The crisis over Catalan independence deepened on Friday as Mariano Rajoy, the Spanish prime minister, rebuffed an offer of talks from Carles Puigdemont in the wake of the secessionist victory at the polls.
Mr Puigdemont spoke from his self-imposed exile in Belgium to call on Mr Rajoy to negotiate, after the snap elections ordered by the Spanish leader in a bid to crush the secessionist project instead returned its architects to power.
Insisting the “Rajoy recipe” had failed, the ousted Catalan president said pro-independence parties – who secured an absolute majority of 70 seats – had “at a minimum… won the right to be listened to.”
“Mariano Rajoy needs to rectify (the situation) and I am willing to meet with him in any country of the European Union apart from Spain, for obvious reasons,” said Mr Puigdemont, who faces a warrant for his arrest if he returns to Spain. Such talks must take place without any preconditions, he stressed.
But asked at a press conference about Mr Puigdemont’s offer, Spain’s conservative leader roundly dismissed the prospect. “The person I should sit down with and talk is she who won the elections, Inés Arrimadas,” Mr Rajoy said, referring to the leader of the pro-union Ciudadanos, which won the most seats as a single party.
Mr Rajoy went on to confirm that “whatever government emerges” from the election result, his government’s direct rule over Catalonia under Article 155 would end and that he would “make an effort to develop a dialogue” with Catalonia’s next president.
But he cast doubt on whether that would be Mr Puigdemont. “I will have to talk with whoever is president of the Generalitat, but for that they have to take possession,” Mr Rajoy said, in a thinly-veiled reference to the former leader’s fugitive status.
The secessionist victory opens up the possibility of a dramatic return to Catalonia by Mr Puigdemont, who fled to Belgium with four members of his deposed cabinet to avoid arrest on sedition and rebellion charges after October’s unilateral independence declaration.
Mr Puigdemont reiterated on Friday that if the new parliament approved him as president, he would return to take up office, adding that it would be “unacceptable” if the election results could not be implemented.
Catalan Election Results
But Mr Rajoy shrugged off calls to drop the charges against Mr Puigdemont and his former cabinet members, two of whom remain in prison along with protest leaders.
He stressed that no one can “place themselves above the law”, adding that the ongoing investigation was a matter for the courts, and unaffected by the electoral results.
The wheels of Spain’s judiciary continued to turn against the pro-independence leaders on Friday, with the Supreme Court judge who is leading the investigation naming six other politicians as possible suspects. Chief among them were Mr Puigdemont’s predecessor as Catalan president, Artur Mas, and Marta Rovira, deputy leader of the Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC).
Q&A | What now for Catalonia?
Whether or not Mr Puigdemont returns to the presidency, prospects for any substantive dialogue appear slim. With secessionists calling for an agreed referendum at the least, and Mr Rajoy refusing to negotiate anything that infringes upon Spanish sovereignty or the constitution, the years-long impasse seems as intractable as ever.
Mr Puigdemont hopes that the European Union, in the wake of the results, might put pressure on Mr Rajoy to come to the table. On Friday he issued a plea to the bloc, saying he was asking only for it to "listen to everyone".
But while he has won the backing of some MEPs, the Commission yesterday insisted its support for the Spanish government’s position had not changed.
"We have no commentary to make about the result of this regional election," a spokesman told Spanish news agency EFE.
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