BARCELONA, SPAIN—The separatist leader of Catalonia stepped back from the brink Tuesday evening, postponing a much heralded unilateral declaration of independence and offering to open talks with the central government of Madrid.
“Today we are making a gesture of responsibility in favor of dialogue,” Carles Puigdemont, the president of Catalonia told the regional parliament. But the loudest applause greeted his insistence that “I assume the mandate for Catalonia to become an independent state in the form of a republic.”
That set the scene for further drama in Spain’s worst political crisis since a failed coup in 1981. Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has repeatedly refused to negotiate with Catalan leaders unless they abandon their plans to declare independence.
“Puigdemont opened a door for negotiations to happen, but who knows what Rajoy will do,” says Carles Ramio Matas, a political scientist at Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona. “We’re still in uncharted territory.”
Mr. Puigdemont had pledged to declare his region’s independence after voters in a referendum 10 days ago overwhelmingly endorsed that move. But only only 43 percent of the electorate turned out to vote, and Puigdemont appears to have hesitated in the face of strong opposition from European leaders and signs in recent days that businesses were fleeing the region, fearful of what independence could mean.