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Catalan chief pledges ‘binding’ independence referendum

Catalonia’s separatist president said Friday that come what may, there would be a “legal and binding referendum” for independence from Spain next year despite fierce opposition from the central government.

In an end of year televised message recorded at regional government headquarters in Barcelona, Carles Puigdemont said that 2017 would be a “crucial” year for the wealthy Spanish northeastern region run by a pro-independence administration.

“We Catalans will freely decide our own future through a legal and binding referendum,” he said.

Puigdemont announced in the autumn that he would call an independence vote in September 2017, a move that was ratified in a resolution voted by the majority-separatist, regional parliament.

But the Constitutional Court later suspended the resolution pending a five-month period during which it will decide whether to ban the vote for good or lift the suspension.

In his speech, Puigdemont said the vote would “be called in accordance with the mandate of our laws”, but did not detail what he would do if the court banned the referendum.

Separatists in Catalonia have for years tried — in vain — to win approval from Spain’s central government for an independence vote like Scotland’s 2014 referendum.

Former president Artur Mas tried to hold such a referendum, but it was banned by the Constitutional Court so he held a symbolic, non-binding independence vote instead in November 2014.

More than 80 percent of those who cast their ballot did so for independence — although just 2.3 million people out of a total of 6.3 million eligible voters took part.

But Mas is now due to stand trial for staging the vote on charges of serious disobedience and malfeasance, and risks a 10-year ban on holding public office.

Puigdemont insisted that Catalonia would keep reaching out to Madrid, with whom there has been a thaw in relations since Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s conservative government was sworn in for a second term last month.

The government has offered to negotiate a list of economic and social demands made by Puigdemont but has refused to discuss the planned independence referendum — as reiterated by Rajoy on Friday.

“The government will not authorise any referendum that involves destroying national sovereignty or the equality of Spaniards,” he said.