Catalan leadership proclaims independence, no declaration yet

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Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont has proclaimed the region’s independence from Spain but says its effects will be suspended to allow for talks with the Madrid government.

“I assume the mandate that Catalonia should become an independent state in the form of a republic … I propose suspending the effects of the declaration of independence to undertake talks to reach an agreed solution,” Puigdemont told the regional parliament in Barcelona on Tuesday.

Though Puigdemont stopped short of seeking the explicit support of the chamber for the declaration of independence in a vote, a move that would have closed the door to any negotiated solution, the declaration plunges Spain into the unknown.

The Spanish government has said any unilateral declaration of independence would be illegal and has promised action “to restore law and democracy” if the parliament of the autonomous and affluent northeastern region presses ahead.

Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy could take the unprecedented step of dissolving the Catalan parliament and triggering new regional elections, the so-called “nuclear option”.

The Madrid government could also ask the courts to strike down a declaration of independence as unconstitutional.

Despite renewed calls for dialogue with Madrid, the proclamation makes a negotiated solution more difficult as Rajoy has said he would not talk to the Catalan leaders until they drop plans for independence.

Carles Puigdemont

Catalan regional president Carles Puigdemont’s biography is dominated by the quest for regional independence. But the 54-year-old former journalist is world-savvy and conversant in English, French and Romanian.

The controversial referendum on independence in Catalonia thrust President Carles Puigdemont into the international limelight.
But who is the man separatist parties in Catalan’s regional parliament picked in January 2016 to lead 7.5 million Catalans to independence?

Childhood

Stubborn but “honest and resilient,” with childhood memories of Spain’s Franco dictatorship until 1975, is how biographer Carles Porta characterizes Puigdemont.

The bakers’ son from the mountain village of Amer – about 100 kilometers (61 miles) from Barcelona – “learnt to be a fighter” when sent to boarding school aged just nine, writes Porta.

Passionate about Catalonia and its heritage, he joined a nationalist Catalan party in his late teens.

Traffic accidents

Aged 21, Puigdemont survived a serious traffic accident in 1983, leaving him with facial scars covered by a hairstyle that still draws remarks, even in his own Catalan European Democratic Party (PDeCAT).

It is a fate shared with Mariano Rajoy, his arch-rival and Spanish Prime Minister. Rajoy has car accident scars under his beard; Puigdemont has forehead scars under the fringe of his brown mop of hair.

Chief editor

By the early 80s, Puigdemont had studied the Catalan language and history and rose from sub-editor to chief editor of the nationalist newspaper El Punt Avui.

He also founded a Catalan news agency and an English-language newspaper on the region as well as publishing several books and essays.

His journalism was combined with activism for the PDeCAT’s forerunner party.

“He has a great flair for showmanship and knows how to use the media,” said political analyst Anto Losada.

Slovenian struggle

Puigdemont visited Slovenia in 1991, just after it had declared independence from former Yugoslavia – after a banned referendum and brief armed conflict.

His wife, Marcela Topor comes from Romania, hence his use of Romanian. The couple have two daughters.

Mayor of Girona

By 2001 Puigdemont had become the mayor of Girona, not far from his home village of Amer, and a regional parliamentarian.

In 2015, mayor Puigdemont became chairman of an association of municipalities that favored Catalan secession from Spain.

Replacement leader

In January 2016, still largely unknown in Spain, Puigdemont replaced the-then Catalan independence advocate Artus Mas as regional president.

Mas had become deeply unpopular with far-left separatists for austerity measures during Spain’s severe economic crisis.

On inauguration day, Puigdemont said: “This is no time for cowards.”

“I know we are launching a process that is neither easy nor comfortable, Puigdemont added.

Too reckless?

Some 21 months later, Spaniards and EU leaders opposed to Catalan independenceaccuse Puigdemont of recklessness that culminated on a referendum on October 1 that was banned by Spain’s constitutional court and repressed by Spanish police.

More than 90 percent of those who voted favored independence but out of a turnout of just 43 percent of the Catalan electorate in a ballot that fell short of electoral standards.

Puigdemont has said he is not afraid of going to jail over independence while calling for EU mediation, which Rajoy has rejected.

EU: independence means exit

Careful not to undermine Rajoy, the EU has merely called for dialog between Barcelona and Madrid.

Draft legislation passed by the regional parliament on September 6 asserts that Catalan would remain part of the EU.

Brussels, however, has said that an independent Catalan, which generates a fifth of Spain’s economic earnings, would automatically exit the bloc and would have to reapply to join.