Fugitive former Catalan leader’s call for talks with Madrid rejected by PM Rajoy

PUBLISHED : Friday, 22 December, 2017, 10:08pm
UPDATED : Friday, 22 December, 2017, 10:38pm

Former Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont called on Friday for talks with Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy following a regional Catalan election that gave pro-independence parties a parliamentary majority. Spain’s leader wasted no time in rejecting the idea.

In a press conference in Brussels, where he fled almost two months ago to avoid arrest after pushing for independence, Puigdemont said Thursday’s election in the restive Spanish region opened “a new era” for Catalonia.

He said that he would return to Barcelona if the new parliament elects him as leader, though legal protections he would have as an elected leader are unclear.

Puigdemont said he is ready to meet Rajoy, who called the snap election after Catalan separatists declared independence in October following a referendum deemed illegal by Spanish authorities, anywhere in the European Union other than Spain, where he currently faces arrest.

“Recognising reality is vital if we are to find a solution,” Puigdemont said.

Rajoy, who also fired the Catalan government that Puigdemont ran and dissolved its parliament, has ruled out independence for the wealthy northeastern Spanish region.

He said the regional election showed a diversity of views in Catalonia and the new government must abide by the law.

“The person I should be meeting with is with the one who won the elections, and that is Mrs Arrimadas,” Rajoy said, replying to a journalist who asked whether he would respond to Puigdemont’s invitation for a meeting.

Rajoy was referring to centrist, anti-independence candidate Ines Arrimadas, whose Ciudadanos party won the best individual result in Thursday’s poll, even as the bloc of separatist parties maintained its absolute majority.

Puigdemont’s Together for Catalonia snared 34 seats in the 135-seat regional assembly, making it the most popular separatist party. Two other pro-independence parties made up the dominant bloc: the left-wing republican ERC party, which collected 32 seats, and the radical, anti-capitalist CUP, which has four seats.

Rajoy’s conservative Popular Party came last with just three seats in what was a major blow to the country’s governing party.

“The biggest loser of election night was the People’s Party (PP) of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, which obtained only three seats,” said Antonio Barroso, a political risk analyst at Teneo Intelligence in London.

How the independence camp will rule remains a mystery, however – and should its leaders fail to put their house in order, Catalans may even have to return to the polls.

“It is unclear whether Puigdemont will be able to be re-appointed … as he will be arrested if he comes back to Spain,” Barroso said. “As a result, the investiture process will be far from straightforward, and the risk of new elections in 2018 remains high. The investiture of a new first minister is likely to be a protracted and noisy process.”

For all the talk that the separatist cause had been legitimised, analysts predict a softening around the edges of the independence bid.

The Catalan business elite, some of whose members have close links with Puigdemont’s party, “know that they have to give a fresh boost to tourism and the economy”, said sociologist Narciso Michavila.

So far the EU has backed Rajoy, saying it supports constitutional order, and that it is an internal matter for Spain.

The European Commission stressed its stance remained the same regardless of the result of the vote.

Agence France-Presse, Associated Press