Salon: Catalan independence leader Carles Puigdemont on the future of Spain and Europe

Salon: Catalan independence leader Carles Puigdemont on the future of Spain and Europe

By Thomas S. Harrington

Carles Puigdemont led Catalonia's 2017 attempt to break away from Spain. He wants Americans to understand why

The Belgian city of Waterloo has long had outsized connotations. It is where one of the greatest European campaigns of social re-engineering came to a screeching halt on June 18, 1815. Napoleon’s defeat in the fields surrounding the city was so stunning that “Waterloo” remains a byword for any and all manner of unmitigated disasters.

I had come here to talk with a key protagonist of a more recent attempt to rearrange the political map of Europe: Carles Puigdemont, the exiled Catalan president. A journalist by trade and a political leader as a matter of destiny, the 56-year-old Puigdemont has lived in exile since fleeing the Spanish police two years ago. After an intense seven-year campaign of street mobilizations and a popularly organized referendum in October 2017, Madrid responded with a premeditated campaign of violence. The pro-independence majority in the Catalan parliament, led by Puigdemont, nonetheless kept its promise: It declared independence from Spain later in the same month. Within minutes, the Spanish Senate voted to dissolve the Catalan parliament and schedule new elections to replace it.

Puigdemont slipped over the French border within days of these events, resurfacing in Brussels with six members of his cabinet. All others in his government remained in Catalonia and are now in the dock in Spain’s Supreme Court awaiting their fates. Despite gaping holes and inconsistencies in the state’s case against them for rebellion, sedition and misuse of public funds, it is widely expected all of those currently on trial will be found guilty and will serve long prison terms.

I had long wanted to interview Puigdemont. Our meeting was arranged through intermediaries in the very potent civil society movement for independence. When I finally arrived at the House of the Republic in Waterloo, where Puigdemont now lives, it reminded me of a faux–French provincial mansion that would not look out of place in a subdivision in Maryland.

The exiled leader greeted me as if I were a familiar neighbor. Over the next 75 minutes he spoke with ebullience and disarming humor about the events of the preceding months, the future of the Catalan Republican movement, and its importance to the much-needed renewal of democracy in Europe. Despite the portent-laden symbolism of our location, Puigdemont was in no mood to accept defeat.

This is the first extended interview Puigdemont has given to the U.S. press. What follows is the first of two parts. We spoke in mid-January, in Catalan. The translation is mine.

In a time of great difficulties and tragedies, why should people in other places, such as the U.S., care about the independence movement in a relatively wealthy part of Spain?

What is taking place in Catalonia is in fact a direct outgrowth of two important things that have come to us from the U.S. The first is the Declaration of Independence, which has inspired the desire for, and the justification of, freedom in countless nations over the years. The second is the right of self-determination for all peoples. In this sense, our movement, and what we are asking for, are quite spiritually “American” things. And it is why, when I visited the U.S. [in 2017], various members of Congress demonstrated their support for Catalonia’s pursuit of the right to self-determination.

In addition to these two things, I believe that for a great power like the United States, we can serve as an example of how to resolve conflicts in a nonviolent fashion — that is, how to employ the right of self-determination as a tool for peace. This saves money and leads to prosperity and a greater balance between the various regions of the world. In short, we are demonstrating that this very “American” right to self-determination of peoples can also be an important way of avoiding conflicts.


You’ve gone right to my next question. What do you say to the people who state that in a world of rising nationalist chauvinism, and in desperate need of more unity and peace, you are simply adding fuel to these divisive fires?

The concept of unity, which is absolutely necessary to assure the rights of individuals and the citizenry as a whole, is best guaranteed on the basis of respect. Respect for identities, for the individual and for “the Other,” is the only possible basis for unity. If this respect is not there, we are talking about something very different, something that has very little to do with democracy. We have seen that the diversity that defines Europe has not been an impediment to the creation of what is now the greatest space of prosperity and democracy in the world, the EU, a space defined by its guarantees for fundamental rights, the welfare state and a balance between countries that once faced each other in wars. All this has been derived from a recognition of “the Other.”

Another thing worth mentioning, one that explains why we as small and medium-sized states need not go forward with fear, has to do with globalization, which gives these same small and medium-sized states the tools needed to compete successfully with larger states. For example, in the index of the world's happiest nations, which is compiled by the UN, eight of the top 10 countries on the list have the same or less population than Catalonia. And I believe that of the top five, four have fewer people than Catalonia. In other words, thanks to globalization, small and medium-sized nations can access knowledge and resources that allow them to play important roles on the front lines of today’s Fourth Industrial Revolution. “Small is better.” [He said those words in English.]

Can you preserve both cultural roots and individual rights?

We need to always guarantee unity through human rights. What is always the basis of rights between individuals and peoples? Human rights.

But these things are now in danger.

