Exclusive Interview: Carles Puigdemont
Separatist in exile
His life reads like a seventeenth-century Dumas novel set in Spain: his unlikely rise to power, his secessionist referendum in defiance of the Spanish state, the military crackdown to suppress voting, the dissolution of his government, the imprisonment of his colleagues on charges of rebellion and sedition, his narrow escape into exile, his surprise arrest at the hands of German authorities, and his even more surprising release.
Who is Carles Puigdemont?
In the eyes of some, he is a salvific figure leading a justified uprising against an oppressive state. In the eyes of others, he is a doomed and reckless underdog who has no regard for the rule of democratic law. Either way, his story seems larger than life.
But Carles Puigdemont doesn’t look like a tragic hero of epic proportions. He looks kind of like my dad. His salt and pepper hair is a little unruly, his only accessory a yellow ribbon pinned to his navy blazer in support of his jailed colleagues. As he settles into this interview with a smile, that ‘regular guy’ persona he is so famous for comes across as the real thing.
Puigdemont says his exile is ‘not tragic or dramatic’ like that of the Catalans who fled Franco eighty years ago after the fall of Barcelona. ‘We have a tradition of Catalonian leaders in exile’, he says, ‘but our hope is to be the last generation to see that kind of situation.’
His life in Belgium is normal enough. Even though he misses his home city of Girona, his wife and two daughters, he doesn’t feel like he is in a foreign country. ‘Of course the weather is different, and the food. But in fact, I actually feel at home, because I am European.’
My daughters understand perfectly why I am living in exile and what I need to do
Puigdemont is still a present father for his girls, given the circumstances. ‘We video call twice a day; I help them with their homework.’ Still, his wife has to do a lot of parenting by herself and often has to tell them ‘things that are very shocking’, Puigdemont laments. ‘My oldest is only eleven, which is too young. But they understand perfectly why I am living in exile, what my duty is, and what I need to do.’
His situation, for now, is pretty calm. He has been traveling freely since the European arrest warrant that got him picked up in Germany was lifted, although Spain could always issue a new one.
I ask Puigdemont what he rocks out to when he’s speeding down European highways, windows down, evading arrest. The question gets a genuine laugh.
‘Bruce Springsteen’, he grins. ‘No Surrender.’
As the landmark trial of twelve separatist leaders kicks off in Spain this week and the streets of Madrid are teeming with angry anti-independentist protestors, Puigdemont is planning a trip to Groningen, bookended by stops in Belgium and Zurich.
His goal is to give RUG scholars and students more nuanced insight into why Catalonia, a rich and powerful cultural and economic centre, is insisting on independence from Spain. ‘To be recognised as an independent republic, we must be known first’, he says. ‘So I plan to continue visiting the Netherlands, to discuss the right of self-determination, the troubles facing the European Union, and the rise of authoritarianism.’
Since 2017, people are more informed about the situation than ever. But thanks to the ‘fake news factory inside the Spanish government’, he says, winning support can be an uphill battle. ‘They put out a lot of bad information – for example, that businesses have left Catalonia, that the referendum affected the Catalan economy, that people are not allowed to use the Spanish language – which is, frankly, so stupid.’ The trained journalist urges people not to believe the first thing they read: ‘I always say that the truth doesn’t exist in a single click.’
Fake news aside, it can be hard for outsiders to understand why such a prosperous and seemingly free state – governed by a forty-year old democratic constitution – would risk so much in a bid for independence. ‘The answer to that cannot be easy’, he says. ‘Forget easy explanations; there is no one reason.’
He says while his opponents often characterise the Catalonian struggle as ‘a nationalist revolution, or as economical egoism, or as simple populism’, none of those explanations are right.
How it all started
On 1 October 2017, the Government of Catalonia under Puigdemont held a referendum on secession asking Catalans whether they wanted to form an independent republic.
The Spanish state warned the referendum would be illegal because the Spanish constitution affirms the ‘indissoluble unity of the Spanish nation’. Puigdemont pushed ahead based on ‘the right of the people to self-determination’.
It is not a crime to call a referendum
That’s a right that Spain also recognises in its constitution, he explains. Article 96 of the Spanish constitution says that international treaties ratified by the Spanish kingdom will form part of the internal order of Spain. In the seventies, Spain also ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which says that all people have a right to self-determination.
‘So it’s all there. We just want to exercise that right, peacefully and democratically.’
Still, Puigdemont agrees that there is a clear conflict between the law of the land and the right of the people to decide. ‘But it is a constitutional conflict. It’s is not a penal conflict or a criminal conflict. For that reason, we will never accept that a political conflict can be solved through penal code. It is not a crime to call a referendum.’
Spain felt differently. On the day of the referendum, Spanish national police tried to stop the voting with violent tactics that shocked the rest of Europe. They also confiscated millions of ballots, shut down websites, and arrested separatist leaders.
It is clear there is a majority who are in favor of independence
As a result, some people worry that Puigdemont’s declaration of independence from Spain was actually undemocratic. Spain warned people not to vote, and many who were anti-independence stayed home. So some argue the results were not an accurate reflection of the will of the Catalonian people.
