BARCELONA, Spain - On Tuesday, in a much-awaited speech to the regional parliament in Barcelona, Catalan Leader Carles Puigdemont declared that the region had earned the right to independence from Spain.
Puigdemont however, immediately suspended the process to allow for talks with the central government in Madrid, leaving the door open to negotiations and reiterated a call for mediation.
In the speech, that appeared to be a tight balancing act, Puigdemont said that the Catalan people had offered a “mandate” for independence.
The leader’s speech defied Madrid’s denunciations of the region’s independence referendum as illegal and invalid, but stopped short of offering an immediate and outright declaration of independence.
Puigdemont said, “I assume the mandate of the people for Catalonia to become an independent state in the shape of a republic. I ask Parliament to suspend the declaration of independence so that in the coming weeks we can undertake a dialogue.”
Puigdemont also was trying to placate several factions within his alliance of separatist lawmakers, who control a majority of the seats in the Catalan Parliament after winning 48 percent of the votes in 2015.
Soon after the speech, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy rejected any dialogue with Catalan separatists unless they abandon plans for secession.
Puigdemont and his allies could now face arrest for sedition, and the Catalan parliament could be disbanded.
However, Puigdemont, left open the possibility for dialogue, while defending the decision to hold the referendum backing independence.
He said in his speech, “We are here because on Sunday, October 1, Catalonia held a referendum and did so in extreme conditions. There were violent police attacks against voters who were just waiting to deposit their ballot paper. More than 800 people were treated by medical services and the world saw it.”
He further added, “The Spanish state didn’t just want to confiscate ballot boxes and ballot papers. The main goal was to scare the people and force them to stay at home. But despite all these efforts, more than 2.2 million people voted because they overcame fear.”
According to Puigdemont, the region had asked 18 times for permission to hold a vote on autonomy.
He said, “All we wanted was a Scottish-style referendum where both sides were able to put their views forward. We were denied, time and time again.”
He further said, “We are not criminals, madmen or coup plotters — just ordinary people who simply want to vote. We have nothing against the Spaniards.”
In a bid to pressurize Puigdemont into sticking to his promise of following through on the results of the highly disputed referendum and stick to the independence pledge, hard-line separatist associations had called for a citizens’ rally near the Parliament building to push the Catalan political leadership.
However, lawmakers from Puigdemont’s conservative party, were wary about further escalating tensions with Madrid.
Fears were high especially after several prominent companies announced plans to move their headquarters from Catalonia because of legal uncertainties of a secession.
Miquel Iceta, the leader of the Catalan branch of the Socialist party said, “Let’s see if I’ve understood this well. You’re taking on a mandate that I’m questioning and at the same time you’re proposing to suspend a declaration that hasn’t been made.”
Iceta disagreed that an illegal referendum approved by two-fifths of the Catalan electorate gave Puigdemont the right to declare independence in the name of the Catalan people.
He said, “A minority cannot impose itself on a majority.”
Earlier in the day, Juan Ignacio Zoido, the Spanish interior minister, urged Puigdemont to “take a step back,” saying the Catalan leader had no choice but to respect the Constitution.
He said, “Outside the law, there is no possible dialogue and only confrontation, which we have advised against since the very first minute.”
Later addressing reporters, Zoido said that the Spanish police were prepared to intervene if street protests intensified in Catalonia.
Hundreds were injured during a police crackdown on the day of the referendum.