The Catalan president, Carles Puigdemont, has pulled the region back from the brink of an unprecedented showdown with the Spanish government by announcing that he will suspend a declaration of independence to pursue negotiations in the hope of resolving Spain’s worst political crisis for 40 years.
Addressing the Catalan parliament on Tuesday evening, Puigdemont said that while the recent referendum had given his government a mandate to create an independent republic, he would not immediately declare unilateral independence from Spain.
“We propose the suspension of the effects of the declaration of independence for a few weeks, to open a period of dialogue,” he said.
“If everyone acts responsibly the conflict can be resolved in a calm and agreed manner.”
The move came nine turbulent days after the poll, in which 90% of participants voted in favour of splitting from Spain. The referendum was marred by violence after Spanish police acting on court orders attempted to stop the vote, raiding polling stations, seizing ballot boxes, beating voters and firing rubber bullets at crowds.
Although Puigdemont had originally promised to make a unilateral declaration of independence within 48 hours of a victory for the yes campaign, he has instead chosen to bide his time and seek international help for mediated negotiations with the Madrid government.
Hours before the announcement, Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, had appealed to Puigdemont to step back from a unilateral declaration of independence and begin dialogue with the Spanish prime minister, Mariano Rajoy.
Tusk said he was speaking both as a member of an ethnic minority and “as a man who knows what it feels like to be hit by a police baton”, but added:
“Today, I ask you to respect, in your intentions, the constitutional order and not to announce a decision that would make such dialogue impossible.
“Diversity should not and need not lead to conflict, the consequences of which would obviously be bad for the Catalans, for Spain and for the whole of Europe.
In the run-up to the announcement, police had been stationed outside government buildings in Barcelona and had closed off the Ciutadella park around the regional parliament.
Thousands of independence campaigners, many of them draped in Catalan estelada flags, gathered nearby on Tuesday afternoon to watch the parliamentary session on giant screens as police helicopters hovered overhead. Behind them, just in front of Barcelona’s Arc de Triomf, stood nearly three dozen tractors that had been driven into the city in a show of farmers’ support for Catalan sovereignty. Many among the crowd drifted away when it became clear that an immediate declaration of independence would not be forthcoming.
The Catalan government’s long push for independence has riven both the wealthy north-eastern region and Spain itself, leaving the country facing the greatest threat to national unity since it returned to democracy following the death of Franco in 1975. It has also prompted a series of banks and businesses to announce plans to move their bases out of the region amid the continuing uncertainty.
Rajoy has shown himself willing to take the drastic step of invoking article 155 of the Spanish constitution, which allows the central government to take control of an autonomous region if it “does not fulfil the obligations imposed upon it by the constitution or other laws, or acts in a way that is seriously prejudicial to the general interest of Spain”.
The Spanish prime minister has repeatedly pointed out that the referendum and the laws underpinning it are a violation of the Spanish constitution, which is based “on the indissoluble unity of the Spanish nation, the common and indivisible homeland of all Spaniards”.
His government insists the Catalan question is an internal Spanish matter, and has promised to use all the legal and constitutional means at its disposal to try to stop the regional government’s manoeuvres. It has also deployed thousands of Guardia Civil and national police officers to Catalonia.
Speaking earlier on Tuesday, the Spanish economy minister, Luis de Guindos, said he hoped common sense would prevail and that the Catalan president would not declare independence.
De Guindos blamed Puigdemont’s “radical” and “irresponsible” government for the crisis and said his European counterparts were backing the Spanish government’s position.
“This is not about independence yes or no,” he said. “This is about a rebellion against the rule of law. And the rule of law is the foundation of coexistence, not only in Spain but in Europe.”
Calls for dialogue from within Spain and beyond have so far gone unheeded. Last week, Frans Timmermans, the vice-president of the European commission, said that while the referendum had been illegal, it was “time to talk”.
On Monday evening, the mayor of Barcelona, Ada Colau, intervened, calling for urgent negotiations and saying Spain was facing its “greatest institutional crisis” since the death of Franco.
She asked both Rajoy and Puigdemont to drop their entrenched positions and to talk to each other. “The results of 1 October cannot be used as a guarantee for the declaration of independence,” she said. “But they do represent an opportunity to open dialogue and international mediation.”
Two weeks ago, Puigdemont accused the Madrid government of effectively suspending Catalonia’s self-government and applying a “de facto state of emergency” after Guardia Civil officers raided a dozen Catalan regional government offices and arrested 14 senior officials as part of an operation to stop the referendum.
According to the Catalan government, 2.3 million of Catalonia’s 5.3 million registered voters cast a ballot in the referendum. A full count has been complicated by the fact that 770,000 votes were lost due to the police disruption. - the Guardian