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

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

Published March 11, 2019 6:00AM (EDT)

Carles Puigdemont (Getty/Odd Andersen)
Carles Puigdemont (Getty/Odd Andersen)

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.

Then there is the case of the torture of the Catalan independence supporters arrested in 1992. This was denounced by the victims but never investigated in Spain. In 2004, the Spanish state’s failure to investigate those crimes was condemned by the European Court of Human Rights. There’s also the case of Valtonyc, a singer who is here with us in Belgium, who was sentenced to three and a half years in prison without appeal — three and a half years! — for the lyrics of a song.

These are just a few examples among many of a democratic failure. So clearly we have objective reasons to back the claim that Spain is not a full democracy. And there’s another reverse kind of proof. When a democracy spends so much time and energy explaining to the world that it is an exemplary democracy, when it spends all sorts of money commemorating the 40th anniversary of the constitution, as it recently did, you have to wonder.  I’ve never seen France or Germany proclaiming to the world that they are true democracies. Why? Because they are.

I know many people in Spain and elsewhere who suggest that the solution to the Catalan problem runs through a federalist reform of the Spanish Constitution. Why, for you and your supporters, is this not a viable solution?

Because it is not true that many people in Spain want this. When they vote, they vote against it. Today in Spain many people don't even want Catalonia to have the level of autonomy it presently has. This view is anchored in electoral data. What do those data say? That these are bad times for federalism and confederalism. And even when things were good — that is, when the Spanish federalists had a parliamentary majority — they did not  decentralize anything!

When you speak of the federalists, can I assume you are speaking of the PSOE, the Spanish Socialist Party?

Yes, they are the ones who refer to themselves in these terms and say things like, “We have to have a federalist reform of the Constitution.” They have never even spelled out what they mean when they talk about a “federal Spain.” When you get beyond the slogan, everything is vague. When I have asked them to define the fundamental precepts of this idea, nothing is forthcoming.

I’ve always said that independence is not the only solution to the Catalan problem. It happens to be my solution, and frankly I don't think we have a better one, but that does not mean that intellectually and politically I am incapable of entertaining other ones. In the end, it is about what the Catalan people decide. We’ve spelled out our idea for a Catalan Republic.

In the three meetings I had with him before he became prime minister, I frequently and directly asked Pedro Sánchez [leader of the Socialist Party] about it. I was unable to understand what he meant when he employed this term. Is he talking about a U.S.–style system, a German-style system, a Belgian-style system or something like Switzerland, which is a confederation? For example, would the Superior Court of Catalonia become our Supreme Court, as is the case in the German Landers? Would we have judicial autonomy, like the states in the U.S.? Would it be like Belgium, where the regions have independent diplomatic prerogatives? They have never thought seriously about any of this. So how can we know if it is a good formula or not if we have never seen a detailed proposal?

What would you say to the people that say yours is a classist movement working for the economic elites of Catalonia? Or even a racist and a xenophobic movement?

I’d say that the dominant economic class of Catalonia is quite hostile to the idea of independence. Those businesses that did cede to pressure from the Spanish government and moved their legal headquarters away from Catalonia are precisely the largest and most important ones. People who come to Catalonia on their own and observe things realize quickly that it is a transversal movement with a spectrum of ideology stretching from anti-system beliefs to liberal-conservatives. It has both Christian Democrats and anarchists. It is a very plural movement, and thus cannot in any way be described as classist.

Seventy percent of all Catalans have a father or a mother, or both, from outside of Catalonia. This shows that Catalonia is, quite fortunately, not even close to being an ethnic reality! We believe a Catalan is anyone who wishes to become one. And no one is excluded from this process. Today there are many people with no Catalan roots at all who have decided to become Catalans. We are in no way a society built on the idea of ethnic homogeneity.

What about linguistic homogeneity?

The Catalan language provides us with cohesion and helps to give us a collective identity. But there are, within the culture, a wide variety of attachments to it. Knowing this affects our approach to immigration. Our language-immersion policy is anti-classist because it aims to ensure that the traditionally Catalan-speaking elites not be the only Catalan speakers. It has gone from being a vehicle of cohesion for some to being a vehicle of cohesion and democratic participation for many. This is why we jealously guard the Catalan linguistic model and see it as yet another proof of the non-ethnic nature of our movement.

For the last 35 years this has helped us avoid the risk of linguistic separation among the schoolchildren of Catalonia, which would have been a tragedy for everyone. We have done just the opposite. We have used linguistic immersion to insure that virtually everyone is in a position to express themselves comfortably in both of the official languages of Catalonia [Catalan and Spanish]. Other countries have approached issues like this in very different ways, assigning certain students to schools in one language and another group of students to schools in another language. This is precisely how ethnic separation begins. We have always fought vigorously against this.

Should Catalonia become an independent republic, would it be a bilingual republic?

It would be a multilingual republic. I believe the Catalan Republic must guarantee the linguistic rights of all its peoples, which are, as I have suggested, quite diverse. I believe that linguistic rights are an integral element of human rights, which unfortunately is still not always considered to be the case. Right now the International PEN club [Poets, Essayists, and Novelists] is waging a battle to ensure this linkage and I support their efforts. One’s language is something that one carries inside and that he or she should never be forced to renounce.

