Puigdemont’s move complicates things for Spanish President Rajoy

“Suspending” ”independence tells Madrid that that the ball is in its court. On the table lays a proposal for a dialogue that the Spanish government will not accept. However, taking fully over power and functions from the Catalan government appears now harder. Also the Socialists were put in an uneasy spot, while Podemos are satisfied

Catalan President Carles Puigdemont laughs following a plenary session in the Catalan regional parliament in Barcelona, Spain, October 10, 2017. REUTERS/Albert Gea
Catalan President Carles Puigdemont laughs following a plenary session in the Catalan regional parliament in Barcelona, Spain, October 10, 2017. REUTERS/Albert Gea

"Do not expect from me any threats or insults, this is a very serious moment," said the President of the Autonomous Region of Catalonia, Carles Puigdemont, at the beginning of his long-awaited speech. In the same somewhat monotonous tone he concluded uttering the words that everyone, those in favor and those opposed, expected: the commitment to have Catalonia become an independent state. What not everybody expected was the next phrase: "I ask the Parliament to suspend the effects of the declaration of independence to allow for a process of dialogue and negotiation to begin in the coming weeks."

By “suspending” his unilateral pledge, Mr. Puigdemont made things more complicated for the government in Madrid.

"In chess," said Imma Aguilar Nàcher, a political analyst and strategist told Eastwest right after the speech, "this is a move by which a pawn forces the other player to move the pawn he or her foresees. In other words, Mr. Puigdemont puts in the hands of the Spanish government the burden to advance proposals for Catalonia not to go independent. This is a strategic move that does not equate to a step back, but, absent a real and clear declaration of independence on the table, puts the Spanish government in a difficult position. The Catalan government thus forces the [central] government to act, but also puts a spoke in its wheel against the drastic measures it could otherwise have implemented."

Madrid’s first reactions confirm Aguilar’s take. A statement from President Mariano Rajoy was expected immediately after the speech, but only his spokesman came forward to generically qualify the declaration as "unacceptable." Also Pedro Sánchez, the leader of the Socialist Party, could have used a clear-cut declaration to support the Popular Party he opposes politically. To make things worse, while Núria Marín, the Socialist mayor of the important Barcelona district Hospitalet del Llobregat was praising Mr. Puigdemont speech as "responsible", the leader of the Catalan SP in the Parlament was criticizing it, and calling for new elections.

New elections in Catalonia could turn out to be a risky path. The events of the last few weeks — the police presence and violent actions, the disappointment of the far-left (which pressed for an immediate independence) and the foreseeable total refusal of a dialogue by the government at La Moncloa — could push some undecided to independentista to get to a legal referendum, which is in the end Mr. Puigdemont’s speech.

The subdued tone of the speech also allowed Podemos’ Pablo Iglesias to mention "Mr. Puigdemont’s common sense" and to emphasize the word "dialogue".

Vice versa, Albert Rivera, the leader of Ciudadanos, the party providing a majority to Rajoy, would prefer Article 155, namely a "federal coercion" in crises circumstances, to be triggered immediately. The best kept secret in the government buildings in Madrid, and the mainstream press for that matter, these days is that enforcing Art. 155 would force a new legal regime on the Spanish state as well. This needs the approval of the Commission of autonomous communities (which are not all centralist) and that of the plenum of the Senate by an absolute majority. "This is a step that the President does not want to take. His purpose is to create a sort of vacuum that will allow him to act without any legal framework, as has been the case already in the last few weeks in Catalonia, the autonomy rights of which are de facto being suspended," wrote Javier Pérez Royo, a Professor of Constitutional Law at the University of Seville.

Mr. Puigdemont’s "deferred" independence was one of the likely scenarios precisely because it did not break the promise made to independentistas, did not push the mayor of Barcelona, Ada Colau, to take sides, but neither did it provide an easy justification for the government to enforce a drastic intervention or measures. The speeches by the opposition groups, on the other hand, had been prepared for an outright independence, some with a legalistic accent, others with an emotional taint. Ciudadanos’ Inés Arrimada brandished a passport — "I hope my relatives will not need it to come visit from Andalusia."

Ms. Arrimada spoke in Spanish, as did Xavier Albiol, the leader of Rajoy’s Popular Party in Catalonia, all the others in Catalan. This is not a question of how many angels can dance on the point of a needle: Mr. Puigdemont himself unexpectedly switched to Spanish when he said that with his "message of serenity and respect" he meant to convey that he had no bad feelings "against Spain or the Spaniards, but only against a status quo that the Catalans never voted upon."

Mr. Puigdemont and the other authorities sent also a message to the international public by repeatedly mentioning the "peaceful behavior of those who just wanted to vote" or take to the streets.

Everything can happen now, but a forceful occupation of the Catalan government offices would not help Mr. Rajoy government's image — not after the headlines on the international press, the journalists and crews of which clogged the spacious halls of the Parlament, and features this morning almost the same headline: "Independence is suspended to allow for a dialogue".

Donald Tusk, the president of the Council of Europe, had earlier on Tuesday urged Mr. Puigdemont not to take irreparable steps, and, albeit subtly, he got it. Also the IMF and the European Commission had mentioned earlier a dialogue that Mr. Rajoy does not intend to engaged in and less so "under blackmail".

"There is no political strategy and communication in this nation," said Imma Aguilar. "There has never been a dialogue between the Government and the Govern. The latter made an emotional bet on a narrative based on the clash with an oppressive state. The former provided a late legal, political, and police response... Emotion cannot dialogue with reason... Spain did not write its emotional narrative to counter independence, to provide a positive perspective to the thousands of Catalans who want to be Spanish and to the millions of Spaniards who want Catalonia to remain in Spain."

@GuiomarParada

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