Catalonia's president said the region had voted to secede from Spain but will delay putting independence into effect while it seeks dialogue with the Spanish government, disappointing some separatists but defusing fears of an immediate constitutional crisis.
In a speech which many had speculated would include a declaration of independence by a region accounting for a fifth of Spanish GDP, President Carles Puigdemont said the results of an informal referendum Oct. 1, which was ruled illegal by Spain's constitutional court and attracted turnout of just over 40%, granted authority to form a Catalan republic. But he suspended the new state's creation before it was born, potentially avoiding a direct challenge to Spanish authority which could have led to the imposition of direct rule from Madrid and criminal charges of rebellion against Catalan leaders.
"I accept the mandate of the people of Catalonia to form an independent state," Catalan President Carles Puigdemont told the regional parliament. "We propose that parliament suspend the effects of the declaration of independence to begin a dialogue."
"If in the next few days all those involved live up to their obligations, the conflict between the Spanish state and Catalonia can be resolved," Puigdemont said, calling on the European Union to "argue in favor of its foundational values."
Little support abroad
While the sometimes violent police attempts to suppress the Oct. 1 referendum shocked many around the world, Catalan separatists have been frustrated by their failure to attract more European support for their cause of independence, which Spain argues is not allowed by the constitution. The EU has made it clear that an independent Catalan state would not be a member of the bloc and French President Emmanuel Macron has said France should not mediate in the dispute.
Some Catalan separatists expressed disappointment at what they saw as a climbdown by Puigdemont, who had earlier promised that independence would be declared within 48 hours of a 'yes' vote in the referendum.
"What we're witnessing is inexcusable treachery," Arran, the youth wing of Puigdemont's coalition partners Republican Left, wrote on Twitter. Far-left independence campaigners in the Catalan parliament did not join in applause for the president's speech.
Other actors across the political spectrum expressed relief that the Catalan government had apparently pulled back from the brink of a constitutional crisis with unpredictable consequences for the region and for the Spanish economy. While pro-independence parties have a majority in the Catalan parliament, polls have shown support for secession in a region with its own distinct language and culture to be below 50%. Many big companies based in Catalonia, including CaixaBank SA and Banco de Sabadell SA, have said they will move their legal domicile from the region because of the independence push.
"Puigdemont has not declared independence," noted Pablo Iglesias, head of Spain's left-wing Podemos party, calling on Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy to enter into dialogue with Catalonia.
Rajoy's conservative government has insisted that there can be no dialogue over the unity of Spain, but has indicated that it might consider discussions on the relationship between the Madrid authorities and the country's regions.