Catalonia’s leader has said he accepts the “mandate from the people” to “become, an independent state”, but has stopped short of declaring independence as he seeks dialogue with Spain.
The announcement came in an address by Carles Puigdemont to the Catalan regional parliament in Barcelona on Tuesday.
Catalans held an independence referendum on October 1 and secured a 92 percent vote in favour of separating from Spain. A unionist boycott of the vote meant turnout stood at just 43 percent.
“Based on the results of October 1st, Catalonia has earned the right to be an independent country and has earned the right to be listened to and respected,” Puigdemont said in his speech.
“The ballot boxes are telling us the people are in favour of independence and that is the path we follow.
“By being the president, I assume my responsibility to declare that Catalonia should become an independent state in the form of a republic.”
Puigdemont then asked parliament to suspend its mandate to immediately declare independence so that dialogue could begin.
Reports said Catalan leaders signed a “symbolic” declaration of independence on Tuesday but immediately put it on hold and called for talks.
Puigdemont and his allies signed the declaration outside the parliament chamber, but he then suspended it and again called for dialogue, reports said.
A Spanish government spokesman told AFP news agency that it is “unacceptable to make a tacit declaration of independence to then suspend it in an explicit manner”.
Mariano Rajoy, Spain’s prime minister, is to chair an emergency cabinet meeting on Wednesday to discuss the central government’s response.
On Sunday, Rajoy told the El Pais newspaper that “Spain is not going to divide and national unity will be maintained. To do so, we will use all of the instruments that the legislation gives us. It falls to the government to take the decision and to do so at the right time”.
For her part, Soraya Saenz de Santamaria, Spain’s deputy prime minister, said Spanish leaders were considering “all possible options” and described the Catalan leader’s push for independence as “fanaticism”.
“We are ready for any circumstances because we are already vaccinated against the fanaticism of Mr Puigdemont and any hope that he will return to sanity and serenity,” she said.
Switching from the Catalan language to Spanish as he addressed the regional parliament, Puigdemont appeared to return a thinly veiled barb at Santamaria’s comments.
“Our demands have always been expressed peacefully, we are not criminals, we are not crazy, we are not staging a coup,” he said, adding: “We cannot force the people to accept a status quo that they can’t accept.”
Spain’s government tried to block that vote by force and faced criticism when images of police officers confiscating ballot boxes and dragging voters away from polling stations were broadcast globally.
Madrid has the backing of Spain’s courts, which ruled last week to block Tuesday’s gathering of the Catalan parliament.
Al Jazeera’s Laurence Lee, reporting from Madrid, said on Tuesday that there was little appetite among Spanish officials to engage with the Catalans and cited reports in Spanish newspapers that said the government considered Puigdemont’s speech a declaration of independence.
“If do they do what the Catalans say they want, which is hold negotiations, they absolutely don’t want to do that in government here because if they do it accepts the core of the Catalan argument, which is this is a political issue,” he said.
“Here [in Madrid] they’re saying it’s a legal issue, they say the independence referendum was illegal.
“If they accept the logic of negotiations, it becomes a political issue, and in doing so, they lose some face, and they lose some bargaining power, and on one level the Catalans win a victory even before any negotiations start.”
Spanish MP Enric Bataller I Ruiz from the centre-left Compromis party told Al Jazeera that many Spaniards fear both the idea of Catalonia’s independence and the withdrawal of its autonomy in response to its separatist push.
“I think Mariano Rajoy should try to hold the hand of [dialogue],” he said, adding “it is political negotiation that is needed now in Catalonia … and some kind of mediation to resolve the problem.”