Catalonia's suspended declaration of independence: what happens next?

Everything you need to know about Carles Puigdemont’s address on Tuesday evening, and Madrid’s reaction

What exactly happened in the Catalan parliament on Tuesday night?

The Catalan president, Carles Puigdemont, signed an independence declaration, paving the way for the region to split from Spain. However, he said the effects of the declaration would be suspended for a few weeks while his government sought dialogue to resolve the long-festering dispute with the Spanish state.

What was the basis for the declaration?

Puigdemont says the results of the referendum on 1 October have given the regional government a mandate to create a sovereign republic. According to the Catalan government, 90% of the votes it has been able to count were cast in favour of splitting from Spain. The Catalan government says it has counted 2.3 million votes, but that a further 770,00 have not been included in the final count as they were seized by Spanish police attempting to stop the vote. There are 5.3 million eligible voters in the region.

Is the Spanish government open to negotiation on the referendum results?

No. Spain’s prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, has repeatedly said the referendum was illegal and a clear violation of the country’s 1978 constitution, which is based “on the indissoluble unity of the Spanish nation, the common and indivisible homeland of all Spaniards”. The country’s constitutional court ruled against the poll.

On Wednesday morning, Rajoy asked Puigdemont to clarify whether or not independence had been declared and warned that his answer would inform the Spanish government’s decision on moving to suspend Catalonia’s autonomy.

So what happens next?

Rajoy has said he is willing to take the unprecedented 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 may feel that the Catalan government has gone too far with Tuesday’s declaration and needs to be stopped.

Pedro Sánchez, the leader of the Spanish Socialist party, offered another solution on Wednesday, saying that he and Rajoy had agreed to study a possible constitutional reform of Spain’s autonomous region to try to end the crisis.

Other available options include declaring a state of alarm, a state of emergency or even martial law in Catalonia.

How would such a move go down in Catalonia?

Very badly. Tensions are still running high after the violence during the referendum and there is resentment at the continuing deployment in the region of thousands of Spanish Guardia Civil and national police officers.

What’s more, it’s unclear how the Catalan police force, the Mossos d’Esquadra, would respond to the suspension of regional autonomy and the imposition of direct rule from Madrid. Their Spanish colleagues have accused them of failing to police the referendum effectively, and the chief of the Mossos, Josep Lluís Trapero, is being investigated for sedition by Spain’s national court amid accusations that the force failed to assist Guardia Civil officers who raided government buildings and arrested 14 Catalan officials last month.

What about external mediation?

Although Donald Tusk, the president of the European council, made an 11th-hour intervention on Tuesday, calling on Puigdemont to respect the constitutional order and not do anything that would hinder dialogue, only Switzerland has shown itself willing to step in to mediate the crisis. The European commission has insisted the Catalan question is an internal matter for the Spanish government.

Speaking to parliament on Wednesday afternoon, the prime minister categorically dismissed suggestions that the crisis could be solved through international mediation. Explaining that Spain’s indissoluble unity, as guaranteed by the constitution, was not up for discussion, he added: “There is no possible mediation between democratic law and disobedience or illegality.”

Where does all this leave Puigdemont?

The Catalan president will be hoping that his move to de-escalate the crisis by suspending the effects of the declaration will spur the international community into action. However, his gamble has angered many Catalan independence campaigners who had been expecting a blunt and immediately binding declaration.

His junior coalition partners, the far-left CUP, had hoped for an unequivocal gesture. “We believed that today was the day to solemnly declare a Catalan republic, and we probably missed an opportunity,” the CUP MP Anna Gabriel said on Tuesday night.

More pressingly, the Spanish government may sense weakness in Puigdemont’s position and act accordingly.

  • This article has been amended to make clear that Switzerland has offered to mediate between the two sides, and to provide more information on the referendum results


Sam Jones in Barcelona

The GuardianTramp

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