By Andrés González
MADRID (Reuters) - Spain's government filed an appeal with the Constitutional Court on Wednesday, aimed at blocking an independence drive by the Catalan regional assembly and preserving Spanish national unity.
Catalonia's regional parliament passed a resolution this week which calls for secession from Spain and sets out a plan to form a Catalan republic within 18 months by starting to set up state institutions such as a tax office. The declaration specifically vowed to ignore the rulings of the Constitutional Court.
"It's not just a reaction to a motion passed in parliament, this is about defending a whole country," Rajoy told a news conference after a cabinet meeting. He said the northeastern region would not be allowed to split from Spain.
The row over Catalonia has escalated dramatically with weeks to go to a national election in December, dominating political campaigns as parties such as Rajoy's center-right People's Party (PP) call for Spanish unity and relegating discussion of the economy with one-in-five unemployment to a secondary role.
"This is blatant disregard for the state's institutions. They are trying to do away with democracy. I will not allow it," Rajoy declared.
The highly-industrialized and heavily-populated region in the northeast of Spain makes up about a fifth of the national economic output.
A region with its own language and distinctive culture, it was once a big textile producer and is now trying to reivent itself as a technology hub while its Mediterranean beaches and art-rich capital Barcelona draw in huge revenues from tourism.
Separatist feeling has been fueled by demands for greater recognition of Catalonia's cultural identity, dismissed by the central state, and demands for a referendum.
Opponents to a Catalan breakaway argue that many other Spanish regions also have a distinct identity and language, and that conceding to one would open a Pandora's box of nationalist demands across Spain.
If the Constitutional Court agrees to process the central government's appeal later on Wednesday the Catalan assembly's resolution will be suspended for several months.
If Catalan leaders continue to press ahead with the independence bid under those circumstances, it could further drive up tensions between Barcelona, Catalonia's capital, and Madrid since Rajoy has vowed to take more steps if needed against local representatives.
Parties favoring a split from Spain won a majority of seats in the Catalan parliament in September, though they fell just short of half of the vote.
Acting regional head Artur Mas, who ran the Catalan government during years of economic crisis that saw the independence movement swell, is fighting for political survival, amid leadership squabbles in the pro-secession camp.
Mas lost a Catalan assembly vote on Tuesday to be reinstated as regional president, though further rounds of voting will be held.
(Reporting by Andres Gonzalez, Writing by Sarah White and Elisabeth O'Leary; Editing by Paul Day and Richard Balmforth)