Salon: Catalan independence leader Carles Puigdemont on reinventing nationalism in a new century
By Thomas S. Harrington
This conversation occurred in Belgium, where Puigdemont now lives. We spoke in Catalan; the translation is mine.
Why haven’t more European states backed your cause?
It’s quite normal that they shouldn’t. Spain is their partner in the EU. We knew from the beginning that the first instinct of any EU member state would be to back their fellow partner, or at the very least not challenge them. We also understand that many member states don’t have the traditions that, for example, Great Britain has for resolving such things. Many are fearful of national movements within their borders. France has a tremendous fear of this, as does Italy. Finally, don’t forget that Europe is a more a commercial project than a political one, and the economic sectors value stability above all. Thus, is not surprising that in Europe there is not a great deal of interest in upholding the fundamental right of self-determination.
Might it be time to revisit the debate of the 1990s, which some of us still remember, about whether Europe should be a union of states or a union of nations or peoples?
I believe there is a very interesting debate in the offing about what exactly is a nation. We have the classic definition of a group of people conjoined by a linguistic or cultural unity and historical continuity living in a contiguous geographical territory. Catalonia obviously meets these basic criteria. But things today have now gotten much more sophisticated because of the creation of new identities that do not hinge so heavily on the matter of language. We are now seeing the development of non-territorial nations — for example, through social networks. These tools are creating identities and communities that have found cohesion thanks to these bonds. So in the fourth industrial revolution, extra-territorial states may become a reality.
That said, the people-nation or the culture-nation continues to be a reality, but one in evolution. Catalonia is one of the historic nations of Europe, with its roots in the Middle Ages. But it has evolved, and this has been the key to its survival. As a small nation, threatened by two great nations, France and Spain, both of which have tried to eliminate its language, Catalonia has adapted and refused to close in upon itself and cling to fossilized realities from its foundational period.
Rather, it has adapted itself to the circumstances of each generation, often anticipating the challenges to come. In the 19th century, for example, Catalan nationalism was a vehicle of modernization when many nationalisms were organized around the goal of putting a brake on progress and celebrating their past essence. Catalan political nationalism aligned itself with modernity because it realized that this was the best way to guarantee the survival of a small nation with built-in fragilities.
Are you suggesting that Catalonia might, in fact, be in a position to play a leading role in the search for new ways of being a nation in the 21st century?
Without a doubt. This is the only way to understand today’s Catalan revolution. If you try to read it wearing 19th- or 20th-century “nationalist” glasses, you won’t understand it. The reasons for undertaking this revolution were present for 40 years. But during those 40 years, virtually no one pursued independence. Why now? It has a lot to do with these new ways of understanding the governance of liberal democracy. Now, all citizens can avail themselves of tools that give them the ability to participate in the co-administration or the co-governance of their societies. Today people have an access to what is almost on a par with that of those in power.
The world is much more complex today than 50 years ago. However, liberal democracy continues to treat its citizens paternalistically, as if they were underage children. People have their own opinions and want to exercise their power. Catalonia has understood that this is the future, and has decided that it is time to try to create a truly modern state. We don't want to create a small version of Spain, simply changing the name and the flag and having the same parliamentary system and division of powers. No. If that were the case, we would not be for independence. We want to do something that in Spain is impossible to do: create a truly modern state.
This would seem to connect with some of things you have said recently about plans for the structure of the Council of the Republic. Could you explain what exactly the Council is and some of the ideas behind it?
With the Council we wish to show off the credentials of the Catalan Republic. What will be the role of the citizen in the institutions of this new republic, and in the process of policy-making? Will their role be passive or active? Will they have a role in decision-making or will their role be limited, as has been up until now, to voting every four years? The Council is an attempt to get the discussion going on these issues. We are saying that you, as a Catalan, are a partner in a cooperative of citizens, in which all are shareholders and all receive benefits of the progress of this community in an equitable, non-profit-seeking way. We believe this is the best way to get people involved in democracy.
Beyond this the Council of the Republic functions as a sort of “winter camp” that allows us to protect ourselves against ongoing state repression. If Article 155 [the constitutional provision Madrid used to justify its intervention in Catalonia] were to be invoked once again by the Spanish state, which cannot be ruled out, we will have a base from which to ensure the development and continuity of our national institutions. So we need to be prepared to function as a government in exile.
You’ve also spoken of how it will include certain transnational elements.
It will be transnational in the sense that we will address ourselves to, and welcome the participation of, all those people in the world who would like to be involved in this project. Who is a Catalan? Ultimately, those who wish to be one. This is another disruptive element of our project. Here we align ourselves with the idea, which others, especially the Estonians, have worked on a great deal, which is “e-residency.” Obligatory concepts of nationality are among the last remaining acts of state violence. You can leave the Eurozone, you can dismiss your particular God, you can leave behind your original sex assignment, you can leave your partner. There’s just one thing you cannot escape from: your nationality.
Isn’t it pretty outmoded to have to have a national identity that you don’t want? States should have to deserve the support of their citizens. Ideally, citizens should feel no desire to divorce themselves from their country. Why are there more than 2 million people who want to stop being Spaniards? They don't feel like Spaniards. In contrast, I don’t know many Swiss who want to stop being Swiss, because they have a system that recognizes them and empowers them. So this is another task of the Council of the Republic — to spread this new, less closed vision for the future.
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