BARCELONA • A senior Catalan official said yesterday that an offer of talks with Madrid over his region's independence push was aimed at negotiating secession from Spain, not halting it.
The central government has given Catalan President Carles Puigdemont until tomorrow to clarify his position on independence and then up to Thursday to change his mind if he insists on a split, failing which it may trigger unprecedented constitutional steps that could see Madrid take control of the region.
Mr Puigdemont's No. 2, Mr Oriol Junqueras, said dialogue with Madrid "must have at its heart the formation of the (Catalan) republic and our commitment to independence".
"We need to be clear that the best way of achieving an independent republic is to talk to everyone, including the international community," Mr Junqueras told members of his Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya party.
Mr Puigdemont, who is holding consultations with local parties to prepare his answer, faces a tough dilemma. If he says he did proclaim independence, the central government will step in.
If he says he did not declare it, the far-left Catalan party CUP would probably withdraw its support for his minority government.
CUP on Friday called on Mr Puigdemont to make an unequivocal declaration of independence in defiance of Madrid's deadlines.
Such a hardline position has also been backed by influential pro-independence civic group Assemblea Nacional Catalana (Catalan National Assembly). It was echoed by Mr Junqueras, who said: "We have an unequivocal... commitment to fulfil the democratic mandate from Oct 1."
Meanwhile, Spanish Interior Minister Juan Ignacio Zoido has said the government will take control of Catalonia if Mr Puigdemont replies ambiguously to Madrid's question about whether he has declared independence.
"The answer must be without any ambiguity. He must say 'yes' or 'no'," Mr Zoido told Cope radio.
As the stand-off drags on, dozens of firms have moved their legal headquarters out of Catalonia, and concerns are rising that the crisis will severely hit the region's economy and even dampen Spain's growth prospects.
Spain's Deputy Prime Minister Soraya Saenz de Santamaria said that if "there is no quick solution, we see ourselves having to lower economic forecasts for 2018".
The International Monetary Fund has also voiced concern, and ratings agency Standard and Poor's said the region's economy risked sliding into recession if the crisis persists.
The wealthy region's drive to break away from Spain has unleashed the country's worst political crisis in a generation. After staging a banned referendum on Oct 1, in which separatists say 90 per cent of people voted for secession, Mr Puigdemont last week said he had accepted a "mandate for Catalonia to become an independent state". But he then suspended the declaration, to allow time for talks with Madrid.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS