Leaders in Catalonia vowed Wednesday to press ahead with the region's drive for independence despite a tough challenge from Spanish judges who overruled its claims of sovereignty.
Spain's Constitutional Court on Tuesday dealt a blow to those in the indebted region who want to let citizens vote on whether to become a separate state, shortly after Scotland holds its own referendum on independence.
"The political process continues," Catalonia's president Artur Mas told the regional parliament, echoing other political leaders in the region.
The court ruled that a declaration of sovereignty last year by Catalan lawmakers was illegal under the 1978 constitution, which also forbids them to unilaterally call a referendum.
"This ruling by the Constitutional Court was more or less expected," Mas said.
"Each hurdle we encounter on this road, we will find a way around," he said, reiterating his desire for a referendum on November 9.
Mas has defied fierce resistance from the national government, which has called for unity as Spain crawls out of its economic crisis.
Catalans have drawn a comparison with Scotland, whose leaders are holding a referendum in September on independence from Britain — a move authorized by the British government.
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Spain's conservative Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy insisted last month that in Spain such a referendum "can't take place."
"No one can unilaterally deprive the entire Spanish people of the right to decide on their future," he told the national parliament, which is due to debate the referendum issue on April 8.
Rocky road to referendum
The Catalan and national press agreed on Wednesday that the court ruling strengthened the national government's hand, though it was still unclear how likely it was that a referendum would take place.
"The Constitutional Court's ruling is clear and leaves no room for partisan interpretations," wrote center-right national daily El Mundo in an editorial.
"It leaves no doubt about the illegality of the sovereignty declaration."
Catalan daily La Vanguardia said the ruling provided legal grounds for the Spanish government to crack down on "any act by the Catalan institutions that make reference to the November 9 referendum."
Analysts said the ruling was ambiguous however on whether Catalonia could legally hold some form of consultation to express a desire for independence, with a view to reforming the constitution.
"I think there is narrow scope for holding a consultative referendum legally, but it is complicated," said Xavier Arbos, an expert in constitutional law at Barcelona University.
"If such a consultation gave a very clear result in favor of a yes vote, that could lead to a reform of the constitution."
But he added: "I see little likelihood of a legal solution."
The referendum is opposed by Spain's two largest national parties: the ruling conservative Popular Party and the main opposition Socialist Party.
Proud of their distinct language and culture, many in Catalonia say they feel short-changed by the central government which redistributes their taxes.
Catalonia is home to 7.5 million of Spain's total population of 46 million people. It accounts for more than a fifth of Spain's economic output and a quarter of its exports.
But Spain's economic crisis has made Catalonia one of the most indebted regions in the country, prompting calls for independence to grow louder in the past two years.
On September 11 last year, Catalonia's national day, hundreds of thousands of Catalans massed in a vast human chain stretching across the region to demand independence.
The national day recalls the conquest of Barcelona by Spanish king Philip V's forces in 1714 — seen by many Catalans as the date they lost their independence.