Catalonia's leader proposes talks with Spain before following mandate for independence

Catalonia’s leader Carles Puigdemont says he has a mandate to declare independence for the northeastern region of Spain, but proposes waiting “a few weeks” in order to facilitate a dialogue.

Puigdemont told the Catalan parliament that a landslide victory in the region’s disputed Oct. 1 referendum on independence gives his government grounds to implement its long-held desire to break century-old ties with Spain.

But he is suggesting holding off.

Puigdemont’s speech was highly critical of the Spanish government’s response to the referendum, but he said Catalans have nothing against Spain or Spaniards, and that they want to understand each other better.

At the end of his speech, Puigdemont was applauded by standing separatist lawmakers.

Security tight

Many speculated Puigdemont would declare independence, marking a critical point in a decade-long standoff between Catalan separatists and Spain’s central authorities. And separatist lawmakers and activists said they wouldn’t be satisfied with anything short of that declaration.

Security was tight in Barcelona and police cordoned a park surrounding the legislative building, where Puigdemont addressed regional lawmakers.

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Spanish police officers stand guard at the entrance to the Parliament of Catalonia in Barcelona on Tuesday. Crowds were expected to gather ahead of Catalan regional President Puigdemont’s planned address. (Emilio Morenatti/Associated Press)

His speech was supposed to start at noon ET, but was delayed by an hour. The leader requested the delay for a parliamentary group to hold a meeting on opposition lawmakers’ request to cancel the session.

Opposition leader Ines Arrimadas of the Ciudadanos (Citizens) party said Puigdemont’s statement “is a coup” and has no support in Europe.

Arrimadas said the majority of Catalans feel they are Catalans, Spanish and European and that they won’t let regional officials “break their hearts.”

Some 2.3 million Catalans — or 43 per cent of the electorate in the north-eastern region — turned out to vote in the Oct. 1 independence referendum that the Spanish government said was illegal. Regional authorities say 90 per cent who voted were in favour and declared the results of the vote valid.

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Puigdemont, centre, is applauded by standing separatist lawmakers after delivering his speech. (Albert Gea/Reuters)

The ballot was marred by violence as riot police tasked with stopping the voting clashed with voters, leaving hundreds injured.

The political deadlock has been compared in Spain to a “train collision” and has plunged the country into its deepest political crisis in more than four decades, since democratic rule was restored following the dictatorship of Gen. Francisco Franco.

Divided expectations

In the streets of Barcelona, expectations were divided between those who want to see the birth of a new nation and others opposed to the idea. Some feared a drastic backlash from the Spanish central authorities.

“I am thrilled,” said Maria Redon, a 51-year-old office worker. “I’ve been waiting for this all my life. We have fought a lot to see an independent Catalonia.”

But Carlos Gabriel, a 36-year-old waiter, said that is “impossible.

Catalonian independence a divisive issue in Spain2:00

“He won’t do it. By doing so he would be diving into an empty pool,” he said. “These people know it’s just a dream. Something very complicated. Something that will carry many negative consequences for all of us.”

The Catalan parliament’s governing board acknowledged Tuesday morning it had received the results in last week’s disputed independence referendum. But a parliamentary official who spoke on condition of anonymity said the board refrained from putting the results through normal parliamentary procedures to elude any legal problems, because the referendum and its legal framework have been suspended by the national constitutional court.

Assemblea Nacional Catalan and Omnium Cultural, two of the main civil society organizations driving the secession bid, called for people to gather near Barcelona’s parliament building to back the regional government in “welcoming the republic.”

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Mossos d’Esquadra, Catalan regional police officers, stand guard outside the Catalonian regional parliament in Barcelona on Tuesday. (Rafael Marchante/Reuters)

Hundreds of thousands have turned out for street protests in Barcelona and other towns in the past month to back Catalan independence and protest against alleged police violence during the vote. Those committed to national unity have also staged separate, large-scale rallies.

The tension has affected the economy, with dozens of companies already relocating their corporate address away from the troubled region to remain under Spanish and European laws if Catalonia manages to secede. The moves of the firms’ bases do not so far affect jobs or investments — but they don’t send a message of confidence in the Puigdemont government.

Spanish Economy Minister Luis de Guindos said on Tuesday he hoped “common sense” would prevail and blamed Puigemont’s “radical” and “irresponsible” government for the current standoff.

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Catalan regional President Puigdemont arrives at the parliament in Barcelona, Spain on Tuesday. (Manu Fernandez/Associated Press)

“This is not about independence, yes or no. This is about a rebellion against the rule of law,” de Guindos told reporters in Luxembourg, where he was meeting with European Union ministers.

“And the rule of law is the foundation of coexistence, not only in Spain but in Europe.”

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