The Cable

Catalan President Backs Down From Independence Declaration

Puigdemont says he’ll still pursue negotiations with Spain.

Supporters of an independence for Catalonia listen to Catalan president Carles Puigdemont's speech  in Barcelona on October 10, 2017. ( Pau Barrena/AFP/Getty Images)
Supporters of an independence for Catalonia listen to Catalan president Carles Puigdemont's speech in Barcelona on October 10, 2017. ( Pau Barrena/AFP/Getty Images)

Catalan President Carles Puigdemont Tuesday held back from declaring independence from Spain, underscoring his hope to foster more dialogue with the Spanish government.

Catalans voted Oct. 1 for independence from Spain in a banned referendum that was met with police violence. Last weekend, hundreds of thousands of protesters demonstrated in Barcelona in favor of a unified Spain.

Puigdemont’s Tuesday speech before a specially convened session of the Catalan parliament was widely expected to stand as a declaration of independence. Instead, he offered to refrain from declaring unilateral independence from Spain, despite his mandate to do so, in order to hold talks with the Spanish government. Puigdemont also said that both parties should consider international mediation.

The speech does little to advance the present situation, according to El País opinion writer Jorge Galindo, who took to Twitter to explain that the Spanish government could use Article 155 of the constitution to take over the regional government while the more radical pro-independence Popular Unity Candidacy (CUP) party could break its coalition with Puigdemont’s party. “And everybody’s happy,” Galindo concluded sarcastically.

A Spanish government spokesperson told AFP the speech was essentially a declaration of independence posturing as an invitation to open-minded negotiation. “It’s unacceptable to make a tacit declaration of independence to then suspend it in an explicit manner,” the spokesman said.

Sincere or not, Puigdemont’s attempt at a more more conciliatory posture on Tuesday may have been a response to anti-independence backlash coming from the business and banking sectors as well as the international community.

The possibility of a declaration of independence on Tuesday led to condemnation from French President Emmanuel Macron, while European Council President Donald Tusk appealed to Catalonia for restraint. Whereas Macron said that the European Union had no business mediating the Catalan crisis and reiterated his steadfast backing of Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, Tusk cautioned against rash decisionmaking that could imperil dialogue between Spanish and Catalan leadership.

Earlier, French Minister of European Affairs Nathalie Loiseau said that France would not recognize an independent Catalonia, effectively preventing it from joining the EU and NATO.

Catalonia accounts for nearly a fifth of the national economy, so independence would potentially bring Spain’s government-debt ratio to 115 percent of GDP from the current 99 percent — surpassing Cyprus and Belgium with the fourth-largest debt load in the eurozone. Starting last week, banks and businesses across Spain scrambled to prepare for a possible declaration of independence.

Fears of instability have also been contributing to capital flight. Last Friday, the board of CaixaBank, which makes up roughly half of Catalonia’s banking sector, announced plans to move its legal headquarters to Valencia. Sabadell, another of Spain’s largest banks, announced plans to move its legal base from Barcelona to Alicante. The Catalan business association also reported that hundreds of companies could soon do the same.

This process resembles the capital flight suffered by Quebec in the wake of its 1980 independence referendum. Before the separatist Parti Québécois beat the Quebec Liberal Party in the province’s 1976 election, five out of eight of Canada’s largest financial institutions by assets were headquartered in Montreal. By 1980, reports the Financial Times, only the National Bank remained.  

Photo credit: Pau Barrena/AFP/Getty Images

Martin de Bourmont is an editorial fellow at Foreign Policy. He previously worked as a reporter for the Phnom Penh Post in Cambodia and as a reporting intern for the New York Times in Paris. Twitter: @MBourmont

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