Basque premier “mediated” between Madrid and Barcelona ahead of independence declaration

Iñigo Urkullu told the Supreme Court that Catalan premier Carles Puigdemont broke off a deal to call a regional election because of pressure from his own political group

Basque premier Iñigo Urkullu testifying as a witness at the Supreme Court.
Basque premier Iñigo Urkullu testifying as a witness at the Supreme Court.EFE

The premier of Spain’s Basque Country on Thursday confirmed that he did “mediation” work between the central and Catalan governments in a bid to stop things from ending up the way they eventually did: with a unilateral independence declaration and the application of emergency measures, including the sacking of the Catalan government by Madrid and a seven-month freeze on regional self-rule.

In no way did Puigdemont have a desire to proceed with a unilateral independence declaration

Basque premier Iñigo Urkullu

Speaking as a witness at the trial of Catalan separatist leaders taking place at the Supreme Court in Madrid, Iñigo Urkullu said that he did this mediation work between June 19 and October 26, 2017, a day before separatist parties put the independence declaration to a vote inside the Catalan parliament.

Urkullu said that there was a preliminary deal to call an early regional election instead of declaring independence, but that the Catalan premier, Carles Puigdemont, called it off citing pressure from his political partners.

“He told me about it and lamented that people around him were rebelling, that he felt pressure within his own parliamentary group, Junts pel Sí [Together for Yes], and that he could not go ahead with the agreement to dissolve parliament and call regional elections,” said Urkullu to the panel of seven justices in charge of the high-profile case.

According to the Basque premier, who held several conversations with then-Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy of the Popular Party (PP) and with Puigdemont, the former had no desire to introduce the emergency measures contemplated by Article 155 of the Constitution, while the latter had no inclination to unilaterally declare independence.

“In no way did he have the desire to proceed with a unilateral independence declaration,” said Urkullu, adding that Puigdemont wanted “guarantees” that if he called an election, Madrid would not suspend Catalan self-rule anyway.

But Urkullu was unable to provide them, as he could not obtain “a concise” answer from Rajoy on that point. “He showed reticence to any step that might be viewed as suggesting that dialogue could lead to a negotiation overstepping the boundaries of the Constitution,” he said.

In conversations with both parties, there was never any talk of “a right to self-determination” or of the central government accepting a referendum in Catalonia, he added.

Fines for refusing to testify

Fernando J. Pérez, Jesús García, Madrid

Two leaders of the anti-capitalist, pro-independence CUP party who were called in as witnesses and refused to answer questions have been fined €2,500. Antonio Baños and Eulália Reguant had been summoned to court by several defense lawyers and by Vox, the far-right party that is acting as the private accusation in the case.

Both far-left politicians refused to answer questions from Vox’s lawyer, and were warned by Justice Manuel Marchena that they were legally compelled to answer truthfully, unlike the defendants who may refuse to give testimony or who can lie to avoid incriminating themselves. Marchena gave Baños and Reguant five days to reconsider their attitude or the case will be sent to a local court for investigation into a potential crime of disobedience.

Urkullu also held that Puigdemont seemed more open to dialogue than Rajoy, although it was ultimately the former who cut off the talks. “Rajoy did not have a proactive attitude to channel the situation” while “Puigdemont was absolutely open to any steps that might be taken before October 1,” he said, citing the date of the unauthorized referendum.

One of Urkullu’s conversations with Rajoy took place on September 21, a day after a pro-independence crowd congregated in front of the regional economic affairs building in Barcelona to protest a police search going on inside. Patrol cars were vandalized and officers were forced to exit through the roof, and these alleged acts of violence form the basis of the rebellion charge against nine of the 12 defendants who have already taken the stand over the past two weeks. The other three face lesser charges of disobedience and misuse of public funds.

Urkullu said that he phoned Rajoy on September 21 to discuss the incidents of the previous day. “I told him that things could not keep up this way, that they were getting out of hand. I told him that every step had to be carefully weighed to avoid a social fracture. Rajoy said that he would be as careful as possible about everything that was done.”

Rajoy provided his own witness testimony on Wednesday, when he told the court that he refused to negotiate with Puigdemont outside of parliament. “I do not negotiate sovereignty or national unity,” he told the court.

English version by Susana Urra.

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