Catalan independence parties have reached a deal to return Carles Puigdemont to the presidency with a long-distance inauguration from his self-imposed exile in Brussels, either by Skype or through a delegate.
Mr Puigdemont, of the platform Junts Per Catalunya, and Martina Rovira of the Republican Left (ERC) hammered out the agreement at a dinner on Tuesday night in the Belgian capital, where he fled in November to avoid arrest on sedition and rebellion charges.
The plan may offer a way out of the chaos surrounding the formation of a new Catalan government at a time when many of its senior candidates are either in jail or facing prosecution. The two options – which would either see Mr Puigdemont attending the Parliament on a video call or a delegate reading the inauguration speech on his behalf – are currently being studied by lawyers.
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It is understood that the parties believe neither method to be specifically prohibited under parliamentary rules. But they would almost certainly face a legal challenge from the Spanish government or other political opponents.
Fernando Martínez Maillo, general coordinator of the ruling Popular Party, said it was ready to “impede by any means at our disposal” a long-distance inauguration of Mr Puigdemont. Insisting that such methods would be illegal, Mr Maillo said anything other than a traditional investiture – in which a president presented himself and his programme to parliament for a vote – would be “a real mockery, first of the Catalans, and then of the rest of the parliamentary groups”.
Mr Puigdemont, who successfully campaigned for reelection from Brussels, was trying to “flee from justice and from his own responsibilities,” he insisted.
The two main independence parties had previously agreed to back Mr Puigdemont’s return as the rightful president after his government was removed and snap elections called by the Spanish government under direct rule.
He had previously spoken of his willingness to risk a return to Spain to take office, despite facing a warrant for his arrest the moment he steps onto its soil. But with the inauguration fast approaching on January 31, and no sign of the Spanish government acquiescing to his calls for guarantees, that prospect now seems increasingly slim.
If the plan for a long-distance inauguration fails, the leadership of the new government would be left in disarray. Oriol Junqueras, the former vice-president and ERC leader, remains in jail, while his deputy, Ms Rovira, is also facing charges.
Whoever becomes president, the new government will then face the far greater challenge of delivering on its independence project without breaking the law. Mr Puigdemont and other leaders insist they have a mandate for a Catalan Republic and have called for talks with the Spanish government. But with Mariano Rajoy, the Spanish prime minister, refusing to discuss territorial integrity and waving the threat of renewed direct rule if there are any unilateral moves to independence, a way out of the impasse remains elusive.
Further meetings are expected over the weekend ahead of next Wednesday’s session to seat the new parliament.