MADRID (AP) — Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and the leader of the economically powerful Catalonia region are holding a crucial face-to-face meeting Wednesday in what could be a last chance to resolve a bitter dispute over the region's plans to hold a secession referendum in November.
The independence campaign holds profound consequences for Spain as it emerges from its worst economic crisis in a generation, with Catalonia as a major driver of growth. And Europe will be watching closely as the Spanish debate comes to a head as Scotland also prepares to hold a referendum on leaving the United Kingdom.
Rajoy will host Catalonia President Artur Mas in a closed-door session following 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 is little expectation that they will succeed.
Their main problem: Rajoy has said he'll never discuss a referendum which he says would violate Spain's Constitution, while Mas insists he cannot negotiate while Spain alienates Catalans by preventing a right to self-determination.
"The meeting will merely confirm the clash between Madrid and the Catalan regional government," said Antonio Barroso, a London-based analyst with political and business risk consulting firm, Teneo Intelligence. "While Rajoy is willing to provide certain concessions to Catalonia on the fiscal front, it is highly improbable that he will agree to a deal, if Mas does not first withdraw his proposal to hold a referendum."
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.
In the proposed Nov. 9 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.
Spanish lawmakers, who overwhelmingly reject the referendum, argue that Catalonians alone cannot decide something that affects all of Spain.
The referendum has stirred debate about whether Spain's 1978 Constitution should be reformed to devolve more power and to the country's 17 regions and calm territorial unease.
Mas began openly pushing for the independence poll after he failed to clinch a better financial pact for Catalonia in 2012. However, the surge in independence sentiment 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.
The region, 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.
The talks are the last chance of reaching deal before the government's summer vacation and the onset of what could be a stormy autumn.
Both politicians will have eyes on Sept. 11 Catalonia National Day, which will likely see up to 1 million people once again on the streets in a show of strength for independence. But possibly more important will be the Sept. 18 vote on Scottish independence.
Mas believes a win for the "yes" vote in Scotland could boost Catalonia's bid, although a "no" victory could equally throw cold water onto the pro-independence camp.
September is also when Catalonia is set to pass a law allowing the referendum — but any such move is almost certain to be challenged by Rajoy in Spain's Constitutional Court.
If the referendum is delayed, that could push Mas to call early regional elections, but he knows his conservative Convergence and Union party has already lost much ground to its parliamentary supporters, the pro-independence Republican Left of Catalonia party.
In turn, Rajoy faces general elections next year and his party — which has seen its vote plunge owing to corruption scandals, the economic crisis and sky-high 25 percent unemployment — could be severely punished if it is seen to give in on the referendum issue or treat Catalonia preferentially.
"Neither has much room for maneuver. We're in a pre-electoral period and that restricts both sides," said Carlos Barrera, Professor of Media and Politics at the University of Navarra.