Catalonia's leader said on Tuesday that he had a mandate to declare independence from Spain but stopped short of actually doing so, suspending secession for "a few weeks" to pursue negotiations with the Spanish government.
The central government in Spain responded that it did not accept the declaration of independence by the separatists and did not consider the Oct. 1 referendum or its results to be valid.
In his highly anticipated speech to the regional parliament, Catalan President Carles Puigdemont said the landslide victory in the referendum gave his government the grounds to implement its long-held desire to break century-old ties with Spain.
But he proposed that the regional parliament "suspend the effects of the independence declaration to commence a dialogue, not only for reducing tension but for reaching an accord on a solution to go forward with the demands of the Catalan people."
"We have to listen to the voices that have asked us to give a chance for dialogue with the Spanish state," Puigdemont said.
That would help reduce political tensions and reach "an accord on a solution to go forward with the demands of the Catalan people," he said.
About two dozen tractors flying secessionist flags paraded near parliament and thousands of separatists gathered in the promenade next to Barcelona's Arc de Triomf, where the movement's main grassroots group has called for a rally.
Spain's Deputy Prime Minister Soraya Saenz de Santamaria said that the Spanish government will hold an emergency Cabinet meeting on Wednesday at 9 a.m. local time.
Saenz de Santamaria signalled that Spain's government was in no mood to talk, saying that the Catalan leader "doesn't know where he is, where he is going and with whom he wants to go."
The Spanish government doesn't accept the "implicit" declaration of independence by the Catalan separatists and the results of a banned referendum can't be considered valid, an official said.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity in line with Spanish government policy, told The Associated Press that the government of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy cannot accept validating a Catalan referendum law that was suspended by Spain's Constitution and called the referendum "fraudulent and illegal."
Rajoy's government "considers it inadmissible to make an implicit declaration of independence and then leave it in suspension in an explicit manner," according to the official.
Puigdemont was highly critical of the Spanish government's response to the referendum and the violent police reaction that left hundreds injured on voting day, but said Catalans have nothing against Spain or Spaniards, and that they want to understand each other better.
"We are not criminals, we are not crazy, we are not pulling off a coup, we are not out of our minds. We are normal people who want to vote," he said.
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Opposition leader Ines Arrimadas of the Ciudadanos (Citizens) party slammed the speech.
"This is a coup. Nobody has recognized the result of the referendum. Nobody in Europe supports what you have just done," she said.
"Stop saying the Catalan people are united. Above all after what you have done. You have forced us to turn against one another," she said, addressing Puigdemont during the parliament session.
"The majority of Catalans feels they are Catalans, Spanish and Europe … We won't let you break our hearts into bits," Arrimadas said.
Socialist leader Miquel Iceta also was highly critical.
"You are proposing to suspend a declaration that hasn't been made — that's pretty tough," he said with irony, adding that "you can't claim a mandate from the Oct. 1 vote … a vote that had no guarantees."
Puigdemont's speech marked a critical point in a decade-long standoff between Catalan separatists and Spain's central authorities. Security was tight in Barcelona and police cordoned off a park surrounding the legislative building.
In Brussels, European Council President Donald Tusk pleaded directly with the Catalan leadership ahead of the speech to choose dialogue rather than a divisive call for independence.
"I ask you to respect in your intentions the constitutional order and not to announce a decision that would make such a dialogue impossible," he said.
A full declaration of secession — or an outright proclamation of a new Catalan Republic — would have been met with fierce opposition by central Spanish authorities, who could take the unprecedented step of suspending the self-government of Catalonia and taking over some or all powers in the region.
Puigdemont himself could end up in prison.
Some 2.3 million Catalans — or 43 per cent of the electorate in the north-eastern region — voted in the referendum, which the Spanish government said was illegal. Regional authorities say 90 per cent who voted were in favour and declared the results of the vote valid. Those who opposed the referendum had said they would boycott the vote.
Rajoy's government had repeatedly refused to grant Catalonia permission to hold a referendum on the grounds that it was unconstitutional, since it would only poll a portion of Spain's 46 million residents.
Catalonia's separatists camp has grown in recent years, strengthened by Spain's recent economic crisis and by Madrid's rejection of attempts to increase self-rule in the region.
The political deadlock has plunged Spain into its deepest political crisis in more than four decades, since democratic rule was restored following the dictatorship of Gen. Francisco Franco.
In the streets of Barcelona, expectations ahead of the speech were divided between those who want to see the birth of a new nation and others opposed to the idea. Some feared a drastic backlash from the Spanish central authorities.
"I am thrilled," said Maria Redon, a 51-year-old office worker. "I've been waiting for this all my life. We have fought a lot to see an independent Catalonia."
But Carlos Gabriel, a 36-year-old waiter, said that is "impossible."
"He won't do it. By doing so he would be diving into an empty pool," he said. "These people know it's just a dream. Something very complicated. Something that will carry many negative consequences for all of us."
In Catalonia and elsewhere in Spain, people were reading between the lines of politicians' statements to try to figure out what's next.
Any declaration of independence won't immediately lead to the creation of a new state because the Catalan government will need to figure out how to wrest control of its sovereignty from a Spanish government that has the law, and international support, on its side, said Joan Barcelo, a researcher of political conflicts at Washington University of St. Louis.
He said any declaration must be viewed through the lens of "the Catalan government's long-term strategy of provoking an extraordinary and even clumsy reaction from central authorities" to build support.
Hundreds of thousands have turned out for street protests in Barcelona and other towns in the past month to back Catalan independence and protest against police violence during the vote. Those committed to national unity have also staged separate, large-scale rallies.
The tension has already affected the economy, with dozens of companies relocating their corporate addresses to remain under Spanish and European laws if Catalonia manages to secede. The moves of the firms' bases have not so far affected jobs or investments, but they don't send a message of confidence in the Puigdemont government.