BRUSSELS: The deposed leader of Catalonia Carles Puigdemont said Monday that there could be solutions to Spain's political crisis other than independence for his region, insisting he was still open to "agreement" with Madrid.
"I've always been willing to accept the new reality of a different relationship with Spain," Puigdemont said in Brussels, where he travelled to after his government declared independence from Spain last month.
"It's still possible. I've been pro-independence all my life, working for 30 years to secure a different way of integrating Catalonia within Spain. I'm still for an agreement," the former leader told Belgium's Le Soir newspaper.
Spain was plunged into its worst political crisis in decades when Catalan lawmakers voted to split from Madrid following a banned referendum in the wealthy northeastern region on October 1.
The central government hit back, revoking the region's autonomous powers, sacking its parliament and Puigdemont's government, and calling fresh regional elections for December 21.
The crisis has caused deep distress in the European Union as it comes to terms with Britain's shock decision to leave the bloc.
It has also sent business confidence plunging in Catalonia -- home to 7.5 million people and accounting for a fifth of Spain's GDP -- with more than 2,400 firms re-registering their headquarters outside the region.
Asked about Puigdemont's comments, Spain's Foreign Minister Alfonso Dastis said that "today the alternative to independence passes through the December 21 elections."
"What Mr. Puigdemont has to do is run for election and see what support he has," he told reporters in Brussels on the sidelines of a meeting of European Union foreign and defence ministers.
Puigdemont says he wants to run as a candidate in the regional election but his PDeCAT party is lagging far behind another pro-independence group in polling.
The leftist ERC -- whose leader was Puigdemont's deputy -- said last week it would not allow its candidates to run on the same ticket as PDeCAT.
- 'Authoritarian state' -
Several Catalan former lawmakers are in jail accused of violating Spain's constitution for declaring independence.
Puigdemont, who says he is in Belgium because he cannot get fair treatment from courts back home, has spoken of slowing his independence drive and last week accused Madrid of planning a "wave" of repression against separatists.
"We've been forced to adapt our agenda to avoid violence," he already said at the end of October.
"If the price to pay is slowing the creation of a republic, then we need to consider that as a price worth paying in 21st-century Europe."
ERC's spokesman Sergi Sabria said Monday that the Catalan government "was not prepared" to defend Catalan independence "in the face of an authoritarian state that shows no limits when it is time to apply violence".
The only alternative was to "maintain this process as a peaceful process," he told a Barcelona news conference.