The Catalan leader puts independence on hold for talks

THE formula seemed contradictory. On October 10th Carles Puigdemont, the president of Catalonia’s devolved government, told his parliament that he was “assuming the mandate” for Catalonia to become an independent republic and thus leave Spain. But he asked the parliament to “suspend the effects of the declaration of independence” to allow for negotiations.

This followed an unconstitutional referendum on independence held on October 1st in which, his administration says, 2.3m (around 43% of the electorate) voted, 2m of them in favour. For many of the thousands of flag-waving demonstrations outside the parliament, that was enough to declare independence straight away, and many were deflated. But business leaders and opposition politicians in Catalonia warn that Mr Puigdemont is propelling the region towards a costly political void. By suspending independence, he is trying to play for time.

All eyes now turn to Mariano Rajoy, Spain’s conservative prime minister. He has rejected negotiation while Catalonia’s government continues to act unconstitutionally. He is under pressure to invoke Article 155 of Spain’s democratic constitution which allows the government to “compel” a region to fulfil its constitutional obligations and give it direct orders if it does not. Never tested, politicians assume this would allow the prime minister to suspend self-government in Catalonia, and call a regional election. Mr Rajoy told El País, a Madrid newspaper, that he would act to keep Spain together “at the right time”.

In Catalonia, one of Spain’s richest regions with 7.5m people, the independence movement gained allies after the Spanish government’s mishandling of the referendum, during which police baton charges left several hundred people injured, according to the Catalan authorities. The region was paralysed by a protest strike on October 3rd.

That may come to be seen as a high watermark for the drive for independence. The past few days have delivered a sharp reality check, contradicting the claims of the ruling coalition in Barcelona, Catalonia’s capital, that independence would be painless and is the demand of a united people.

Most damagingly, since October 1st a score of the largest companies in Catalonia have started to move their legal domicile to other parts of Spain. Thousands of savers have moved their accounts. On October 8th some 400,000 people marched in Barcelona for the unity of Spain. It was the first time that the silent majority opposed to independence found its voice. No European government has shown the least sign of interest in Mr Puigdemont’s pleas for mediation; France’s Emmanuel Macron, for one, has bluntly rejected it.

Mr Puigdemont heads a diverse coalition which may now fracture. Moderates, silent for the past few months, have emerged to push for delay. On the other hand, the CUP, an anarchist group which wants immediate independence, did not join the applause for Mr Puigdemont’s speech. It may now withdraw its support, depriving his administration of its working majority. “I don’t think he can last a month without calling an election” in Catalonia, says a moderate politician in his party. That would do Mr Rajoy’s job for him. One way or another, Catalans may be asked to vote, legally this time. That would at least allow everyone to draw breath.

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