BRUSSELS/MADRID (Reuters) – Catalonia’s ousted leader Carles Puigdemont on Tuesday accepted the snap election called by Spain’s central government when it took control of the region to block its push for independence.
Puigdemont, speaking at a news conference in Brussels, also said he was not seeking asylum in Belgium after Spain’s state prosecutor recommended charges for rebellion and sedition be brought against him. He would return to Catalonia when given “guarantees” by the Spanish government, he said.
Puigdemont’s announcement that he would accept the regional election on Dec. 21 signalled that the Madrid government had for now at least gained the upper hand in the protracted struggle over Catalonia, a wealthy northeastern region that already had considerable autonomy.
Resistance to Madrid’s imposition of direct control on Catalonia failed to materialise at the start of the week and the secessionist leadership is in disarray.
Spain’s Constitutional Court on Tuesday blocked the unilateral declaration of independence made by the regional parliament on Friday – a largely symbolic move that gained no traction and led to the assembly’s dismissal by Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy less than an hour after it was made.
“I ask the Catalan people to prepare for a long road. Democracy will be the foundation of our victory,” Puigdemont said in Brussels, where he showed up after dropping out of sight over the weekend.
The Spanish government has said Puigdemont was welcome to take his chances and stand in the election, called by Rajoy as a way to resolve the stand-off.
Rajoy, who has taken an uncompromising stance throughout the battle of wills over Catalonia, is gambling on anti-independence parties taking power in the regional parliament and putting the brakes on the independence drive. Puigdemont will hope a strong showing for the independence camp will reboot the secessionists after a tumultuous several weeks.
Although Puigdemont did not say when he would return to Spain and denied he was fleeing from justice, he could be called to testify before the court on the rebellion and sedition charges as soon as the end of the week.
The Supreme Court also began processing rebellion charges against Catalan parliament speaker Carme Forcadell and senior leaders on Tuesday.
The political crisis, Spain’s gravest since the return of democracy in the late 1970s, was triggered by an unofficial independence referendum held in Catalonia on Oct. 1.
Though it was declared illegal by Spanish courts and less than half Catalonia’s eligible voters took part, the pro-secessionist regional government said the vote gave it a mandate for independence.
European nations including Britain, Germany and France have backed Rajoy and rejected an independent Catalan state, although some have called for dialogue between the opposing sides.
Puigdemont, Vice President Oriol Junqueras and other Catalan leaders had said previously they would not accept their dismissal. But their respective parties, PdeCat and Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya, said on Monday they would take part in the election, a tacit acceptance of direct rule from Madrid.
The struggle has divided Catalonia itself and caused deep resentment across the rest of Spain, although separatist sentiment persists in the Basque Country and some other areas.
Two opinion polls showed support for independence may have started to wane. A Sigma Dos survey published in El Mundo showed 33.5 percent of Catalans were in favour of independence, while a Metroscopia poll published by El Pais put that number at 29 percent. That compared with 41.1 percent in July, according to an official survey carried out by the Catalan government.
Opponents of secession say a majority of Catalans want to remain part of Spain and did not take part in the referendum.
Despite his dash to the European Union’s power centre, Puigdemont’s hopes of engaging the bloc in his cause seem dim. Member states lined up after Friday’s independence declaration to assert their support for Madrid. EU institutions in Brussels say they will deal only with Madrid and that the dispute remains an internal matter.
“Our position remains unchanged,” EU Commission spokeswoman Mina Andreeva said in Brussels on Tuesday.
But some analysts say the dispute is not going to disappear anytime soon despite the present state of play.
“Spain is heading for a period of disruption, and like the UK and Brexit, having its policy agenda dominated by one political issue while other key challenges fade into the background,” said Raj Badiani, an economist at IHS Markit in London.
“A more tangible impact from the crisis could evolve from early 2018, with the uncertainty set to build as Catalans push harder for a legally binding referendum.”
The government’s move to impose direct rule received the backing of several influential Catalan business lobbies, which called on firms to stay in the region. The chaos has prompted an exodus of businesses from Catalonia, which contributes about a fifth of Spain’s economy, the fourth-largest in the euro zone.
Spain’s IBEX fell slightly as Puigdemont began speaking in Brussels but then rose again.
Some people in Barcelona displayed exasperation at the imbroglio.
“It’s a farcical and completely ridiculous situation,” said Ernesto Hernandez Busto, a 42-year-old editor. “This extreme nationalism, this separatism, has taken Catalonia to the most absurd situation and the worst inconvenience we have had in the last 40 years.”
Additional reporting by Paul Day and Sonya Dowsett in Madrid, Lucasta Bath and Clement Rossignol in Belgium, Writing by Angus MacSwan,; Editing by Janet Lawrence