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Catalonia's independence standoff: How we got here and what comes next

Catalonia's President Carles Puigdemont has delayed a formal declaration of independence from Spain to encourage dialogue with Madrid, in an effort to defuse the crisis over the future of the country's richest region.

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James Masters
Lauren Said-Moorhouse (CNN)
(CNN) — Catalonia's President Carles Puigdemont has delayed a formal declaration of independence from Spain to encourage dialogue with Madrid, in an effort to defuse the crisis over the future of the country's richest region.

Puigdemont's address to the Catalan Parliament in Barcelona came just days after a disputed referendum that was declared illegal by Spain and marred by a violent crackdown by national police.

The standoff over Catalonia has plunged one of the European Union's biggest countries into a deep political crisis.

Here's what we know about what comes next and how we got here.

What comes next?

Puigdemont said Tuesday that Catalonia's parliament should suspend a formal declaration in favor of dialogue with the central government in Madrid, which opposed the referendum. It is unclear what shape those talks will take, or who will mediate them.

But Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has previously ruled out talks with the Catalan government until it drops its campaign for independence.

If Puigdemont unilaterally declares independence, Rajoy could seek to use emergency powers to impose direct rule on Catalonia under Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution.

That would mean officers from the Guardia Civil, the national security force, deploying yet again in the streets of Catalonia, a provocative act that could spark violence.

An independent Catalonia would have few friends, with other EU countries fearing breakaway movements as well. In any case, under EU rules, Catalonia would not be a member of the EU on its own, and would have to apply for membership from outside the bloc.

But many observers think that despite crumbling relations between officials in Barcelona and Madrid, the two sides will be able to negotiate a settlement that could leave Catalonia with more autonomy and increased control over its own finances.

Even so, uncertainty and public unrest in the coming days (or months) could do a fair bit of damage to local businesses and the economy.

What's happened in the past few days?

More than 2.25 million people turned out to cast their ballot in the October 1 referendum, with the regional government reporting that 90% of voters were in favor of a split from Madrid. But the turnout was low -- around 43% of the voter roll -- which Catalan officials blamed on the central government's efforts to stop the vote.

National police launched a concerted effort to prevent people from casting their ballots. That sparked violent clashes that left almost 900 people injured, according to Catalan officials. The scenes shocked Catalans and reverberated around Europe. Madrid's representative to Catalonia apologized Friday for the violence.

Spain's King Felipe intervened on the side of Madrid, saying Catalan leaders had acted "outside the law." Puigdemont had hoped Felipe would mediate the dispute.

When Catalan officials called on the EU to intervene, Brussels also backed Madrid.

On Friday, Catalan Police Chief Josep Lluís Trapero appeared in a Madrid court along with two leading figures in the Catalan independence movement to answer allegations of sedition.

Hundreds of thousands of people marched in the streets of Barcelona over the weekend, calling for unity and talks between Rajoy and Puigdemont.

And in an indication of the uncertainty surrounding Catalonia, several major banks and a number of other companies announced they would move their head offices to other parts of Spain, threatening stability in the country's most economically productive region.

How did we get here?

Catalans have their own language, which is based on the romance Latin-based tongues of southern Europe but is quite different from Spanish, which was influenced by the Arabs who ruled huge swathes of medieval Spain. Several times during its history, Catalonia has found itself caught between the rivalries of France and Spain.

The region industrialized before the rest of Spain and had strong anarchist, socialist and communist movements that all fought against General Francisco Franco in the 1936-1939 Spanish Civil war.

The current dispute goes back to that conflict. Franco, the victor, repressed Catalonia's earlier limited autonomy, and in the early years of the dictatorship at least, expressions of Catalan language and culture. It wasn't until four years after Franco's death in 1979 that the region regained some of that autonomy.

In 2006, the Spanish government backed Catalonia's calls for even greater powers, granting "nation" status and financial control to the region. But four years later, the Constitutional Court rescinded that status, ruling that while Catalan is a "nationality," Catalonia itself is not a nation.

One of Spain's 17 autonomous provinces, Catalonia has its own regional government with considerable powers over healthcare, education and tax collection. But it pays taxes to Madrid, and pro-independence politicians argue that complex mechanisms for redistributing tax revenue are unfair to wealthier areas, something that has helped stoke resentment. 

The region accounts for a fifth of Spain's economy producing 25% of the country's exports. It contributes much more in taxes (21% of the country's total) than it gets back from the government.

In a symbolic poll in 2014, 80% of Catalan voters backed complete secession -- but only 32% of the electorate turned out.

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