The Catalan parliament has approved a motion calling for dialogue with the Spanish government over Catalonia’s “right to decide” its political future. But the resolution made no reference to “independence” or to a proposed referendum.
A broad coalition brought together Catalan president Artur Mas’ CiU party, the secessionist Esquerra Republicana, the Socialists and the Greens.
It was a triumph for Mr Mas, who has been calling for a united front to present Catalonia’s case to Madrid. He has also silenced, for the time being, the hardliners in his Convergencia party, the so-called “Taleban” wing that wants to push ahead with the independence vote.
However, yesterday’s decision marks a major retreat from the rhetoric of two weeks ago, when hundreds of thousands of people formed a human chain the length of Catalonia, the majority demanding independence.
Mr Mas then declared “there could be no turning back”, while Esquerra leader Oriol Junqueras defiantly said there would be a consultation on independence in 2014 “come what may”.
In Madrid, this back-pedalling will be seen as a vindication of Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy’s intransigence on the Catalan question. By offering nothing, Madrid effectively dared the Catalan political establishment to act outside the law.
Many believe Mr Rajoy stared them down, and the Catalans blinked first.
Although no date has been set, Mr Mas has left the door open to a consultation in which voters would be presented with three options: to retain the status quo; to create a separate state but with some sort of federal connection with Spain, or to become independent.
Esquerra wants a single question: “Do you want Catalonia to be an independent state?”
Mr Mas insists any consultation would have to be legal or, at the very least, “tolerated” by Madrid, something the current government is unlikely to offer.
Under the resolution passed yesterday, Catalans would get to vote only on their “political future” without specifying what that might be. It is the ballot box equivalent of “talks about talks”.
The two-day debate in parliament that led to the resolution exposed the widening rift between Mr Mas and his political partner Josep Antoni Duran Lleida, the Unio leader. He was pushing for a “third way”, but Mr Mas shot him down publicly, saying: “We’ve used the third both recently and historically. We’ve ended up where we are today because the third way hasn’t worked.”
Mr Duran Lleida, who has been accused of manoeuvring to avoid a vote on independence, said CiU had never viewed the consultation as “an all or nothing vote on independence”. He said the party’s electoral programme called for “our own state”, associated with Spain “like the relationship between Bavaria and Germany”.
During the debate, Mr Mas said: “Catalonia has real affection for Spain but it doesn’t trust the Spanish state. If, in spite of our willingness to enter into dialogue, there is no room for negotiation, I’m ready to use all the democratic and legal instruments at my disposal so that Catalonia can freely decide, and this includes calling elections [that could serve as a plebiscite on the future political status]”.
Most observers agree that what Mr Mas is doing is buying time. Spain goes to the polls in 2015 and it is unlikely the incumbent Partido Popular will be returned with the overall majority it currently enjoys. The Catalans could then return to their traditional role of kingmaker in Madrid, wringing concessions in return for votes. Independence can wait.