Catalan government suspends declaration of independence

President Carles Puigdemont says he will pursue negotiations with Spanish government in hope of resolving conflict

The Catalan president, Carles Puigdemont, has pulled the region back from the brink of an unprecedented showdown with the Spanish government by proposing the suspension of a declaration of independence to allow for negotiations to resolve Spain’s worst political crisis for 40 years.

Addressing the Catalan parliament on Tuesday evening, Puigdemont said that, while the referendum earlier this month had given his government a mandate to create a sovereign republic, he would not immediately push ahead with 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.”

In a long speech in which he laid out the region’s historical grievances with the Spanish state, Puigdemont also addressed the concerns of many people elsewhere in Spain.

“I want to send you a message of calmness and respect; of the will for political dialogue and agreement,” he said.

“We’re not criminals. We’re not mad. We’re not carrying out a coup … we’re normal people who want to be able to vote and who have been prepared to engage in whatever dialogue was necessary to do so in a mutually agreed way.

“We have nothing against Spain or the Spanish. On the contrary, we want to get to understand one another better.”

He added, however, that it was a relationship that had not been working for years, “and nothing has been done to fix a situation that has become unsustainable”.

Puigdemont’s words were swiftly denounced by the Spanish government and the leader of the opposition in the Catalan parliament.

Spain’s deputy prime minister, Soraya Sáenz de Santamaría, accused him of plunging the region into fresh uncertainty, adding that his speech was that of someone “who doesn’t know where they are, where they’re going or who they want to go there with”.

She said the cabinet would hold an emergency meeting on Wednesday morning but appeared to rule out any negotiations, saying: “Dialogue between democrats takes place within the law, respects the rules of the game and doesn’t make them up as it goes along.”

Inés Arrimadas of the Ciudadanos, or Citizens, party described the president’s assertion that he had a mandate for independence as “a coup” that would find no support elsewhere in Europe.

(June 28, 2010) 

Spain’s constitutional court strikes down parts of a 2006 charter on Catalan autonomy that had originally increased the region’s fiscal and judicial powers and described it as a “nation”. The court rules that using the word “nation” has no legal value and also rejects the “preferential” use of Catalan over Spanish in municipal services. Almost two weeks later, hundreds of thousands protest on the streets of Barcelona, chanting “We are a nation! We decide!”

(September 11, 2012) 

At the height of Spain’s economic crisis, more than a million people protest in Barcelona on Catalonia’s national day, demanding independence in what will become a peaceful, annual show of strength.

(November 9, 2014) 

The pro-independence government of Artur Mas defies the Madrid government and Spain’s constitutional court by holding a symbolic vote on independence. Turnout is just 37%, but more than 80% of those who voted - 1.8 million people - vote in favour of Catalan sovereignty.

(June 9, 2017) 

Carles Puigdemont, who has replaced Mas as regional president, announces an independence referendum will be held on 1 October. Spain’s central government says it will block the referendum using all the legal and political means at its disposal.

(September 6, 2017) 

The Catalan parliament approves referendum legislation after a heated, 11-hour session that sees 52 opposition MPs walk out of the chamber in Barcelona in protest at the move. Spain’s constitutional court suspends the legislation the following day, but the Catalan government vows to press ahead with the vote.

(September 20, 2017) 

Police arrest 14 Catalan government officials suspected of organising the referendum and announce they have seized nearly 10 million ballots destined for the vote. Some 40,000 people protest against the police crackdown in Barcelona and Puigdemont accuses the Spanish government of effectively suspending regional autonomy and declaring a de facto state of emergency.

(October 1, 2017) 

Close to 900 people are injured as police attempt to stop the referendum from taking place. The Catalan government says 90% voted for independence on a turnout of 43%. 

(October 27, 2017) 

Spanish government takes control of Catalonia and dissolves its parliament after secessionist Catalan MPs voted to establish an independent republic. Spanish prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, fires regional president, Carles Puigdemont, and orders regional elections to be held on 21 December.

The move came nine turbulent days after the independence referendum, in which 90% of participants voted in favour of splitting from Spain. The poll was marred by violence after Spanish police acting on court orders attempted to stop the vote by 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 seek international help for mediated negotiations with the Madrid government.

His address was delayed by more than an hour as the government apparently pursued attempts to secure that mediation. A Catalan government spokesman confirmed that a mediation effort was going on but did not provide further details.

Hours before the announcement, Donald Tusk, the president of the European council, appealed to Puigdemont to step back from a unilateral declaration of independence and begin dialogue with the Spanish prime minister, Mariano Rajoy.

Tusk, a former prime minister of Poland who fought for his country’s independence from the Soviet Union, said he was speaking both as a member of the Kashubian ethnic minority and “as a man who knows what it feels like to be hit by a police baton”.

“Today, I ask you to respect, in your intentions, the constitutional order and not to announce a decision that would make such dialogue impossible,” he said.

“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 parliament.

Thousands of independence campaigners, many of them draped in Catalan estelada flags, gathered nearby 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 to the city in a show of farmers’ support for Catalan sovereignty.

Farmers wave estelada flags on top of tractors before Puigdemont’s speech in Barcelona.
Farmers wave estelada flags on top of tractors before Puigdemont’s speech in Barcelona. Photograph: Enric Fontcuberta/EPA

Many among the crowd left in disappointment when it became clear that an immediate declaration of independence would not be forthcoming.

However, Ramón Canela, a 59-year-old IT worker, said he was confident that independence would still happen.

“I trust the president,” he said. “It’s now the turn of the Spanish government and the people of Europe. We want dialogue. If the Spanish government doesn’t then it’s their problem.

“We didn’t come this far not to carry on. And, anyway, lots of people have already started disconnecting from Spain.”

Neus Andreu, a pharmacist, agreed: “This is just a bypass so the Spanish government can react.”

The 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 after the death of the fascist dicator, Francisco 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”.

He 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 a 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.

The economy minister, Luis de Guindos, said earlier on Tuesday that he hoped common sense would prevail and the Catalan president would not declare independence.

“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.”

On Monday evening, the mayor of Barcelona, Ada Colau, called for urgent negotiations.

According to the Catalan government, 2.3 million of Catalonia’s 5.3 million registered voters cast a ballot in the referendum on 1 October. A full count has been complicated by the fact that 770,000 votes were lost because of the police disruption.


Sam Jones in Barcelona

The GuardianTramp

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