Right now, Catalan and Spanish have the status of official languages of Catalonia. We do not foresee any backtracking at all on this. There is a debate among constitutional scholars as to whether there is any need for an official language at all. Some argue that the linguistic rights of the population can be guaranteed without specifying which particular language is the official one. Whatever happens on this, I can assure you that in a Catalan Republic the linguistic rights of both Catalan- and Spanish-speakers will remain completely intact. I consider this to be absolutely fundamental.

Can you explain some of the legal battles that you have lived through in the last year and two months, during your European exile?

It is all a bit surreal, and for those who have not followed the case, I suspect quite difficult to understand. I am a European citizen and free man with all the rights of any other European citizen, like Mr. Macron or Mrs. Merkel, except in one place in the world, which is called Spain. If I go to Spain, I will be arrested and face the possibility of 25 to 30 years in prison. Outside of Spain, I am free to go anywhere with no charges pending against me.

So how is this possible? Well, it brings us back to the shortcomings in Spain’s culture of democracy. There is a European legal structure that guarantees me fundamental rights that are not, in fact, recognized in Spain. This is possible because in the European Union — where admittedly there still is a lot of work to be done on political integration — respect for rights generally exists. In Spain, they take an à la carte approach to justice.

In my case, rather surreal things have occurred. Two European arrest warrants were issued by the Spanish state against me. Both ended up being withdrawn. The first was adjudicated in Belgium. It soon became clear that they were going to lose. Rather than lose a case contrary to the interests of Madrid before a European court, [the Spanish government] withdrew the order.

In the second instance, when it was clear that a decision from a German court saying that I could not be tried for the crime of rebellion was about to be issued, Spain pulled back the remaining extradition order on misuse of funds, saying it did not like the other decisions of the German court. So I am free, and I travel all around, but with the risk that they might decide to issue a third arrest warrant against me. It’s surreal that they are trying to prosecute me for rebellion when European courts have decided that there was no rebellion.

The crime of rebellion presumes the existence of violence. And this brings me to the narrative of violence — that is, that on Oct. 1, 2017, the Catalan crowds seeking to vote committed acts of violence against Spanish officials and Spanish institutions. This narrative continues to be heard and seen in the press.

All the international observers, and indeed virtually all the members of the international press corps, have said without exception that the only violence that they saw on that day came from the Spanish police. Moreover, this is all documented. When the trial takes place [this interview took place shortly before court proceedings began] we are going to demonstrate that the Spanish police disobeyed a mandate issued by a judge. In fact, in a meeting of my government’s Security Council in the days before the referendum I demanded respect for the decision of the judge who had said that the referendum must be stopped — that is, on the condition that civic peace be preserved in the process.

But of course there was violence and then some, explicit and demonstrable violence carried out by the Spanish state that was met by peaceful resistance — a stoically peaceful resistance by the Catalan citizenry. They were attacked, but did not respond, showing great forbearance. That day, many European citizens felt shame before the images they were seeing and before the silence of the European states who, having been asked by Spain to look the other way, did so — in the same way that several Spanish political parties averted their eyes.

Just to be clear, are you saying that in the days prior to the referendum, you gave explicit orders to the Mossos [the Catalan autonomous police force] to avoid any possible use of violence and, above all, to preserve the civic peace?

The Mossos had the following order:  Respect and obey the orders of the judge.

And again, that order was?

To block the celebration of the referendum to ensure civic peace. In fact, the Mossos seized more ballot boxes than the Civil Guards or the National Police [both under central government control] did. But they did not use violence in the process. It was clear that the state wanted to block the referendum. So what else could we have done, being against violence? I can assure you that had someone or some group from the pro-referendum side, or any other side for that matter, resorted to violence, the Mossos had the right and the authorization to move against them. But they did not because there simply was no citizen violence.

Can you comment upon the tactics employed by the Spanish state in general, and the current foreign minister, Josep Borrell, in particular — a member of the PSOE and thus nominally a progressive — to block or impede your efforts, and those of the entire independence  movement, to tell your version of events to the rest of the world?

It is rather pathetic that a powerful country like Spain should feel the need to place the counter-narrative of a movement like ours, with very few resources, at the top of its foreign policy agenda. But at the same time, I understand why they are doing it. Because even though we have few resources, we have truth on our side. And it is very difficult to fight against people who have truth on their side. They have availed themselves of all the machinery and resources at their disposal, all of the pressuring mechanisms that a state possesses, and they haven’t been able to …

Could you give some examples?

Well, we could begin with all the pressure their diplomatic representatives have used in third countries. Before every single speech I make, or anyone involved with the movement makes, there are phone calls intended to pressure the organizers or the sponsors to cancel the appearance. Indeed, some have been canceled. And when they are not canceled, they assign someone to get up in the audience and speak against our position. They are doing everything they can so that we do not have a voice. And then there is the pressure on the media to spread fake news [said in English] about the Catalan independence process. We could also speak about the deals to place Spanish troops in certain Baltic countries in exchange for their silence on the Catalan issue.

Speaking of this, a trusted source told me in explicit terms of the enormous pressure brought to bear upon Harvard University by the Spanish government in their drive to have your appearance there canceled.   

And at that time, I was speaking as the designated Catalan representative of the Spanish state! I was the president of Catalonia, and as the president of a Spanish region, the law says that I am to be given the status of the of an official representative of the Spanish state when traveling. So the Spanish government was seeking to boycott a high-ranking member of its own state.

By Thomas S. Harrington

Thomas Harrington is a professor of Hispanic studies at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut.

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