MADRID — In a long-awaited speech, Catalan regional president Carles Puigdemont affirmed on Tuesday the right of Catalonia to be an independent country. But he notably stopped short of declaring the region an independent polity, calling for further dialogue with the Spanish government.
By suspending the secession process, Puigdemont signaled an overture to critics and observers in Spain and across the European Union who feared the rise of separatism in the increasingly embattled 28-state bloc. He said that Catalonia's conflict with Spain could be resolved in a rational way and suggested exploring international mediation as a possible solution.
Earlier Tuesday, the Spanish government rejected any offer of negotiation.
Throughout a long and often bitter process, Madrid fiercely rejected the prospect of Catalan independence, deploying police to interrupt the vote in violent clashes and threatening to throw Puigdemont in jail if he went any further. Spain's constitutional court had ruled Catalonia's referendum illegal, and although a majority of those who voted supported leaving Spain, fewer than 50 percent of eligible Catalan residents ultimately cast ballots.
After Puigdemont spoke, Spanish Vice President Soraya Sáenz de Santamaría attacked the speech. "Carles Puigdemont has pushed the autonomous region to the greatest level of uncertainty," she said on Spanish television. "Neither Mr. Puigdemont nor anyone else can derive conclusions from a law that does not exist, or a referendum that was never produced of the will of the Catalan people who, once again, want it to be appropriate."
Puigdemont's address, delivered more than a week after the referendum, is likely to resolve little in an escalating conflict that has shocked observers worldwide.
In a move that some commentators said was intended to please both sides, he presented Catalan independence as an inevitability, but delayed the prospect of independence to allow room for further discussion with Spanish and European officials.
Just after the formal parliamentary session, Puigdemont and 71 of the 135 parliamentarians retired to a large hall within the parliament building and signed a declaration as representatives of a sovereign Catalan Republic. The move further confused the ambiguous official statement and had politicians and analysts deciphering the ramifications of the declaration.
"I want to follow the people's will for Catalonia to become an independent state," he said. But Puigdemont also said that by suspending the independence process, "we are making a gesture of responsibility in favor of dialogue."
Following the referendum, European leaders warned Catalan authorities not to make a rash decision that would preclude any negotiations with an angry Madrid.
Earlier Tuesday, Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, addressed Puigdemont directly in a strongly worded statement, urging him not to go through with independence.
"A few days ago I asked Prime Minister [Mariano] Rajoy to look for a solution to the problem without the use of force, to look for dialogue, because the force of argument is always better than the argument of force," Tusk said. "Today I ask you to respect in your intentions the constitutional order and not to announce a decision that would make such a dialogue impossible."
Puigdemont's remarks suggest that he heeded those exhortations, but his political opponents were quick to pounce on the potential for a future crisis they still see as imminent.
"No one in Europe is going to accept a declaration of independence, whether it be deferred, delayed or in phases," said Inés Arrimadas, a leader of the Citizens Party, who gave the first response to Puigdemont's speech in the Catalan parliament Tuesday evening.
"This was never about democracy. This was always about independence," she said. "It wasn't about polls. It was about nationalism. Nationalism is the antithesis of the project that is Europe. You are in the wrong place and century."
Others, particularly some among his allies, expressed disappointment and outrage that Puigdemont did not go further with pushing for immediate independence.
Barcelona's city government estimated that 30,000 people were crowded near the parliament building, awaiting the speech. Many erupted in cheers as Puigdemont said that he "assumed the mandate" for an independent Catalonia, but they soon fell silent when he said that secession would be suspended. Some whistled their disapproval.
"We thought that what was going to happen was the solemn declaration of independence of the Catalan Republic," said Anna Gabriel, a leader of the far-left anarchist CUP party, which partners with Puigdemont's party to form a fragile pro-independence coalition. "We believed that that is what today was about and that maybe we have missed the chance."
Puigdemont's remarks, postponed an hour because of what Spanish media said were 11th-hour negotiations, did not address the large or small logistical concerns that independence would present.
For one, European officials have suggested that Catalonia would not be automatically welcomed into the European Union and would need to apply. On a more local level, French officials, in alliance with Spain, have said they would not consider a newly formed state a legal entity. France's minister of European affairs, Nathalie Loiseau, said Monday that France would not recognize an independent Catalonia on its borders — a move that could leave the region isolated and vulnerable.
"If there were to be a declaration of independence, it would be unilateral, and it would not be recognized," she said.
Catalonia, which prides itself on being the wealthiest region in Spain, is now also facing an exodus by some of the biggest companies based in its capital, Barcelona.
Conglomerates such as Colonial, Abertis and Cellnex have joined the banks Sabadell and Caixabank and energy company Gas Natural to switch their fiscal headquarters to Madrid or other Spanish cities in advance of a possible declaration of independence.
In all, at least 11 publicly listed companies worth more than $80 billion have changed their fiscal addresses in the past week. The pharmaceutical company Grifols is the only entity from the Ibex-35 exchange still based in Barcelona, but there are rumors that it, too, could move.
In a symbolic gesture, the president of the Catalan sparkling-wine company Freixenet, long identified as a symbol of the region's heritage and international appeal, said he would ask the board to move its headquarters out of Catalonia should independence be announced.
These developments seemed to trouble even some of Puigdemont's allies.
The lack of an independent border force, for instance, was among the concerns voiced by Artur Mas, Catalonia's former president and current leader of the region's governing, pro-separation Catalan European Democratic Party.
In an interview with the Financial Times on Friday, Mas said that while Catalonia has "won the right to become an independent state," it was not yet ready for "real independence."
Among Mas's principal concerns were issues such as border control, tax collection and a functioning judicial system independent of Madrid — none of which Catalonia can currently claim.
In remarks that fanned the flames of outrage in Catalonia, a spokesman for Spain's center-right governing party warned that Puigdemont could face jail time if he declared independence.
Specifically, the spokesman said, he might "end up" like the previous Catalan president who proclaimed independence in 1934: Lluís Companys was imprisoned and ultimately executed by firing squad in 1940 by the regime of dictator Francisco Franco.
Rajoy, Spain's prime minister, has refused to budge. Should the region try to secede from Spain, he said, Madrid is ready to suspend Catalonia's regional government and demand new elections.
In his speech, Puigdemont suggested that secession proceedings could formally begin in as soon as "a few weeks."
McAuley reported from Paris. Brian Murphy in Washington contributed to this report.