When he stepped up to the podium to address Catalonia’s parliament today, Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont had three choices to select from. He could declare independence and single handedly plunge his region, and its parent nation of Spain into a veritable civil war. Or he could do the complete opposite and back down entirely, taking the prospect of Catalan independence off the table for good. The third choice was to walk a fine line between the aforementioned options, do neither, and craft a compromise that does not extinguish the flame of regional independence. Politically speaking, this was the most palatable choice available. Not surprisingly, Puigdemont took the compromise approach and laid it out in his address today, but it remains to be seen if he grasps that there was no other choice for him and that his actions since the referendum have dramatically undercut his position.
Puigdemont, in his address, said the people of Catalonia have chosen independence but it should come through a negotiated settlement with Madrid. Catalan officials claim the results of the 1 October independence referendum indicated over 90% of Catalan voters supported independence from Spain. The vote results are not official since the referendum was declared illegal by the Spanish government and Spain’s Constitutional Court suspended it. Spanish police prevented voters from entering many polling sites, causing a series of sharp clashes between Catalan voters and police in the streets of Barcelona and surrounding towns.
Puigdemont points to a desire to de-escalate the tension around the issue as his motivation for wanting to negotiate now. This represents a 180 degree turn for a man who was poised to issue a declaration of Catalan independence the moment the referendum ended. There was no talk of negotiating with Madrid in the lead up to 1 October. If the referendum went in favor of independence, Puigdemont gave every indication that Catalonia would secede quickly. When that moment came, though, he found that he had miscalculated the Spanish government and the Spanish people. Catalonia’s separatist designs served to rapidly revive Spanish nationalism. Video and images of Catalan citizens assaulting Spanish police during the referendum has had a dramatic effect on the Spanish populace. The spectacle of Catalonia simply walking away from Spain has touched off a furious wave of nationalism across the country.
Puigdemont did not for one moment believe this was how Spain and its citizens would react. He overplayed his hand and has chosen to pull back and regroup, believing that Madrid will negotiate a Catalan exit in good faith. The current mood in Spain, however, appears to say otherwise.