Catalan leader puts independence on hold, as he seeks to negotiate with Madrid

‘I propose suspending the effects of the declaration of independence to undertake talks to reach an agreed solution’

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 11 October, 2017, 1:43am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 11 October, 2017, 7:59am

Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont said on Tuesday he is asking parliament to suspend the effects of a declaration of independence to hold talks with Spain.

He added that he has mandate to declare independence but proposes waiting ‘a few weeks’ to encourage dialogue.

Puigdemont told the Catalan parliament a landslide victory in the region’s disputed October 1 referendum on independence gives his government a mandate to implement its long-held desire to break century-old ties with Spain. But he suggested holding off.

“I assume the mandate that Catalonia should become an independent state in the form of a republic. I propose suspending the effects of the declaration of independence to undertake talks to reach an agreed solution,” Puigdemont told the regional parliament in Barcelona.

Puigdemont’s speech was highly critical of the Spanish government’s response to the referendum, but he said Catalans have nothing against Spain or Spaniards, and they want to understand each other better.

The Spanish government has said any unilateral declaration of independence would be illegal and has promised action “to restore law and democracy” if the parliament of the autonomous and affluent northeastern region presses ahead.

Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy could take the unprecedented step of dissolving the Catalan parliament and triggering new regional elections, the so-called “nuclear option”.

The Madrid government could also ask the courts to strike down a declaration of independence as unconstitutional.

Despite renewed calls for dialogue with Madrid, the proclamation makes a negotiated solution more difficult as Rajoy has said he would not talk to the Catalan leaders until they drop plans for independence.

The Catalan parliamentary session that could see regional president Carles Puigdemont declare independence opened on Tuesday, under intense scrutiny from the rest of Spain and Europe.

“The session begins,” regional parliamentary speaker Carme Forcadell said, with all eyes on a speech by Puigdemont in which he may announce a full breakaway from Spain in defiance of the central government and national courts.

The session had been delayed by the 54-year-old Puigdemont just as regional lawmakers made their way into the parliament in Barcelona.

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A regional government official said that the delay was to allow time to explore “contacts for international mediation” in the crisis.

But Madrid immediately responded by saying mediation to settle the nation’s worst political crisis in decades was “not on the cards”.

Police deployed en masse around the regional parliament, blocking public access to a park that houses the building as crowds watched the session on giant screens, waving Catalan flags and some brandishing signs reading “democracy.”

“We came to make sure the government pushes ahead,” said Joan Farreras, a 37-year-old technical engineer from the Catalan city of Girona.

“Independence will not be immediate. There will be time for mediation, but we will reach independence.”

In Madrid, the Spanish government issued a blunt warning to Puigdemont.

“We call on Puigdemont not to do anything irreversible, not to pursue a path of no return and not to make any unilateral independence declaration,” government spokesman Inigo Mendez de Vigo told reporters.

A source from the central government’s representative office in Catalonia said security had been tightened at Catalan airports and railway stations in anticipation of possible protests in the wake of Puigdemont’s announcement.

Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has vowed to use everything in his legal power to prevent independence and has even refused to rule out imposing direct rule over the semi-autonomous region – an unprecedented move many fear could lead to unrest.

Reporting by Reuters, Associated Press, Agence France-Presse