Catalan leader calls on Madrid to agree to independence referendum

Catalonian regional president Quim Torra delivers a speech under the title 'Our moment' at the National Theater of Catalonia in Barcelona, north eastern Spain, 4 September 2018. [Marta Perez/EPA/EFE]

Catalan leader Quim Torra relaunched a campaign to split his region from Spain on Tuesday (4 September), calling on the central government in Madrid to agree to a referendum on independence and rebuffing a vote that could only offer greater autonomy.

Torra set out his separatist roadmap at a lecture entitled “Our Moment” on Tuesday evening, almost five months after he was elected as regional head to replace Carles Puigdemont, who fled to Brussels last year after Madrid removed him from office.

Puigdemont steps down, names successor for Catalonia’s presidency

Carles Puigdemont, the former president of Catalonia who organised the illegal independence referendum in October 2017, nominated on Thursday (10 May) a pro-independence politician as his successor at the head of Spain’s rebellious region.

Spain’s new socialist prime minister, Pedro Sanchez, has taken a softer line towards Catalonia since taking over from Mariano Rajoy, a conservative, in June, but ruled out a vote on independence after a banned and chaotic referendum last 1 October.

Independent observers: No proper referendum took place in Catalonia

Catalonia’s independence vote held on 1 October failed to meet the international standards to be considered as a referendum, the head of the international observation mission told on Wednesday (18 October).

A majority voted for independence in that ballot but turnout was low, as opponents did not show up for the vote that Spain said was illegal. Puigdemont declared independence, prompting Madrid to take over direct rule.

Torra insisted he wanted another vote, but said this time it must be approved by the state.

“The 1 October mandate is in force and we are working to bring it into effect,” he said, but added that “only an agreed, binding and internationally recognised referendum on self-determination can renew that mandate”.

Secessionist ambitions in Catalonia, which accounts for around a fifth of the country’s economy and is home to Spain’s second-biggest city Barcelona, are one of the thorniest issues facing Sanchez.

“We will always listen to everyone, but we will never renounce our right to self-determination,” Torra said. He added, “We have not taken one single step back.”

After Torra’s speech, government spokeswoman Isabel Celaa said the government was open to talks, but said the regional leader was not speaking to the entire Catalan electorate.

“Dialogue, yes. And negotiations. But on things that unite all Catalans,” she told a news conference.

A closely-watched poll by the Centro d’Estudis d’Opinio in July showed 46.7% of Catalans surveyed saying they wanted an independent state, just ahead of 44.9% who answered they did not want Catalonia to be an independent state.

A pro-union party emerged as the single biggest party from a regional election in December that Rajoy had hoped would deal secessionism a decisive blow but a pro-independence coalition regained control of the regional parliament.

Trials looming

Rajoy imposed direct rule on the basis of Spain’s constitution, which states that the country is indivisible.

Rajoy sacks Catalan government, calls snap election

Spain on Friday (27 October) sacked Catalonia’s regional government, dissolved the Catalan parliament and called a snap election in the region for 21 December, in a bid to draw a line under Spain’s worst political crisis in 40 years.

Sanchez proposed on Monday a referendum on greater Catalan autonomy, but he has firmly ruled out any referendum on independence or any unilateral attempt by Catalonia to secede.

Torra said Sanchez’s proposal was “interesting” but called for negotiation on topics including the detention of separatist politicians who are still in jail on charges of rebellion for their part in organising the illegal referendum.

The trial of nine jailed separatists could start as early as October, further ratcheting up tension as Sanchez seeks a compromise with Barcelona.

“I will not accept any sentence that is not total acquittal,” Torra said.

In an attempt to repair relations, Sanchez has met Torra in Madrid, moved the prisoners closer to home and lifted financial controls on the region.

In 'cordial' meeting with Catalan leader, Sánchez signals thaw

Spain’s Prime Minister signaled a thaw in relations with Catalonia yesterday (9 July), signing up to joint initiatives in a first meeting with the region’s leader but again ruling out any moves toward Catalan independence.

He also hopes to convince Catalan separatist parties to back his national budget further down the road and avoid a potential snap election next spring.

Torra’s lecture came one week ahead of the Catalan national day, the ‘Diada’, which traditionally draws hundreds of thousands of separatists onto the streets.

Torra called for a big turn-out to “fill up” central Barcelona in support of independence on the national day, and further demonstrations to mark anniversaries in last year’s independence bid.

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