Catalonia secession bid: Will a pause change the prospects?

Catalonia's separatist government has averted a potentially disastrous clash with the Spanish authorities, putting off its declaration of independence. But is Madrid ready to take up the secessionists' offer of talks?

Eric Gaillard/Reuters
A Catalan flag hangs from a balcony during a demonstration in favor of dialogue between Madrid and Catalan’s independence-minded leaders in Barcelona, Spain, Oct. 7.

The separatist leader of Catalonia stepped back from the brink Tuesday evening, postponing a much heralded unilateral declaration of independence and offering to open talks with the central government of Madrid.

“Today we are making a gesture of responsibility in favor of dialogue,” Carles Puigdemont, the president of Catalonia told the regional parliament. But the loudest applause greeted his insistence that “I assume the mandate for Catalonia to become an independent state in the form of a republic.”

That set the scene for further drama in Spain’s worst political crisis since a failed coup in 1981. Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has repeatedly refused to negotiate with Catalan leaders unless they abandon their plans to declare independence.

“Puigdemont opened a door for negotiations to happen, but who knows what Rajoy will do,” says Carles Ramio Matas, a political scientist at Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona. “We’re still in uncharted territory.”

Mr. Puigdemont had pledged to declare his region’s independence after voters in a referendum 10 days ago overwhelmingly endorsed that move. But only only 43 percent of the electorate turned out to vote, and Puigdemont appears to have hesitated in the face of strong opposition from European leaders and signs in recent days that businesses were fleeing the region, fearful of what independence could mean.

Stiff political headwinds

Puigdemont’s caution also reflects the stiff political headwinds he would face in imposing his separatist policy on a deeply divided region where only a 40 percent minority of voters favors secession, according to opinion polls.

Even some supporters of Catalan independence are dubious about the referendum, which was unconstitutional. “I’ve been waiting for the independence of Catalonia all my life, but … I know there is not a majority for independence yet,” said Alex Ros, a middle-aged businessman who turned out with hundreds of thousands of other demonstrators Saturday to demand dialogue.

Susana Vera/Reuters
A man stands on a tractor whilst waving a separatist Catalonian flag at a rally in support of independence in Barcelona, Spain, Oct. 10.

“We should win independence in a legally binding referendum,” agreed by the national government in Madrid, he added.

The Catalan leader’s cautious wording, stopping short of an outright independence declaration, appeared designed to head off the threat that Mr. Rajoy might dissolve the Catalan parliament and call new elections, or even suspend Catalonia’s autonomous status.

Deputy Premier Soraya Saenz de Santamaria had warned that “if there is a unilateral declaration of independence, decisions will be made to restore law and democracy.” A spokesman for the ruling Popular Party had suggested Puigdemont risked arrest.

A hard-line response from Madrid seems less likely in the wake of Puigdemont’s speech, Mr. Matas says. “Rajoy would lose face with the international community” if he assumed direct rule of Catalonia, he argues. “It would mean he refuses to dialogue” while his rival in Catalonia was calling for “de-escalation.”

But the Catalan president’s tactical move disappointed many in the crowd of independence supporters who had gathered outside the parliament on Tuesday evening to watch his speech on a giant screen.

The mood of excited anticipation dissipated as onlookers digested the import of their leader’s words and streamed out of the square in silence. Some, such as 17-year-old student Gemma Giralt kept the faith, even though she said she had been looking forward to an independence announcement.

“We understand he [Puigdemont] was under a lot of pressure. We want to declare independence in a positive way and if he thinks we’re not ready for it, we’re going to give him as much time as he needs,” Ms. Giralt said. 

But Puigdemont’s speech left the political situation in Spain essentially unchanged … and confused.

Experts in Barcelona are unclear about what happens next and say the situation remains as uncertain as it was a week ago in the wake of the referendum. Puigdemont suggested on Tuesday that an international mediator might bring Madrid and Barcelona together.

Appeals for negotiation

Just before the parliament session, the president of the European Union’s Council, Donald Tusk, appealed to Puigdemont to step back from the cliff edge and negotiate with Rajoy.

“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,” he said.

European leaders such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron have made it clear they do not support Catalan independence, and their views clearly weigh on both Catalan leaders and the public.

“If unilateral independence is declared, only North Korea and Venezuela will support us,” lamented Mr. Ros, who demonstrated for moderation on Saturday. “That’s not how things should go.”

More pressure came from Catalonia’s business sector. Catalonia is Spain’s most productive economic region, accounting for a fifth of the national economy. Shares in Spanish banking stocks plunged on Wednesday as investors reacted to the uncertain prospects for an independent Catalonia.

Two major banks and several large companies have moved their legal bases out of Catalonia since the referendum, and a team from the Cercle d’Economia, an influential business group, urged caution on Puigdemont at a weekend meeting.

The ball is now in the Spanish prime minister's court. Puigdemont has yielded to pressure and shown some flexibility. Will Rajoy follow suit?

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