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Inside His Palace, Catalan President Puzzled Over How to Avoid Checkmate

Moments before Catalonia’s President Carles Puigdemont was about to give the biggest speech of his life, he was cornered by his fellow separatists.

Puigdemont had arrived at the Catalan parliament in the heart of Barcelona on Tuesday evening aiming to steer a course between the might of the Spanish state and the demands of his most fervent supporters. Ten days earlier he’d claimed victory in an illegal referendum on independence from Spain, and now he had to set out the next steps.

Push too hard and the elite officers of the Spanish police deployed in Catalonia could have been sent in to arrest him; not hard enough, and the CUP, the radicals he relied on for his separatist majority, would rebel.

Working back channels between Barcelona and Madrid, Puigdemont thought he’d agreed a formula that would stave off a police crackdown. But now the CUP was threatening to walk, according to an account of the standoff relayed by three people with direct knowledge of the process. All asked not to be identified discussing the private conversations.

Gothic Quarters

In the final days before he was due to report to lawmakers on the results of the makeshift referendum of Oct. 1, Puigdemont huddled with his closest collaborators in his official residence, the 13th century Casa de Canonges in the heart of Barcelona’s gothic quarter.

The team was about a dozen strong, including Vice President Oriol Junqueras — a history professor whose doctoral thesis examined 16th century Catalan economic theory — and the leaders of the main separatist parties and civic groups. The radicals of the CUP stayed on the outside, though they were given regular updates on the plan. Aides from the regional government’s headquarters could reach the president across the stone bridge that joins the two buildings.

The Catalan strategy was to follow the so-called Slovenian model which married claims of independence with calls for the European Union to join negotiations on the formation of their new state.

Moral Victors

After a chaotic referendum that saw Spanish police beating people as they tried to vote, the Catalans thought they had the moral high ground that would draw support to their cause. Instead, they suffered setbacks on three fronts over a period of 72 hours.

First, European Commission Vice President Frans Timmermans brushed off Catalan complaints about policing and bluntly told them to respect the Spanish Constitution. Two days later, the National Court in Madrid summoned two of Puigdemont’s team for interrogation as part of a sedition probe. They face up to 15 years in jail if convicted.

Most damaging of all, CaixaBank SA, the symbol of Catalonia’s financial and industrial muscle, followed a stream of major companies in shifting its legal base out of the region to escape the economic uncertainty, not to mention political fallout, of a contested secession.

Inside Puigdemont’s bunker, the separatists speculated that Rajoy’s government was leaning on executives to join the exodus to fan the sense of panic.

Declaration Deferred

By Thursday, the group in the Casa del Canonges was agreed that they needed to scale back their statement to parliament if they wanted to keep the independence show on the road. The question was how far — and how to sell it to the CUP.

As the idea of a deferred declaration of independence emerged, they discussed putting a text before the regional parliament for a vote, but rejected that to avoid handing the opposition a chance for filibustering. Foreign policy chief Raul Romeva persuaded the team to set no fixed time for independence to kick in, a request, he told them, made by potential international mediators.

Outside the palace, the hardliners of the CUP were demanding signatures on a written declaration.

Go-betweens with the central government in Madrid reported that any kind of official document would likely trigger a further escalation. Even as Germany’s Angela Merkel publicly backed Rajoy, people close to the chancellor were reaching out to Puigdemont urging him to be prudent. Officials from the Basque Country and the Roman Catholic Church in Spain joined the mediation effort, trying to build bridges between the two sides. And the Catalan team sent a message to Madrid that there would be no document.

Then, at the eleventh hour, the CUP confronted Puigdemont.

His speech was delayed by an hour as the two separatist camps searched for a compromise. The result was that after announcing he was pausing the process of independence to allow time for negotiations with Madrid, the separatist lawmakers signed a declaration. Most then signed another document saying they were suspending independence. CUP was not among them.

On Wednesday, Rajoy sent a formal notification to Puigdemont demanding that he clarify whether he had declared independence or not.

If he denies it, he risks losing the CUP, his coalition and his presidency; if he doesn’t, Rajoy will start the legal process to force him out and administer Catalonia from Madrid.

It’s your move, Mr. President.

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