Catalan Separatists Hint at Retreat as Activists Ready to Rumble

Updated on
  • Some in Madrid want to keep door open for a Catalan climbdown
  • Next clash looms on Friday as the senate votes on powers

Catalan on Edge as Parliament Decides Next Moves

Catalonia’s separatist leaders would consider dropping their demand for independence should the Spanish government offer a way out of the country’s biggest political drama for decades.

The breakaway region’s foreign affairs chief, Raul Romeva, said the showdown with Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy is about Catalonia’s democratic right to decide its own future rather than just seeking secession. Spain had years to come up with a plan, he said in an interview during a visit to Copenhagen.

"Is there an alternative project that would make people, who now only see independence as an option, satisfied enough? Well, I’d be glad to hear it," said Romeva. "So far there is nothing more than threats, arresting people, violence. That is what we hear. So the situation now is oppression or independence.”

Catalan President Carles Puigdemont is expected to address the regional parliament on Friday with separatist leaders currently facing what seems to be a binary choice: capitulation or an all-out declaration of independence as activists mass on the streets of Barcelona. The Spanish Senate meets the same day for a vote that likely will grant Rajoy the authority he’s seeking to seize control of Catalonia’s administration and forcibly remove its leadership.

Moment Arrives

With Catalan businesses decamping, tourist numbers dropping and Spain’s chief prosecutor warning of a 30-year jail term, the separatists have been sending mixed signals this week.

There were noises that Puigdemont might address the Senate on Thursday as part of a debate on Article 155, the part of the Spanish Constitution that allows Madrid to bring any rebellious region to heel and revoking its autonomy. A Catalan lawmaker acknowledged the separatists bent the rules with their illegal referendum on Oct. 1 that escalated the battle over the region’s autonomy.

The wildcard is how it plays on the street. 

As Romeva sent conciliatory signals after addressing a committee from the Danish parliament, the main activist group was ramping up expectations among its supporters for a dramatic statement on Friday. The Catalan National Assembly has called its members to surround the regional parliament from noon, a human shield against Rajoy’s authorities.

"The moment has arrived," the group’s leadership said in a text message to its members, which was confirmed by a spokesman. "Now we have to defend the republic."

Standing Firm

Financial markets were undeterred. Spanish bonds rose for a fourth day, their longest winning stretch since the vote. The extra yield investors get for holding Spanish 10-year debt instead of German bunds narrowed by two basis points to 116 points.

For sure, Puigdemont says the result of the plebiscite does give him the mandate to establish an independent Catalan republic.

While the plan to box the separatists into a corner has alarmed some of Rajoy’s allies, the option of a dignified climb-down may be closing as the prime minister gears up to trigger Article 155. He told the Spanish Parliament on Wednesday that “we have to restore the rule of law."

One option for Puigdemont is to call regional elections. The rebels have assumed that they’d be able to dodge the full effect of Article 155 by calling a vote at the last minute, even though they’d incur the wrath of hardliners on the streets.

"It seems unlikely that the Catalan government will backtrack, at least under the conditions set by the government, because the grassroots would kill them," said Jose Ramon Caso, a lawmaker in the 1980s for a now-defunct party and adviser to a former prime minister. "The Catalans seem to be willing to suffer a defeat now with the aim of winning in the long run."

— With assistance by Maria Tadeo, Charles Penty, and Rodrigo Orihuela

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