Click photo to enlarge
Catalonia's regional president Artur Mas, left, talks to Spain's Premier Mariano Rajoy, right, during 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)

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.

In this June 2, 2014 photo, demonstrators wave a pro-independence "estelada" flag during a protest calling for the independence and the
In this June 2, 2014 photo, demonstrators wave a pro-independence "estelada" flag during a protest calling for the independence and the implementation of the republic in Catalonia after the announcement of the abdication of Spain's King Juan Carlos in Barcelona, Spain. (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti) (Emilio Morenatti/AP)

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.


Advertisement

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.

FILE - In this March 30, 2006 file photo, former president of the Catalonian autonomous government and member of the Convergence and Union Party (CiU),
FILE - In this March 30, 2006 file photo, former president of the Catalonian autonomous government and member of the Convergence and Union Party (CiU), Jordi Pujol, left, shakes hands with Artur Mas, leader of CiU in Madrid, Spain. The former longtime leader of Spain?s wealthy Catalonia region has given up his title as honorary regional president along with lifetime government perks after admitting he concealed money abroad for three decades. The 84-year-old Jordi Pujol founded Catalonia?s Convergence and Union political alliance that governs the region and was the region?s president from 1980 to 2003. Pujol apologized last Friday after revealing he did not declare an unspecified amount of money to tax authorities for more than 30 years. The announcement came a day before Mas meets with Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy to discuss Catalonia?s attempt to hold a secession referendum that Rajoy says would be illegal. (AP Photo/Bernat Armangue, File) (Bernat Armangue/AP)

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.

Catalonia’s regional president Artur Mas, left, arrives during a meeting with Spain’s Premier Mariano Rajoy at the Moncloa Palace in Madrid,
Catalonia's regional president Artur Mas, left, arrives during a meeting with Spain's Premier Mariano Rajoy 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) (Andres Kudacki/AP)

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.

Spain’s Premier Mariano Rajoy, reaches to shakes hands with Catalonia’s regional president Artur Mas, right, before a meeting at the Moncloa
Spain's Premier Mariano Rajoy, reaches to shakes hands with Catalonia's regional president Artur Mas, right, 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) (Andres Kudacki/AP)

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.

Catalonia’s regional president Artur Mas, left, talks to Spain’s Premier Mariano Rajoy, right, during a meeting at the Moncloa Palace in
Catalonia's regional president Artur Mas, left, talks to Spain's Premier Mariano Rajoy, right, during 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) (Andres Kudacki/AP)
 

———

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