Very much so. And it is for this very reason that we are insisting so strongly on respect for the human right of self-determination. We believe doing so puts democracy to the test. And attacking this right, as the Spanish government is now doing, is precisely what puts democracy in danger. This is why we believe that Catalonia is everybody’s business. A retreat from democracy anywhere on the planet affects all of us democrats in the world.

This is especially the case within the European Union. I am deeply troubled as democracy recedes in Poland and Hungary. I view it as very much my concern. And I am convinced many Europeans and Spanish nationals are concerned when they see that a member state of the EU like Spain is persecuting people and annulling fundamental rights. Why? Because they understand that, in the end, it will affect them.

You have just mentioned Hungary. I have read many analyses that portray your movement as being similar to that of Fidesz in Hungary and the Lega in Italy. What do you say to portrayals such as these? [Both movements are right-wing, populist and vigorously anti-immigrant.]

This is just one of the many false narratives about us. In fact, the Hungarian leader, Viktor Orbán, who is a member of the European Popular Party — that is, the sister party of the Spanish Popular Party, which initiated the persecution of my government — was publicly thanked by the Spanish government for his strong position against Catalan independence. We have been attacked every which way by the European populist parties, starting with the Front National in France. Why? Because all these populist movements are rooted in a very dangerous form of nationalism.

While we are indeed a national revolution, we do not define ourselves in terms of the classic 19th- and 20th-century forms of nationalism. We represent a challenge to the obsolete concept of the nation-state that these populist nationalisms are trying to preserve, a concept rooted in the idea of one language, one culture, one people and one identity. It is precisely these ideas that we are calling into question. This, of course, is why we receive these types of attacks and mischaracterizations.

Among people who don't have access to good information, reductionist schemas like this and others, like “These people are selfish economic elites who just want to put money in their own pockets,” or “These people are against the use of the Spanish language,” can perhaps work for a while. But they do not hold up over time. In fact, they tend to have the reverse effect. The people in the Catalan government who have studied the enormous effort that Spain has made to stigmatize the Catalan national movement as a classic populist movement have come to the conclusion that the effort has failed, which, of course, has called the entire discourse of the state into question. So I guess you can say it worries us only in very relative terms.

But from where I sit, these portrayals still seem to have a good deal of strength and many people with powerful loudspeakers ready to repeat them.

It is easy to swallow. And it needs to be said that Spain has an impressive propaganda machine.

But it is not only the Spanish government. Can’t we also speak of entities like NATO and its propaganda arm, the Atlantic Council, and many media outlets that tend to follow their lead?

That may be true. I will repeat that Spain has a lot of resources at its disposal and can pressure us and others through all the channels of the Spanish diplomatic corps. But I insist on what I said in my book ["The Catalan Crisis: An Opportunity for Europe," 2018]. When people go a few steps beyond superficial discourse, it becomes clear to them that someone is twisting the truth.

For example, all of these claims made from the Spanish side that the Spanish language is endangered in Catalonia: People go and see with their own eyes and ears that this is nowhere close to the truth. This Spanish propaganda is of a type that worked in the early 20th century, when people could not independently verify what they were being told. But now propaganda like this crumbles in no time at all.

I will give you another example. In the interviews I gave at the beginning of my exile, the first question was always about the companies that had supposedly left Catalonia. What the Spanish government had fabricated, and was able to spread through its propaganda apparatus, was the fiction that all the important companies had felt the need to leave Barcelona during 2017, the year we declared independence. Today, no one ever brings this up. Why? Because of facts. How was the performance of the Catalan economy during that year? It is still well ahead of the overall Spanish economy. We are exporting more than ever—nine years of record growth—and have rates of economic growth as well as unemployment figures that are better than those in Spain.

The spokespeople for the Spanish government have gone to great lengths repeatedly to portray the Spanish state as, they frequently say, “a consolidated democracy” with very strong legal protections for its citizenry. You have vigorously questioned this portrayal of reality. Why?

First of all, because the degeneration of democracy in Spain is real. The latest indicators from a variety of international monitoring groups show that Spain is in retreat when it comes to fundamental rights like freedom of expression. For example, the Council of Europe’s Greco Group, which charts political and judicial corruption, has issued two reports sternly warning of the deficiencies of the Spanish judicial system and alleging that it falls short of basic European standards. And of the 11 recommendations for reform in the first report, issued a few years back, not one has been implemented. They were thus forced to issue a second report reminding Spain of a decision of the European Court of Human Rights condemning Spain’s violation of fundamental liberties by its sentencing of people simply exercising their right to free expression.

Could you give some specific examples?

Sure. A group of young people, independence supporters from my home city of Girona, were sentenced to years of prison and sizable fines for having burned photos of the king. And it was only thanks to the European justice system, which said to Spain, “Excuse me, but these people were exercising their freedom of expression. You have violated one of their fundamental rights, without which you cannot speak about democracy,” that they were absolved.



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