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An independent Catalonia? Leader still refusing to reveal intentions

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 17/10/2017 Pamela Rolfe, James McAuley
Josep Lluis Trapero, the head of the Mossos d'Esquadra, the Catalan regional police force, enters the High Court to testify for the alleged crime of sedition in Madrid, Spain, Oct. 16. © Juan Medina/Reuters Josep Lluis Trapero, the head of the Mossos d'Esquadra, the Catalan regional police force, enters the High Court to testify for the alleged crime of sedition in Madrid, Spain, Oct. 16.

MADRID — The independence-minded Catalonia region tried again Monday to dodge the question of whether it has declared a formal break with Spain, calling instead for talks and listing the region’s grievances against Madrid’s leaders.

It brought at terse and frustrated reply from Spain’s justice minister. “Not valid,” said Rafael Catala amid warnings from Spanish authorities that their patience was wearing thin more than two weeks after Catalonia backed secession in a referendum.

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But Cataloni’s president, Carles Puigdemont, has carefully avoided a specific declaration of independence — which could trigger harsh measures in response from Spain including taking control of Catalonia’s security forces. Spain had given Puigdemont until Monday to clarify the region’s status.

“The question was clear but the answer is not,” Catala told reporters.

Instead, Puidgdemont appeared to try to buy some more time.

In a letter to Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, Puigdemont declined to answer the question, calling instead for two months of dialogue and a halt to what he called Spain’s “repression” against Catalan citizens and institutions.

Soraya Sáenz de Santamaría, Spain's deputy prime minister, also rejected Puigdemont's letter. She called the Catalan leader's appeal for dialogue “not credible.” The the place to have any further conversation was the Spanish parliament, not between a particular region and the central government, she said.

She gave Catalan authorities a second deadline of Thursday to return to obeying Spanish law.

Last week, Puigdemont presented the results of the Oct. 1 independence referendum in Spain’s wealthiest region. He affirmed Catalonia’s right to be an independent country, before immediately delaying the process to allow for dialogue.

Spain’s Constitutional Court, meanwhile, has declared the referendum illegal. Fewer than half of Catalan residents participated in the vote, but the vast majority of those who did voted for independence.

“The suspension of the political mandate which arose from the polls on Oct. 1 shows our firm will to find a solution and not confrontation,” Puigdemont wrote in the four-page letter to Rajoy.

“Our proposal of dialogue is sincere and honest,” he continued. “Thus, for the next two months, our main objective is to urge dialogue and that all those international, Spanish and Catalan institutions and personalities who have expressed their will to open a path to negotiations have the chance to explore it.”

The letter concluded with Puigdemont writing, “with good will, recognizing the problem and looking each other in the face, I am sure we can find a path to the solution.”

The letter arrived in Madrid hours before four people were scheduled to appear before the High Court to face possible charges of sedition in relation to the referendum. Josep Lluis Trapero, the head of the regional Catalan police force, was among those in court after his men declined to enforce the court order preventing the referendum.

Rajoy had said he would start proceeding to enact Article 155 if Puigdemont did not “return to the legality of the Constitution.” Article 155, known in Spain as the “nuclear option,” allows wide-ranging measures to uphold Spanish law in a renegade region, including assuming control of the police force and holding elections.

In Spain, a growing number of voices are calling for new elections in Catalonia to replace the sitting government.

In Barcelona, the seat of Catalan regional government, the predominant view is still that the region can achieve independence or greater autonomy.

“My government's priority is to intensively seek the path to dialogue,” Puigdemont wrote in his letter. “We want to talk, just as strong democracies do, about the existing problem that the majority of the Catalan people want to continue the path as an independent country in the European framework.”

How an independent Catalonia would fit into a “European framework” remains an open question.

For the moment, officials across the European Union have mostly sided with Madrid throughout the heated dispute, seeking to stave off a wave of separatist sentiments in the already embattled 28-state bloc. While many leaders have said that the referendum is an internal Spanish matter to be settled by Spanish authorities, other officials, notably in France, have said their governments would not recognize a newly independent Catalonia.

McAuley reported from Paris.

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