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In Spain, Catalan Separatist Leader Calls For Talks With Madrid

Oct 11, 2017
Originally published on October 11, 2017 6:43 am
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

There is just a whole lot of confusion in Spain's northeast region of Catalonia today. Leaders there want to break away and form a new country. And they've been in a standoff with the central government for weeks. The regional president gave a carefully worded speech last night in which he said Catalonia should be independent but that he wants dialogue first. And now the prime minister of Spain is demanding that he clarify whether Catalonia is declaring independence. Lauren Frayer reports from Barcelona.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: On October 1, Catalonia defied Spanish courts and held a disputed independence referendum in which 90 percent of those who cast ballots voted to break away from Spain. Even though more than half of Catalans did not vote, the regional leader, Carles Puigdemont, claimed a mandate to secede. For the past 10 days, he promised to declare independence but didn't follow through. So all eyes and ears were on his speech last night before the Catalan regional parliament.

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PRESIDENT CARLES PUIGDEMONT: (Speaking Catalan).

FRAYER: "Catalonia will become an independent state in the form of a republic," he announced. Outside, thousands of people had gathered to watch the speech on big screens set up near a park. And when he said those words - independent state...

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UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Cheering).

FRAYER: The crowd erupted in cheers. But then their smiles faded as Puigdemont went on.

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PUIGDEMONT: (Speaking Catalan).

FRAYER: "I propose we suspend the effects of this declaration of independence," he said, "so that in the coming weeks, we may begin a dialogue." It was like he declared independence and then abruptly took it back. Moderates like Barcelona's mayor had urged Puigdemont to de-escalate. So had top European Union officials. They may be relieved.

But walking away from the big outdoor screens last night, some independence activists were in tears - among them, Juana Gareta, a college student who thinks Spanish officials will block any dialogue.

JUANA GARETA: It would be fantastic if we could negotiate. But I think it's not possible because they don't want to talk with someone who don't want to talk. It's stupid.

FRAYER: Separatist officials hope to negotiate a transition to independence. But Spain is not likely to talk. The central government and its courts outlawed the October 1 independence referendum. Any results or processes that come out of it are also considered unconstitutional. Spain also opposes outside mediation.

The European Union has been wary to get involved. It considers Catalan separatism an internal Spanish matter. The ball is in Madrid's court. Xavier Arbos is a constitutional law expert based in Barcelona. He does not think Puigdemont's call for dialogue will go over well in Madrid.

XAVIER ARBOS: I don't think that it will result in conversations - formal conversation with Mr. Rajoy, who, to say it plainly - I think he is quite fed up of the Catalan problem.

FRAYER: Thousands of Spanish police from all over the country are still here in Barcelona. They were poised to possibly arrest the Catalan leader if he had made a clear declaration of independence last night. Spain could still act against him, possibly invoking a clause of the constitution that cancels Puigdemont's regional powers.

Meanwhile, there's been an exodus of banks and businesses from Catalonia moving to other Spanish regions amid all of this uncertainty over independence. For NPR News, I'm Lauren Frayer in Barcelona.

(SOUNDBITE OF JULIA KENT'S "FLICKER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.