Spanish deadline looms for Catalan separatists

The Spanish government has given the president of Catalonia until Monday morning to clarify if he did or didn't actually declare independence earlier this week.

Declaration of independence would likely garner a robust response from Spanish authorities

Catalan President Carles Puigdemont addresses the media after a ceremony commemorating the 77th anniversary of the death of Catalan leader Lluis Companys at the Montjuic Cemetery in Barcelona on Sunday. (Manu Fernandez/Associated Press)

Catalonia's president is facing a critical decision that could determine the course of the region's secessionist movement to break away from Spain.

The Spanish government has given Carles Puigdemont until Monday morning to clarify if he did or didn't actually declare independence earlier this week.

Puigdemont told Catalan lawmakers Tuesday that he had "accepted" a mandate for independence based on the results of a disputed referendum, but that he wanted parliament to delay its implementation "for a few weeks" to give one last chance to open negotiations with Spain.

If Puigdemont replies Yes to Madrid on Monday, then Spain's government has given him until Thursday to back down or else Catalonia's ample self-rule could be temporarily suspended.

A man holds a flag reading 'Independence' in Barcelona on Sunday. (Manu Fernandez/Associated Press)

But if Puigdemont replies No, he will likely face rebellion from hardliners inside the secessionist camp which could topple his government and force a regional election for Catalonia. The far-left CUP party said on Saturday that it will withdraw its key support from Puigdemont's government if he fails to make a firm statement for a declaration of independence and deliver on that promise in the regional parliament.

Puigdemont gave no hints on what his answer will be when he briefly spoke on Sunday at a traditional memorial to former Catalan leader Lluis Companys, who was executed in 1940 by the troops of dictator Gen. Francisco Franco.

"In place like this and on a day like this, my government wants to reiterate its commitment to peace and democracy ahead of the decisions we must make," Puigdemont said after placing flower arrangements at the site where Companys was shot and at his tomb in Barcelona.

'It's not too late to rectify the situation'

Moderates in the secessionist bloc are backing Puigdemont's attempt to talk with Madrid, despite its repeated rejections of even considering the possibility of Catalonia splitting away.

The European Union supports a united Spain and no foreign country has voiced support for Catalonia's separatists, meaning a declaration of independence would likely only garner a robust response from Spanish authorities.

"It's not too late to rectify the situation," Spain's Interior Minister Juan Ignacio Zoido said Sunday. Zoido asked Puigdemont "not to be carried away by the radical minority he has as a partner in government that has pushed Catalonia to the edge of the cliff."

Atletico Madrid supporters hold up a Spanish flag reading 'Catalonia is Spain' during a soccer match between Atletico Madrid and Barcelona at the Metropolitano stadium in Madrid on Saturday. (Francisco Seco/Associated Press)

Puigdemont is also under intense pressure from worried business leaders, and roughly half of Catalonia's 7.5 million residents that polls in recent years have shown don't want to leave Spain.

Puigdemont claimed he had the mandate to declare an independent Catalonia after an overwhelming Yes vote in a Oct. 1 referendum that Spain's top court had suspended on grounds that it was likely unconstitutional. Spain's Constitution says that matters of national sovereignty are the jurisdiction of the Spanish parliament. Parties against secession boycotted the vote on grounds that it was illegal and lacked basic guarantees such as an independent electoral board.

'A conflict that divides Catalans'

Only 43 per cent of eligible voters cast ballots amid a Spanish police crackdown that Catalan officials said injured hundreds. Videos footage showed police officers pushing and striking civilians. Spanish authorities said the police response was proportionate and that hundreds of officers were also injured in the violence.

Long silent compared to the well-organized secessionists, pro-union forces have held large rallies in Barcelona over the last week.

Two men, one wearing a Spanish flag, left, and the other wearing an 'estelada' or independence flag, talk during the celebration of Spain's National Day in Barcelona on Thursday. (Santi Palacios/Associated Press)

The political crisis has also led to an exodus of business and banks from the prosperous northeastern region. Hundreds have relocated their headquarters to other parts of Spain to avoid being cast out of the European common market.

Barcelona newspaper La Vanguardia published an editorial Sunday urging Puigdemont to desist in his quest to establish a Catalan republic.

"Independence may be the No. 1 desire of many people, but it doesn't justify the deterioration of the economy, and even less so a conflict that divides Catalans," La Vanguardia wrote.