Financial Times

Leaders resist hardline pressure in effort to enable Catalan compromise

by Tony Barber - Madrid Michael Stothard - Barcelona, FT

October 12, 2017 | 4:55 pm
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Carles Puigdemont says Catalonia has earned its independence from Spain – but has suspended the process in the hope of talking to Madrid. Mariano Rajoy, Spain’s prime minister, is making preparations to tighten the screws on the Catalan leader, but wants more information first.


As Spain lives through some of its most tumultuous hours in four decades of democracy, both the country’s government and the separatist Catalan leadership are crafting stances ambiguous enough to buy time for cooling the political temperature.


There is no guarantee that the latest manoeuvres of the two sides, each deeply mistrustful of the other, will pave the way for direct talks to overcome Spain’s worst internal crisis since a failed military coup in 1981. But both Mr Rajoy and Mr Puigdemont are resisting pressure from supporters to adopt maximalist positions that might put an eventual compromise beyond reach.


“Each side has the problem of how to control its own forces,” said a former high-ranking Spanish official in Madrid. “But there is now a certain ambiguity in each side’s position, perhaps reflecting outside pressure, including from the EU, to gain time, reduce tensions and create space for answers.”


Mr Puigdemont stepped back on Tuesday from issuing a formal declaration of independence, as he told the Catalan parliament of his hopes of a resolution through dialogue over the next few weeks. His language fell far short of Mr Rajoy’s demand that the secessionists, who held an October 1 referendum that was illegal under Spain’s constitution, return to acting within the law.


But many pro-independence Catalans expressed deep disappointment. They had expected a more explicit statement than Mr Puigdemont’s assertion that Catalonia had “earned the right” to turn itself into a sovereign state.


Anna Sala, a Barcelona resident, was draped yesterday in the Catalan estelada flag – combining the region’s traditional red and yellow bars with a star on a blue background – as she walked home. “I thought that the moment [of independence] had finally arrived . . . But all we got was more talking. Maybe it will never happen now,” she said.


Benet Salellas, a lawmaker with the radical leftist CUP party, said that, until shortly before Mr Puigdemont’s speech, he and his colleagues had believed independence would be proclaimed. At the last minute, they were informed there would be another attempt at talks.

“We don’t know with whom or how long [the negotiations] will last,” he told TV3, a Catalan broadcaster. He suggested that CUP legislators might not resume their seats in the assembly.


Like Mr Puigdemont, Mr Rajoy has yielded nothing on the substance of his position, but he has not gone as far as hardline defenders of Spain’s unity might wish.


Speaking after an emergency government meeting yesterday, Mr Rajoy took the first step towards activating Article 155 of Spain’s constitution, a provision under which the central government can, in effect, suspend Catalonia’s statute of autonomy. However, in requesting that Mr Puigdemont clarify his statement to Catalonia’s parliament, the Spanish premier did not put his government on an irreversible path to implementing Article 155 in full. According to EFE, the Spanish news agency, Mr Rajoy gave Mr Puigdemont a deadline of Monday to provide more information.


Politicians and business people in Madrid suggested that his remarks reflected an awareness that the application of the full rigour of the law might backfire, by setting off large-scale resistance on the streets of Barcelona and elsewhere in Catalonia.


For Mr Rajoy, the risks of adopting too tough an approach were apparent on October 1, when the use of police force to disrupt the referendum attracted widespread international criticism. It also alienated some Catalans who are not separatists, but who abhor violence and yearn for a solution that heals the wounds of their divided society.


Yet Mr Rajoy is under pressure from politicians in his conservative Popular party, from segments of Spanish society and, many Catalans think, from Spain’s security establishment not to go easy on the secessionists.


“A lot of people are saying to Rajoy, ‘You are a coward’, even ‘You are a traitor’,” said one politically connected business leader in Madrid. “He is resisting this pressure, hoping that at the last minute the Catalans will step back.”


People close to the Catalan government describe Mr Puigdemont as a convinced supporter of secession who privately recognises that rapid steps to independence, in present circumstances, would be rash.


“Puigdemont is not intransigent. He knows he can’t go to full independence now, with such a split society in Catalonia. He is practically begging Madrid to give him something,” the former Spanish official said.


Mr Puigdemont appears keen on outside mediation to bring the two sides together. However, it is doubtful that any Spanish name commands enough authority and although the Spanish government may be open to discreet efforts by foreigners, it opposes any formal role for them.


by Tony Barber - Madrid Michael Stothard - Barcelona, FT

October 12, 2017 | 4:55 pm
  |     |     |   Start Conversation

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