THE CATALAN QUESTION

Catalan leader accepts Rajoy’s offer of dialogue but holds firm on referendum

Mas insists that 2014 poll date must be on table Nationalists surprised by gesture from Madrid

Less than a week after a massive pro-independence march, the Catalan government has accepted Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s written offer to hold talks “without an expiration date,” but is refusing to postpone its referendum plans.

The nationalist administration of Artur Mas told Rajoy that the goal of the talks can be none other than the celebration of a status vote in 2014. Madrid rejects this on the grounds that Spain’s Constitution only allows the central government to hold referendums. Catalan government spokesman Francesc Homs said that they are “seriously” considering Rajoy’s offer, but insisted that talks cannot serve to cause “unnecessary delays.”

Homs, of the CiU nationalist bloc, said Madrid’s response to the pro-sovereignty rally on September 11 was not “up to par” with what Catalans expressed on the streets. However, the fact that Rajoy’s letter did not reject the referendum outright, as expected, has thrown Catalan nationalists off kilter. Both CiU and the leftist ERC were expecting a “definite no” from the conservative government, in Homs’ words.

Rajoy has prudently avoided a frontal rejection of secessionist plans

Such a rejection would have allowed separatists to take their rhetoric up a notch, and perhaps find support for fast-track access to independence. The last thing the nationalist government wants now is for pro-independence fervor to peter out during long, drawn-out negotiations.

But the leader of the Popular Party prudently avoided a frontal rejection of secessionist plans. In fact, his letter does not even mention the referendum at all.

Artur Mas himself has said that if the referendum does not take place in 2014, there could be regional elections in May 2015, coinciding with municipal and general polls. This would, in a way, be an indirect way to ask voters about independence. Mas has worked hard to position himself as the leading figure of nationalist sentiment since another massive march held last year. After calling early elections, he was re-elected on November 25, although CiU lost 12 seats.

Opinion polls suggest that around half of Catalonia’s 7.5 million inhabitants support independence, the Associated Press reported.

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