MADRID — The independence-minded Catalonia region tried again Monday to dodge the question of whether it has declared a formal break with Spain, calling instead for talks and listing its grievances against Madrid's leaders.
The lack of clarity elicited a terse and frustrated response from Spain’s justice minister. “Not valid,” Rafael Catalá said amid warnings from federal authorities that their patience was wearing thin more than two weeks after Catalonia backed secession in a referendum.
Catalonia's president, Carles Puigdemont, has carefully avoided a specific declaration of independence — which could trigger harsh measures by Spain, including a takeover of Catalonia's security forces. Spain had given Puigdemont until Monday to clarify the region's status.
“The question was clear, but the answer is not,” Catalá told reporters.
Instead, Puidgdemont appeared to be trying to buy more time.
In a letter to Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, Puigdemont declined to answer the question, calling instead for two months of dialogue and a halt to what he called Spain’s “repression” of Catalan citizens and institutions.
Soraya Sáenz de Santamaría, Spain’s deputy prime minister, also rejected Puigdemont’s letter. She called his appeal for dialogue “not credible.” Any further conversation should take place in the Spanish parliament, not between a particular region and the central government, she said.
She gave Catalan authorities a second deadline, Thursday, to return to obeying Spanish law.
In his response to Puigdemont on Monday, Rajoy expressed much of the same sentiment as Sáenz de Santamaría.
“Your cries for dialogue in the name of Catalonia are not credible, when you refuse to speak with an important part of that society through its legitimate representatives, who — as you have said — hold fewer seats in parliament, but — as you have hidden — correspond to a larger number of citizens in terms of votes,” the prime minister wrote in a letter circulated in Spanish media.
Last week, Puigdemont presented the results of the Oct. 1 referendum in Catalonia, Spain's wealthiest region. He affirmed Catalonia's right to be an independent country, before immediately delaying the secession process to allow for dialogue.
Spain’s Constitutional Court, meanwhile, declared the referendum illegal. Fewer than half of Catalan residents participated in the vote, but the vast majority of those who did voted for independence.
“The suspension of the political mandate which arose from the polls on Oct. 1 shows our firm will to find a solution and not confrontation,” Puigdemont wrote in the four-page letter to Rajoy.
“Our proposal of dialogue is sincere and honest,” he continued. “Thus, for the next two months, our main objective is to urge dialogue and that all those international, Spanish and Catalan institutions and personalities who have expressed their will to open a path to negotiations have the chance to explore it.”
The letter concluded, “With good will, recognizing the problem and looking each other in the face, I am sure we can find a path to the solution.”
The letter arrived in Madrid hours ahead of a scheduled appearance by four people before the high court to face possible charges of sedition in relation to the referendum. Josep Lluís Trapero, head of the Catalan police force, was among those in court. His officers had declined to enforce a court order to prevent the referendum.
On Monday afternoon, the high court released Trapero but prohibited him from leaving the country and mandated another court appearance in 15 days. Prosecutors had requested the much harsher sentence of prison time without bail.
Rajoy had said he would begin invoking Article 155 if Puigdemont did not “return to the legality of the Constitution.” Article 155, known in Spain as the “nuclear option,” allows wide-ranging measures to uphold Spanish law in a renegade region, including assuming control of the police force and holding elections.
In Spain, a growing number of voices are calling for new elections in Catalonia to replace the sitting government.
In Barcelona, the seat of the Catalan government, the predominant view is still that the region can achieve independence or greater autonomy.
“My government’s priority is to intensively seek the path to dialogue,” Puigdemont wrote in his letter. “We want to talk, just as strong democracies do, about the existing problem that the majority of the Catalan people want to continue the path as an independent country in the European framework.”
How an independent Catalonia would fit into a “European framework” remains an open question.
For the moment, officials across the European Union have mostly sided with Madrid, seeking to stave off a wave of separatist movements in the already embattled 28-state bloc. While many E.U. leaders have said that the referendum is an internal Spanish matter to be settled by Spanish authorities, other officials, notably in France, have said that their governments would not recognize a newly independent Catalonia.
McAuley reported from Paris.