Catalan president Carles Puigdemont ignores Madrid's ultimatum

Puigdemont refuses to clarify whether he has actually declared independence and reiterates his call for talks

The Catalan president, Carles Puigdemont, has refused to clarify whether he declared Catalonia’s independence from Spain last week, but has repeated his calls for negotiations with the Madrid government to resolve the country’s ongoing political crisis.

His appeal came hours before Spain’s national court denied bail to two Catalan pro-independence leaders, who are being investigated for alleged sedition in the run-up to the regional independence referendum two weeks ago.

Although Puigdemont signed a unilateral declaration of independence last Tuesday, claiming that referendum had given his government a mandate to create a sovereign republic, he proposed that the effects of the declaration be suspended for a few weeks to allow for dialogue.

The Spanish prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, responded with an ultimatum the following day. He warned that Puigdemont had until Monday 16 October to confirm whether he had declared independence, and until Thursday 19 October to abandon his push for independence or face the imposition of direct rule from Madrid.

In a letter on Monday, the Catalan president failed to answer Rajoy’s question, asking instead for an urgent meeting “before the situation deteriorates still further”.

“My government’s priority is to wholeheartedly pursue the path of dialogue,” wrote Puigdemont.

In a little over a decade, Carles Puigdemont has gone from obscurity to becoming the Spanish government’s bête noire and the pubic face of the Catalan independence movement.

A staunch and long-standing independence campaigner who has been the regional president of Catalonia since January 2016, Puigdemont was born to a family of bakers in the Catalan province of Girona in 1962.

He studied Catalan philology at university before becoming a journalist on the Girona-based daily El Punt and helping to launch Catalonia Today, an English-language paper.

He was elected in 2006 to the Catalan parliament as an MP for the Convergence and Union party representing the Girona region and five years later became the mayor of Girona.

Puigdemont found himself thrust into the Catalan presidency in January 2016 after his predecessor, Artur Mas, stepped aside to facilitate the formation of a pro-independence coalition government.

“We want to talk – as people do in established democracies – about the problem facing the majority of Catalan people who want to begin their journey as an independent country in Europe. The suspension of the political mandate received at the ballot box on 1 October shows our firm desire to find a solution and not confrontation.”

The Spanish government said it was disappointed that Puigdemont had chosen not to answer whether independence had been declared and reminded him he has until Thursday to return to the path of legality.

“It shouldn’t have been too hard to answer yes or no on whether independence has been declared,” Spain’s deputy prime minister, Soraya Sáenz de Santamaría, said on Monday morning.

“I don’t think it would have been a complicated reply. With an issue as important as this, all we ask is clarity. Prolonging the uncertainty through deliberate confusion only serves those who want to do away with civic harmony.”

In the letter, Puigdemont said his government was proposing a two-month window for talks before pressing ahead with independence, but he called on the Spanish authorities to put an end to what he called “the repression of the Catalan people and government”.

He criticised the Spanish national court’s decision to investigate the head of the Catalan police and two leaders of pro-independence civil society groups for sedition, and complained about the crackdown on the referendum and the “brutal police violence” seen on polling day.

“Despite everything that has happened, our offer of dialogue is sincere,” Puigdemont added.

“But logically it is incompatible with the current climate of growing repression and menace … Let’s agree, as soon as possible, to a meeting that will allow us to explore initial agreements. Let’s not let the situation deteriorate still further. With good intentions and by recognising the problem and looking it in the face, I am sure we can find the path to a solution.”

Sáenz de Santamaría said that if Puigdemont was serious about dialogue, he should appear in the Spanish parliament.

“No one is denying him dialogue,” she said. “But dialogue has to be carried out within the law, with the maximum possible clarity and in the congress where all Spaniards are represented.”

On Monday evening, Spain’s national court ordered the leaders of two pro-independence Catalan civil society groups to be remanded in custody as part of an investigation into alleged sedition before the referendum.

A judge ruled that Jordi Sánchez, president of the Catalan national assembly and Jordi Cuixart, president of Òmnium Cultural, should be denied bail pending an examination of their roles in the protests that followed the arrest of 14 senior Catalan officials in September.

However, the judge decided that Josep Lluís Trapero, the head of the Catalan police force – who is also being investigated for sedition – could remain free as long as he surrendered his passport, stayed in Spain and kept in regular contact with the courts.

The Catalan president’s position will only serve to hasten the unprecedented invocation of article 155 of the constitution, which permits 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”.

Rajoy has made it plain that there will be no negotiations until Puigdemont renounces his independence plans and returns Catalonia to “constitutional order”.

He has also said that the thousands of Guardia Civil and national police officers deployed to Catalonia to halt the vote will remain there “until things return to normal”.

The Catalan government has accused Rajoy of in effect already activating article 155.

“That’s the trap: they threaten to apply 155 when they’re already applying it illegally,” the region’s foreign minister, Raül Romeva, told the Observer on Saturday. “They’re already intervening in our finances but they’re doing it by the back door. And the presence in Catalonia of the Guardia Civil and the national police is illegal. They’re saying they’re defending the rules but they’re the ones breaking their own rules.”

Puigdemont’s government is under growing pressure from some in the Catalan independence movement to proceed with an immediate declaration of independence.

Its junior coalition partners, the far-left separatist party CUP, had been hoping for an outright independence declaration last week and are urging him to ignore the Spanish government and make a definitive proclamation of independence.

Meanwhile, the Catalan national assembly, a powerful pro-independence civil society group, has also said that it no longer makes sense “to keep the suspension of the independence declaration”.

The European commission has ruled out any intervention in the crisis, saying such a move would only cause “a lot more chaos”.

In the independence referendum 90% of participants voted in favour of splitting from Spain. But only 2.3 million of Catalonia’s 5.3 million registered voters – 43% – took part. According to the Catalan government, 770,000 votes were lost after Spanish police stepped in to try to halt the vote.


Sam Jones in Madrid

The GuardianTramp

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