The Catalan president, Carles Puigdemont, has pulled the region back from the brink of an unprecedented showdown with the Spanish government by proposing the suspension of a declaration of independence to allow for negotiations to resolve Spain’s worst political crisis for 40 years.
Addressing the Catalan parliament on Tuesday evening, Puigdemont said that, while the referendum earlier this month had given his government a mandate to create a sovereign republic, he would not immediately push ahead with independence from Spain.
“We propose the suspension of the effects of the declaration of independence for a few weeks, to open a period of dialogue,” he said. “If everyone acts responsibly, the conflict can be resolved in a calm and agreed manner.”
In a long speech in which he laid out the region’s historical grievances with the Spanish state, Puigdemont also addressed the concerns of many people elsewhere in Spain.
“I want to send you a message of calmness and respect; of the will for political dialogue and agreement,” he said.
“We’re not criminals. We’re not mad. We’re not carrying out a coup … we’re normal people who want to be able to vote and who have been prepared to engage in whatever dialogue was necessary to do so in a mutually agreed way.
“We have nothing against Spain or the Spanish. On the contrary, we want to get to understand one another better.”
He added, however, that it was a relationship that had not been working for years, “and nothing has been done to fix a situation that has become unsustainable”.
Puigdemont’s words were swiftly denounced by the Spanish government and the leader of the opposition in the Catalan parliament.
Spain’s deputy prime minister, Soraya Sáenz de Santamaría, accused him of plunging the region into fresh uncertainty, adding that his speech was that of someone “who doesn’t know where they are, where they’re going or who they want to go there with”.
She said the cabinet would hold an emergency meeting on Wednesday morning but appeared to rule out any negotiations, saying: “Dialogue between democrats takes place within the law, respects the rules of the game and doesn’t make them up as it goes along.”
Inés Arrimadas of the Ciudadanos, or Citizens, party described the president’s assertion that he had a mandate for independence as “a coup” that would find no support elsewhere in Europe.
The move came nine turbulent days after the independence referendum, in which 90% of participants voted in favour of splitting from Spain. The poll was marred by violence after Spanish police acting on court orders attempted to stop the vote by raiding polling stations, seizing ballot boxes, beating voters and firing rubber bullets at crowds.
Although Puigdemont had originally promised to make a unilateral declaration of independence within 48 hours of a victory for the yes campaign, he has instead chosen to seek international help for mediated negotiations with the Madrid government.
His address was delayed by more than an hour as the government apparently pursued attempts to secure that mediation. A Catalan government spokesman confirmed that a mediation effort was going on but did not provide further details.
Hours before the announcement, Donald Tusk, the president of the European council, appealed to Puigdemont to step back from a unilateral declaration of independence and begin dialogue with the Spanish prime minister, Mariano Rajoy.
Tusk, a former prime minister of Poland who fought for his country’s independence from the Soviet Union, said he was speaking both as a member of the Kashubian ethnic minority and “as a man who knows what it feels like to be hit by a police baton”.
“Today, I ask you to respect, in your intentions, the constitutional order and not to announce a decision that would make such dialogue impossible,” he said.
“Diversity should not and need not lead to conflict, the consequences of which would obviously be bad for the Catalans, for Spain and for the whole of Europe.”
In the run-up to the announcement, police had been stationed outside government buildings in Barcelona and had closed off the Ciutadella park around parliament.
Thousands of independence campaigners, many of them draped in Catalan estelada flags, gathered nearby to watch the parliamentary session on giant screens as police helicopters hovered overhead.
Behind them, just in front of Barcelona’s Arc de Triomf, stood nearly three dozen tractors that had been driven to the city in a show of farmers’ support for Catalan sovereignty.
Many among the crowd left in disappointment when it became clear that an immediate declaration of independence would not be forthcoming.
However, Ramón Canela, a 59-year-old IT worker, said he was confident that independence would still happen.
“I trust the president,” he said. “It’s now the turn of the Spanish government and the people of Europe. We want dialogue. If the Spanish government doesn’t then it’s their problem.
“We didn’t come this far not to carry on. And, anyway, lots of people have already started disconnecting from Spain.”
Neus Andreu, a pharmacist, agreed: “This is just a bypass so the Spanish government can react.”
The long push for independence has riven both the wealthy north-eastern region and Spain itself, leaving the country facing the greatest threat to national unity since it returned to democracy after the death of the fascist dicator, Francisco Franco, in 1975.
It has also prompted a series of banks and businesses to announce plans to movetheir bases out of the region amid the continuing uncertainty.
Rajoy has shown himself willing to take the drastic step of invoking article 155 of the Spanish constitution, which allows the central government to take control of an autonomous region if it “does not fulfil the obligations imposed upon it by the constitution or other laws, or acts in a way that is seriously prejudicial to the general interest of Spain”.
He has repeatedly pointed out that the referendum and the laws underpinning it are a violation of the Spanish constitution, which is based “on the indissoluble unity of the Spanish nation, the common and indivisible homeland of all Spaniards”.
His government insists the Catalan question is a Spanish matter, and has promised to use all the legal and constitutional means at its disposal to try to stop the regional government’s manoeuvres. It has also deployed thousands of Guardia Civil and national police officers to Catalonia.
The economy minister, Luis de Guindos, said earlier on Tuesday that he hoped common sense would prevail and the Catalan president would not declare independence.
“This is not about independence, yes or no,” he said. “This is about a rebellion against the rule of law. And the rule of law is the foundation of coexistence, not only in Spain but in Europe.”
On Monday evening, the mayor of Barcelona, Ada Colau, called for urgent negotiations.
According to the Catalan government, 2.3 million of Catalonia’s 5.3 million registered voters cast a ballot in the referendum on 1 October. A full count has been complicated by the fact that 770,000 votes were lost because of the police disruption.