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Catalan leader stalls on independence drive

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Catalan regional government president Carles Puigdemont delivers a speech on the sidelines of a wreath-laying ceremony commemorating the 77th anniversary of the death of Catalan leader Lluis Companys at the Montjuic Cemetery in Barcelona on October 15, 2017. Companys had proclaimed a “Catalan state in the Spanish federal republic” in 1934 to oppose the conservatives who governed in Madrid. Exiled in France, Companys was denounced by the Nazis in 1940 and handed over to Spain where he was executed. / AFP PHOTO / PAU BARRENA

Catalonia’s separatist leader on Monday refused to say whether he had declared independence from Spain, calling for an urgent meeting with Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy to settle the country’s worst political crisis in a generation.

Responding to a Monday morning deadline set by the central government to clarify his position, Carles Puigdemont for talks with Rajoy “as soon as possible”.

But he stopped short of giving a definitive “yes or no” as demanded by Madrid after his ambiguous independence speech last week.

The Spanish government had given Puigdemont until 0800 GMT on Monday to clear up his stance on secession, with anything less than a full climb-down likely to prompt moves by Madrid to impose direct control over the semi-autonomous region.

In a letter addressed to the premier, Puigdemont wrote: “for the next two months, our main objective is to bring you to dialogue.”

But Spain’s foreign minister said Puigdemont had failed to give a clear answer.

“It’s clear Mr Puigdemont has not responded, has not given the clarity we asked of him,” Alfonso Dastis told reporters in Luxembourg.

European Union officials are keeping a close eye on developments amid fears that Catalan independence could put further strain on the bloc as it grapples with Britain’s shock decision to leave.

Puigdemont had told regional lawmakers he was ready for Catalonia to “become an independent state” following a secession referendum on October 1 that went ahead despite a court ban.

But he immediately said he was suspending proceedings to allow time for negotiations with Madrid.

‘Facing the problem head-on’
Puigdemont and some separatist allies want mediation with Madrid over the fate of the 7.5 million-strong region, an idea the central government says is a non-starter.

In his letter, the separatist leader wrote that his “suspension of the political mandate given by the polls on October 1 demonstrates our firm will to find a solution and not confrontation.

“Let’s not let the situation deteriorate further. With good will, recognising the problem and facing it head on, I am sure we can find the path to a solution,” he wrote.

In the run-up to Monday’s deadline, Interior Minister Juan Ignacio Zoido said Madrid wanted a full climb-down from Puigdemont but was prepared for another indefinite response from the Catalan president.

“If that’s the case, that will show that he doesn’t want dialogue and so the Spanish government will need to take necessary measures to return to normality,” Zoido told reporters at the weekend.

Rock and a hard place
Catalonia, an economic heavyweight that accounts for a fifth of Spain’s GDP, has its own language and distinct culture but is deeply divided over independence.

Separatists argue the prosperous region is helping to prop Spain up, saying it pays more in taxes than it gets back and that a break from the rest of the country would allow it to prosper.

The Spanish government says growing uncertainty over Catalonia, which is deeply indebted to Madrid and which cannot borrow internationally, imperils Spain’s recovery from the financial crisis.

The two biggest Catalan banks have already moved their legal headquarters to other parts of Spain, while ratings agency Standard and Poor’s has warned of a recession in the region if the crisis drags on.

Puigdemont, a 54-year-old former journalist and father of two, is under intense pressure from Madrid and world leaders to back off.

But he is also being squeezed by his separatist allies to crack on with independence.

Rajoy said he is ready to invoke article 155 of Spain’s constitution, allowing him to retake full control of Catalonia — the so-called “nuclear option.”

And Puigdemont’s separatist allies have threatened mass strikes and protests in the event of a climb-down.

Adding to tensions is the expected appearance in court in Madrid of Catalan police chief Josep Lluis Trapero.

He is to be questioned on accusations of sedition for his handling of pro-independence protests and for allegedly failing to stop the October 1 vote.



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