Puigdemont speech gives no clarity on Catalan independence

Catalonia’s president has called to ‘suspend effects of independence declaration’ – potentially upsetting both sides of debate

The long-awaited speech in which Catalonia’s president declared independence – only to immediately suspend it – was so wrapped in conditionalities and ambiguity that it is likely to be interpreted in a thousand different ways.

Some will say that Carles Puigdemont was trying to blackmail the Spanish state, others that he was holding out an olive branch.

By claiming that the chaotic 1 October referendum meant voters had instructed him to start creating an independent state – while also asking parliament to immediately “suspend the effects of the independence declaration” – Puigdemont has embarked on a precarious piece of tightrope walking.

He has upset not just those who oppose independence (a majority, according to opnion polls) but also some of those who are most determined to achieve it – and wanted it declared immediately and unambiguously. Puigdemont also stepped back from the brink of immediate independence – thereby buying time.

But however his words are interpreted, Tuesday’s speech in the Catalan parliament makes him the central figure in Spain’s biggest existential drama since Civil Guard colonel Antonio Tejero launched a failed coup in 1981.

At stake are five centuries of coexistence with the rest of Spain and a growing social fracture inside Catalonia itself, as the surge in support for separatism threatens the historic unionist supremacy.

The livelihoods of ordinary Catalans are also in play, with major companies and banks shifting registered headquarters away from the region.

Puigdemont’s declaration has stretched the tension out over an indefinite period of time. He would like to start some kinds of talks within weeks but did not say when, if they ever take place, he wanted to finish them.

By calling for European mediation and claiming validity for the referendum, Puigdemont has stepped across Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy’s red lines. The country’s conservative government is likely to accuse him of flagrant disregard for the constitution.

The rest of the world, meanwhile, remains perplexed. The threat is of rebellion against the laws of an established democracy, Spain in a large region of the European Union, Catalonia. But it is also peaceful and would easily be resolved by a legal, Scottish-style referendum.

In practice, as Puigdemont’s predecessor Artur Mas has pointed out, Catalonia is not ready to exercise effective independence. It does not have the tax-collecting, judicial, banking or customs institutions for that. That is one reason why Puigdemont wants to buy time.

Pro-independence supporters
Supporters rally in central Barcelona during the speech Photograph: Chris McGrath/Getty Images

Slovenia, which took six months to split from Yugoslavia after a referendum in 1990, is being held up as a model by some separatists – though that move was backed by 88% of the population, took place outside the EU and ended with a 10-day war that claimed 75 lives.

An independent Catalonia that breaks from Spain unilaterally can expect to be shunned by European institutions and international bodies.

Calls for the EU to mediate, or declare Spain to have broken key articles of the charter of fundamental rights, have fallen on deaf ears. From Theresa May to Angela Merkel, the message is the same – that this is an internal Spanish matter.

Puigdemont suggested that might be changing, but did not explain who in Europe might offer their help.

The Spanish government’s expected reaction means he may soon be relieved of the task of having to deliver on his promise of turning Catalonia into an independent state.

If Rajoy does not want to negotiate – and there is no sign that he does – he will be left with two options. On the one hand, he can ask the Spain’s senate for permission to take direct control of the regional government.

He is under intense pressure from a wide range of people, including former socialist prime minister Felipe Gonzalez, to do that. He would likely be backed by the opposition socialists, but not by Podemos.

Alternatively, Rajoy might allow the separatist government to remain in place and – in the words of its former finance minister Andreu Mas-Colell – let it “twist in the wind” as the local economy unwinds and international sympathy leaks away.

Some separatists may see central government intervention as a desirable short-term outcome, allowing them to argue that they are victims of heavy-handed Spanish centralism.

Puigdemont’s government says that, despite police intervention, 43% of Catalans deposited countable votes on 1 October and 90% of them voted for independence. That is unverifiable, but not unrealistic, with 39% of Catalan voters explicitly backing independence.

The referendum, however, had been suspended by the constitutional court – so most of those who oppose independence stayed at home. Nor did they take part in designing, debating, overseeing or counting the vote.

Unless the EU forces Rajoy into negotiations, Puigdemont’s speech may do little more than prolong the suspense in Catalonia.

Puigdemont’s speech means that the ball is now in Rajoy’s court. His government, which is due to meet on Thursday, now has the opportunity to either increase or lower the tension.


Giles Tremlett

The GuardianTramp

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