Catalonia: President Carles Puigdemont pulls back from brink over independence declaration and calls for talks over crisis

'I ask the citizens of Catalonia to continue to express themselves in a civilised, peaceful way,' says Mr Puigdemont

Alasdair Fotheringham
Madrid and Barcelona
,Jennifer Waddell
Wednesday 11 October 2017 08:23
Comments
President of Catalonia says they have earned the right to independence

Catalan President Carles Puigdemont has pulled back from the brink of a full-blown unilateral declaration of independence for the region, requesting a last minute series of negotiations to resolve the crisis with the Spanish government.

“Thanks to the results of the referendum of 1 October, Catalonia has earned the right to be an independent state,” a dark-suited Mr Puigdemont, speaking firmly but with little audible emotion, told the region’s parliament in Barcelona.

“If everybody acts responsibly, this conflict can be resolved calmly. It won’t be us that prevents that from happening.”

Watched live by over 1,000 different accredited media outlets — a record for the Catalan parliament — as well as by Spanish premier Mariano Rajoy from his official residence in Madrid, Mr Puigdemont said: “We are reaching out in the hope of dialogue.”

“I ask the citizens of Catalonia to continue to express themselves in a civilised, peaceful way, the political parties to contribute with their words to lessen the tension and the Spanish government to renounce its repressive tactics,” he added.

Mr Puigdemont was highly critical of the Spanish government's response to the referendum and the violent police reaction that left hundreds injured on voting day, but said Catalans have nothing against Spain or Spaniards.

Speaking briefly in Spanish to Spain as a whole, he insisted “we are not delinquents, or mad, or conspirators. We have nothing against Spain and the Spanish. We are normal people who want to vote.”

The Catalan legislation which provided the framework for the referendum, which was banned by the Spanish courts, states that the regional parliament must announce Catalan independence within 48 hours if a majority of voters in favour in the poll. An overwhelming majority, more than 90 per cent, proved to be in favour of breaking away.

However, nine days after the vote Mr Puigdemont’s failure to declare full-blown formal independence visibly disappointed his leftist CUP allies.

The CUP are vital for maintaining his narrow pro-nationalist majority in parliament and were urging for an immediate break from Spain.

The Catalonia crisis explained in 60 seconds

The parliamentary session was delayed by over an hour as the CUP privately expressed their dissent to Mr Puigdemont’s planned speech and they remained seated and did not applaud when he finished talking.

A youth movement, Arran, linked to the CUP, later described the speech as “unacceptable act of traitorship”. Meanwhile, one of the CUP’s best-known MPs, Anna Gabriel, argued that “today we were hoping to solemnly proclaim the Catalan Republic and we’ve maybe missed out on that chance.”

“Negotiation and mediation with who? With a state that lets the extreme right roam the streets?” she added.

Catalan MPs did eventually sign a document cited as a declaration of independence before immediately suspending its implications, as Mr Puigemont had said.

“Catalonia restores today its full sovereignty,” the document — called the “declaration of the representatives of Catalonia” — said.

“We call on all states and international organisations to recognise the Catalan republic as an independent and sovereign state. We call on the Catalan government to take all necessary measures to make possible and fully effective this declaration of independence and the measures contained in the transition law that founds the republic,” it added.

On the streets of Barcelona, some expressed disappointment with the lack of a formal declaration, but were encouraged by how close the region had come this time, with some thinking that the Spanish government might be forced to the negotiating table.

A massive demonstration by pro-independence associations gathered near what Catalans call the Arc de Triomf, under the slogan of Hola Republica [Hello Republic].

They initially cheered as they watched on two giant television screens as Mr Puigdemont began his speech with a lengthy review of modern Catalan history and its contribution to democracy. However, when it became obvious that an immediate declaration of a new Catalan state was not about to form part of his address, a sizable proportion left and the applause weakened notably.

Jordi Sanchez, 55, was one of those watching the announcement on a big screen, and he blamed Europe for the lack of a formal declaration. “We were missing the support of Europe and Puigdemont was under significant pressure.”

Mr Sanchez said there was a feeling of frustration and inevitability surrounding the decision. Despite this, he said he was encouraged by the fact that this was the closest Catalonia has been to independence since the early 1930s.

“You can't create a state from one day to the other. We'll have to see if we can get a binding referendum like Scotland did,” he said.

Maria Borras, 58, was also disappointed with the decision, but stressed that Mr Puigdemont had avoided escalation of the situation without losing ground.

“I would have liked to see a declaration of independence. However, looking at it rationally with what we call ‘Catalan common sense', this was a good road forward without a dramatic break.”

Ms Borras explained that this decision avoided possible violent reactions from Madrid. “They will have to sit down and negotiate with a mediator or they will look very bad.”

Gemma Freixer, 27, had been very hopeful before the speech, representing the view of young Catalans who may eventually take up the baton of seeking independence.

“From my point of view, the young people are not worried about the economy, investments, the things that older people are worried about. We don't have anything to lose,” she said.

Other political formations were disdainful of Mr Puigdemont’s fudging of the independence question.“It’s an insult to common sense,” tweeted Catalonia’s branch of the ruling Partido Popular (PP) party. “You can’t suspend a declaration of independence you haven’t made,” the Catalan Socialist Party leader, Miquel Iceta, added.

The Spanish government was not impressed by Mr Puigdemont’s speech, either, accusing him of “blackmailing the state.”

“You can’t take it for granted that the Catalans have said they wanted independence. Nor is it admissible to make an implicit declaration of independence and then explicitly suspend it,” Spanish newspaper ABC quoted government sources as saying.

Sources have suggested that the lengthy delay in starting the parliamentary session was also due to last-minute pleas for international negotiation. There were unconfirmed reports EU Commission president Jean Claude Juncker was amongst those who had been contacted.

Earlier a request to Mr Puigdemont from European Council President Donald Tusk was made “to respect the constitutional order and not to make an announcement which would make dialogue impossible. Diversity need not lead to conflict.”

Mr Puigdemont’s inconclusive declaration of independence may now see a drop in the steady trickle of companies currently moving their headquarters out of Catalonia because of the political turmoil. More than 20, including Catalonia’s two largest banks, have already quit, but a Catalan association for small and medium sized businesses, Pimec, was quick last night to praise Mr Puigdemont’s renewed attempts at negotiation.

Although an MP from Mr Puigdemont’s PDCat party had suggested before his speech that Catalonia could try to follow the example of Slovenia, with a suspension of independence then a negotiated referendum, the idea of mediation continued to receive short shrift from the PP's head in the region, Xavier Garcia Albiol.

“What do you expect us to negotiate?” Mr García Albiol rhetorically asked after Mr Puigdemont’s speech. “Blowing up national sovereignty?”

A full formal reaction from Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy is expected on Wednesday afternoon in parliament. Deputy Prime Minister Soraya Saenz de Santamaria said that Mr Rajoy was in consultations with other parties about how to respond to events in Catalonia, with the leader of the opposition Socialist party, Pedro Sanchez, already due to meet Mr Rajoy on Tuesday night.

Mr Rajoy also called an emergency Cabinet on Wednesday to decide whether to use article 155 of the Spanish constitution, which allows for direct intervention from Madrid in a region, to try to resolve Spain’s most serious political crisis in decades.

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