MADRID (Reuters) - Catalonia should stick with Spain and avoid disaster, Spain's foreign minister said on Wednesday, becoming the only member of Madrid's center-right government to debate on television with a secessionist adversary on the heated topic of Catalan independence.
The fact that Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo had agreed to participate in the televised debate at all was in itself a "great success" for the separatist camp, argued Oriol Junqueras, head of the leftist Catalan republican party, given the lack of dialogue with Madrid.
The sparring match came ahead of Sunday's Catalan regional election which separatists have billed as a proxy vote on independence from Spain - a description rejected by Madrid.
If they win a majority as polls indicate, the secessionists plan to declare independence from Spain unilaterally in around 18 months' time. It is far from clear however, what, if anything, this would mean in practical terms.
"When friends want to throw themselves off a bridge, my job is not to encourage but to dissuade them," Margallo said in the debate on Catalan channel 8TV.
This week Spanish institutions have fired a salvo of warnings about what will happen if Spain's wealthiest region breaks away.
Junqueras said such statements depicted "an apocalypse lacking credibility." Broadly speaking, Wednesday's debate got bogged down in legal interpretations of whether Catalonia would be forced to leave the European Union after independence.
Margallo's decision to take part in a debate was questioned by fellow ruling party members and appears at odds with the tack taken by Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, who has described independence plans as "nonsense" which he declines to discuss in depth.
Rajoy, facing a December general election, last year banned a non-binding referendum on independence and has repeatedly said that the only talks possible on Catalonia's status have to take place within Spain's current legal status quo.
Spain's banks, including some based in the Catalan capital Barcelona, have warned that if Catalonia were to secede it could cause financial turmoil and the Bank of Spain has said the region risks exiting the euro.
This week the Catholic Church also joined the chorus of disapproval, saying there was "no moral justification" for Catalonia to split from Spain. The comments prodded old wounds as the Church was a supporter of Spanish dictator Francisco Franco, who repressed languages and cultures - such as Catalan - which are distinct from Castilian, the main Spanish language spoken across the country.
British Premier David Cameron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have also thrown their weight behind Spanish unity.
Reporting by Elisabeth O'Leary; Editing by Lisa Shumaker