The hours before the president of Catalonia took the podium, the rumors were coming thick and fast. No one seemed sure if Carles Puigdemont would declare independence unilaterally for the region of Spain he leads, or if he would sue for negotiations with the Madrid government of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy. Yet when the president at last spoke on Oct. 10, he tried to split the difference. “The people had determined that Catalonia should become an independent state,” he said, before asking parliament to “suspend the effects of the independence declaration for the coming weeks while we embark on a dialogue.”
The statement neatly represents the bind in which Catalonia finds itself after the Oct. 1 independence referendum, deemed illegal by Spain. By combining two seemingly incompatible ideas like unstable atoms in a molecule, Puigdemont may have created a framework that will prove radioactive: for Catalonia, Spain and even Europe as a whole. Yet it was the only real choice he could make.
This corner of Spain is now in uncharted territory. First came a general strike by referendum supporters outraged by heavy-handed attempts by the police to halt the vote. That was followed by huge protests from a so-called silent majority that favors remaining in Spain. For days it has seemed as if the country was hurtling toward the brink. If so, it’s a precipice the two sides have constructed together. After winning a majority in the Catalan parliament, pro-independence parties defied the central government and called the referendum. The world sided with Spain, until its government began arresting local politicians and confiscating ballots. When the referendum took place, independence won 89% of the vote, though with only a 43% turnout and marred by voting irregularities. What takes place next the world will have to wait, the cards are now in the hands of Madrid.