‘Well, the referendum was interrupted by the police, in some ways, yes’, Puigdemont allows. ‘But in the end, more than two million people participated, which was the highest number of participants of any previous elections. And if you disagree with the numbers from the referendum, you can see the results of the elections held in December. There, you can see the number of supporters for the independentist parties was higher than the number of voters for the referendum. So that is evidence that the figures were correct. It is clear there is a majority who are in favor of independence.’
Catalan independence demonstration in Barcelona on 11 September 2012
After the referendum, Madrid dissolved the Catalan government and imposed direct rule in an unprecedented but constitutional power move. Puigdemont and a few others fled into self-imposed exile under threat of arrest while many of the remaining politicians and civic leaders were imprisoned. Puigdemont continues to lead the secession movement from Belgium.
After Spain re-issued his European arrest warrant, Germany detained Puigdemont on his way home from Finland last March. Germany has extradited a Catalonian president to Spain before, when the Gestapo gave Lluís Companys back to Franco, who promptly executed him. The reminder of this shared fascist history made for bad optics for Germany and prompted protests throughout Catalonia. After four months of stalling, Germany agreed to extradite Puigdemont on a charge of improper use of funds, but not for rebellion.
Spain didn’t want to lose the chance to try him and his colleagues for rebellion, so they told Germany to forget about it. He was released on bail, and the European arrest warrant against him was dropped. Since then, Puigdemont has been traveling all over Europe telling everyone why he is willing to sacrifice so much for a free Catalonia.
The struggle wasn’t always about independence, he says. ‘Independence was our last choice.’ With an exasperated sigh, he recites all the ways Catalonia has sought compromise with Madrid over the years, only to have its autonomy restricted and its resources drained.
We are an old European nation and we want to continue as a nation
According to Puigdemont, as long as Catalonia puts more money into the Spanish state than it gets back, it will never have the tools and resources to accomplish things like ‘health policies concerning migrants, or our fight against climate change. But that is what we want to be doing; we are a diverse and open society and we are committed to answering the challenges that face the world. That is the main reason why we want an independent state.’
‘We have been fighting for three centuries against powerful nations like Spain and France. We are an old European nation and we want to continue as a nation. Our reason for the uprising is a desire to build a real, clear, and freer democracy. In the forty years since the approval of the Spanish constitution, the evidence shows it is not possible to do that within the Spanish state.’
But some Spanish students at the RUG are skeptical. ‘Catalans defend helping groups from other parts of the world, but then want independence because poor regions [of Spain] get part of their money’, one student says. ‘Without Catalonia, the other regions in Spain are not sustainable.’
Puigdemont counters that a free Catalonia would not necessarily abandon the rest of Spain; an agreement with the Spanish state could include ‘helping Spain pay the public debt, which is very important.’
‘We are all on trial’
But a friendly agreement like that is a long way off. In the coming weeks, the Spanish constitutional court will try a dozen separatists on charges of rebellion, sedition, and improper use of funds. Rebellion comes with a prison sentence of up to twenty-five years.
A maximum penalty would likely galvanise public outrage and generate more support for his cause, but Puigdemont refuses to speculate about what will happen next. ‘For me and for all of us, the only just outcome is release – because there was no crime. There was no rebellion. The only legal and just result is absolution.’
Puigdemont is not sure how Catalonia would respond to an unfavourable judgement. ‘It’s too early to say’, he replies, carefully. ‘But obviously we would feel that as a judgement against all of the 2.3 million people who voted for independence. We are all on trial. It’s a matter of our dignity; all of the responses could be possible.’
The way forward
Until now, the Independentists have rejected violence – while Spain clearly has not. But historically, it’s rare for a nation to secure independence without a fight. So is there really a way forward?
Violence is never an option for the Catalan people
Puigdemont thinks so. ‘We will remain absolutely engaged using only peaceful and non-violent means’, he says. ‘That is not just an instrumental or practical decision, it is who we are. We are a people of peace and we want to improve peace in the world. Violence is never an option for the Catalan people.’
He cannot say the same for the Spanish state. ‘When I ask them directly: are you excluding the use of violence from your efforts to prevent the independence of Catalonia? They have never said “yes”’.
Even under threat of force, he says the independence movement will forge ahead. ‘Yes, we will continue. Because we have tried to do it all: we have tried to dialogue with Spain; we are trying to organise a non-binding constitution; we are trying to organise a referendum with the Spanish state. If Spain refuses all manner of dialogue and continues to use violence against peaceful people, that is a clear case of remit of secession.’
Good for Europe
No matter what happens in the coming weeks and months, Puigdemont believes that a free Catalonia would be good for everyone. ‘Of the ten happiest countries in the world, eight have fewer inhabitants than Catalonia. That’s proof that small is beautiful, and better-functioning’, he says, leaning cheerfully into his sales pitch.
‘And don’t forget that Catalonia is a positive contributor to the EU budget; as an independent nation we will be able to modernise a very powerful industrial and economic region in Southern Europe, build a society open to modernity, and improve the entire economic and social environment.’
From there, says Puigdemont, Catalonia will be in a position to ‘help Europe improve democratically, because we try to organise society from the bottom up: allowing the people the capacity to decide – every time, everywhere, over all the things.’
Tickets sold out
Carles Puigdemont speaks about ‘An independent Catalonia’ on Wednesday 13 February in the Academy Building (8 pm), organised by Studium Generale. Tickets are sold out. Studium Generale is working on a live stream.