The leader of Catalonia postponed a formal declaration of independence from Spain on Tuesday, stepping back from the brink of a constitutional crisis that has engulfed one of Europe’s richest nations.
Carles Puigdemont, the Catalan President, declared that the region had “earned the right” to independence from Madrid. But he told the Catalan parliament in Barcelona that he wanted to take the heat out of the political standoff that has roiled Spain since a disputed referendum on October 1.
“With the result of the referendum on the first of October, Catalonia has earned the right to be an independent state. It has earned the right to be heard and respected,” Puigdemont told deputies in the Catalan parliament.
“I defend the mandate of the people of Catalonia to become an independent republic,” he said, to applause from the chamber.
But he added that parliament should suspend a formal declaration in order to pursue dialogue. He did not specify what form the talks would take, or who would mediate them. Puigdemont and other deputies then signed what amounted to a symbolic declaration of independence.
Spain’s Deputy Prime Minister Soraya Saenz de Santamaria dismissed Puigdemont’s actions, saying: “The speech of the President of Catalonia is of someone who doesn’t know where he is going and what he wants to do.”
Puigdemont cannot impose mediation on Madrid, she said. “Dialogue in democracy is done by the rules and not inventing them as you please,” she told reporters.
Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy called an extraordinary Cabinet meeting for Wednesday morning. Rajoy has previously refused to hold talks unless Puigdemont drops his independence claim.
Spain was plunged into political uncertainty after the divisive and controversial referendum found 90% of Catalan voters in favor of independence. But the result was not as decisive it appeared – turnout was only 43% as many Catalans stayed at home. The referendum was declared illegal by Spain’s top court.
Tuesday’s highly anticipated parliamentary session was delayed for just over an hour amid reports that last-minute attempts at international mediation were underway.
Puigdemont said Catalonia was living through a “historic moment” that would have repercussions throughout Europe. “The consequences and effects go well beyond our country,” he said.
He defended the right of Catalans to express their views. “We are not criminals,” he said. “We are not crazy. We are not making a coup d’état … We are normal people who wish to have a vote.”
But he also talked about dialogue, de-escalation and peace just nine days after Spanish police tried to shut the vote down by firing rubber bullets and pulling voters from polling booths in scenes that shocked many across Europe.
“If everyone acts responsibly the conflict can be revolved in a calm manner,” he said.
Madrid and the European Union had earlier implored Puigdemont not make a unilateral declaration of independence. The Spanish government had warned Puigdemont not to take any “irreversible” action.
After the speech, the head of the Catalan branch of the anti-independence Ciutadans party, Ines Arrimadas, accused Puigdemont of dividing the region. “The people of Catalonia are not united, thanks to you,” she said, alluding to Puigdemont’s claim that the region was united behind the idea of independence.
“Most Catalans believe that Catalonia is their land, Spain is their country and Europe their future,” Arrimadas said after Puigdemont stopped short of a full declaration of independence Tuesday.
Italy’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Angelino Alfano, on Tuesday joined other European leaders in urging Puigdemont to enter talks with Madrid “aimed at safeguarding the unity of the country.”
“Italy therefore considers the unilateral declaration of independence unacceptable and rejects any escalation,’ Alfano said in a statement. “We express our confidence in the Spanish Government’s ability to protect constitutional order and legality and, consequently, to ensure respect for the rights of all citizens.”
Earlier, European Council President Donald Tusk urged Puigdemont to back down. “The force of arguments is always better than the argument of force,” he said in Brussels.
Ada Colau, mayor of Barcelona and an influential figure who has been critical of both sides and has called for de-escalation, thanked Puigdemont on Twitter for choosing “dialogue and mediation” and said it was now up to “Rajoy and other other political forces to make a move.”
In Barcelona, some Catalans expressed mixed feelings after watching the speech on big screens at Ciutadella Park.
“I’m in shock,” Angels Grabulosa, 34, said. “It’s not the declaration we expected. I don’t know what’s going to happen now. We are now just waiting to make sense of it all.”
Grabulosa said she expected a full declaration of independence, but added, “I hope that what starts now is a constituent process to start our new constitution and new state.”
Maria Miro, 31, said the timeline of the independence process was disappointing.
“It is too early to tell,” said Miro, holding the flag of Catalonia. “The people that return home will have to come back out to the streets and revindicate what we have done until now. The referendum was won by a majority. A lot of people want independence and now to prolong it is a mistake.”
Natalie Gallón reported from Barcelona. Ray Sanchez wrote from Atlanta.