September 4, 2018 / 12:14 PM / 15 days ago

Catalan leader calls on Madrid to agree to independence referendum

MADRID (Reuters) - Catalan leader Quim Torra relaunched a campaign to split his region from Spain on Tuesday, calling on the central government in Madrid to agree to a referendum on independence and rebuffing a vote that could only offer greater autonomy.

Catalan leader Quim Torra gives a speech at Catalonia's National Theatre (TNC) in Barcelona, Spain September 4, 2018. REUTERS/Albert Gea

Torra set out his separatist roadmap at a lecture entitled “Our Moment” on Tuesday evening, almost five months after he was elected as regional head to replace Carles Puigdemont, who fled to Brussels last year after Madrid removed him from office.

Spain’s new socialist prime minister, Pedro Sanchez, has taken a softer line toward Catalonia since taking over from Mariano Rajoy, a conservative, in June, but ruled out a vote on independence after a banned and chaotic referendum last Oct. 1.

A majority voted for independence in that ballot but turnout was low, as opponents did not show up for the vote that Spain said was illegal. Puigdemont declared independence, prompting Madrid to take over direct rule.

Torra insisted he wanted another vote, but said this time it must be approved by the state.

“The Oct. 1 mandate is in force and we are working to bring it into effect,” he said, but added that “only an agreed, binding and internationally recognized referendum on self-determination can renew that mandate”.

Catalan leader Quim Torra walks past a yellow ribbon after giving a speech at Catalonia's National Theatre (TNC) in Barcelona, Spain September 4, 2018. REUTERS/Albert Gea

Secessionist ambitions in Catalonia, which accounts for around a fifth of the country’s economy and is home to Spain’s second-biggest city Barcelona, are one of the thorniest issues facing Sanchez.

“We will always listen to everyone, but we will never renounce our right to self-determination,” Torra said. He added, “We have not taken one single step back.”

After Torra’s speech, government spokeswoman Isabel Celaa said the government was open to talks, but said the regional leader was not speaking to the entire Catalan electorate.

“Dialogue, yes. And negotiations. But on things that unite all Catalans,” she told a news conference.

A closely-watched poll by the Centro d’Estudis d’Opinio in July showed 46.7 percent of Catalans surveyed saying they wanted an independent state, just ahead of 44.9 percent who answered they did not want Catalonia to be an independent state.

A pro-union party emerged as the single biggest party from a regional election in December that Rajoy had hoped would deal secessionism a decisive blow but a pro-independence coalition regained control of the regional parliament.

Catalan leader Quim Torra gives a speech at Catalonia's National Theatre (TNC) in Barcelona, Spain September 4, 2018. REUTERS/Albert Gea

TRIALS LOOMING

Rajoy imposed direct rule on the basis of Spain’s constitution, which states that the country is indivisible.

Sanchez proposed on Monday a referendum on greater Catalan autonomy, but he has firmly ruled out any referendum on independence or any unilateral attempt by Catalonia to secede.

Torra said Sanchez’s proposal was “interesting” but called for negotiation on topics including the detention of separatist politicians who are still in jail on charges of rebellion for their part in organizing the illegal referendum.

The trial of nine jailed separatists could start as early as October, further ratcheting up tension as Sanchez seeks a compromise with Barcelona.

“I will not accept any sentence that is not total acquittal,” Torra said.

In an attempt to repair relations, Sanchez has met Torra in Madrid, moved the prisoners closer to home and lifted financial controls on the region.

He also hopes to convince Catalan separatist parties to back his national budget further down the road and avoid a potential snap election next spring.

Torra’s lecture came one week ahead of the Catalan national day, the ‘Diada’, which traditionally draws hundreds of thousands of separatists onto the streets.

Torra called for a big turn-out to “fill up” central Barcelona in support of independence on the national day, and further demonstrations to mark anniversaries in last year’s independence bid.

Additional reporting by Sonya Dowsett; Editing by Julien Toyer and Matthew Mpoke Bigg

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