Exclusive: Catalan independence leader Carles Puigdemont on reinventing nationalism in a new century

From exile in Belgium, Catalan president talks about reinventing democracy after "right" and "left" have collapsed

Published March 17, 2019 6:00AM (EDT)

Carles Puigdemont (Getty/Michele Tantussi)
Carles Puigdemont (Getty/Michele Tantussi)

In the first part of our conversation, Carles Puigdemont, the Catalan president in exile, outlined his vision of universal human rights and the key place the right to self-determination plays in it. He also addressed what in his view are the deliberately errant portrayals of the Catalan independence movement, underscoring its fundamentally modern, democratic and pluralistic nature — which he said contrasts mightily with the archaic and frequently authoritarian behavior of the Spanish state.

In the second part of our exchange, Puigdemont explains the events surrounding his declaration of independence in October 2017, and the importance of the Catalan movement to the much-needed renewal of democracy in Europe.

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.

And, finally, it must engage in the type of activism that the government of Catalonia cannot do today. The government of Catalonia is presently working under surveillance and violence and imposed financial and political limits. It cannot carry out the type of diplomatic work it needs to be doing. It cannot commission activities and studies designed to encourage self-determination without incurring charges of misusing public funds. In short, the Council of the Republic can go much further in these areas than the Catalan institutions within Spain.

We’ve talked about Oct. 1, 2017. [That was the date of the referendum on Catalan independence.] What happened on the 27th of the same month?

On that day we issued our declaration of independence, but we did not enact the Law of Juridical Transition. The declaration was ratified by the Catalan Parliament and remains in force. So we have embarked upon a path that will be long and uncertain and that will end with full international recognition of the Catalan Republic. That path began on Oct. 27, and Oct. 27 and was a direct result of Oct. 1.  That’s what happened. Might we have done other things? Of course. But given the context of that moment, with Spain’s coup against Catalonia, we chose this route.

Why this particular route?

Because in that moment it became clear that the Law of Juridical Transition was intended for conditions others than ours. It was to have been enacted from within existing institutions. But as serious attacks took place, starting with the state’s dissolution of the democratically elected parliament of Catalonia and the dissolution of its government and president by decree, this robbed us of the ability to put our plan into place from within the existing institutions. And the Spanish government had shown us on Oct. 1 that, unlike us, for whom it has never been an option, they were quite ready to use violence.

One of the criticisms that has been made of your management of the situation in those fall days is that you should have spoken more clearly of the possibility of violence, and with it, the inevitable need for citizen sacrifice in confronting it. What would you say to these critics?

A number of things. First, violent people cannot win. If we had renounced the vote on Oct. 1 out of fear over the potential use of violence by the state, we would be granting people of violence a victory. Our goal is to be the country of peace and democracy, and we are convinced that the right to self-determination is an instrument of peace that enables us to achieve our goals without resorting to any type of violence and without being victims of violence.   

But by Oct. 27 the state’s willingness to use violence was quite obvious.  Didn’t this require a change in strategy from your side?

We took the decisions that we believed would best achieve our desired final goals. We want Catalonia to be a recognized republic. Time will tell when this takes place on the path we have undertaken. If along this road we have to make concessions to violence, which the state has never ruled out, we will not get too far. We are not prepared, nor do we want to be prepared, to resort to violence. We have to find a way not to enter into the conflict that the Spanish state seeks.

Ours is a political and constitutional conflict in the context of Europe. But it is not a violent conflict, and we don't want it to turn into one. Is Spain interested in such a violent evolution? The events of Oct. 1 made clear the answer is yes. So despite the provocations we needed to be intelligent and responsible enough to keep our eyes on the future. Sometimes the most secure path to the future is not the quickest one. The state was provoking us into a scenario in which they would have achieved victory. They are strong and we are not. We have to keep the conflict in the space, the terrain and in the language that we believe are the proper ones, which is in the realm of democracy and fundamental rights.

But isn’t martyrdom always a key element of national liberation movements? I cannot help thinking of the example of Ireland. There, martyrdom was in many senses a key catalyst of their independence movement. I am not saying that you should have planned to become a martyr, but rather wondering whether such sacrifices are an inevitable part of achieving victory against a more powerful rival.

This is a debate we had. And as we engaged in it we asked ourselves how could it be that the only path to have self-determination recognized must be through violence, and not the opposite way around. How is that countries that have killed each other’s people deserve international recognition and those that say they won’t kill are ignored? It should be the reverse. We're now in the 21st century, and the right to self-determination should not have to be the consequence of a violent conflict. That is not the way to resolve things in a modern, peaceful and civilized Europe, full of educated people who travel throughout the world.

Are you saying that Catalonia is a trailblazer in the creation of new models of national liberation?

Exactly. We are for modernizing the right to self-determination, as I said, as a tool for the prevention of conflicts. It is no longer the time of armed battles. The people in Hong Kong have understood this, as have many people with whom we have been in contact. People who previously were engaged in guerrilla movements understand that this is no longer the right language. Europe has an opportunity to demonstrate to the world that it knows how to resolve such conflicts, to create a European recipe for doing so.

There is a report from Alfred de Zayas, the former special representative of the UN, which I believe is from February of 2018 and that I believe was presented to the European Parliament, which says that a very significant number of the wars that have taken place since World War II have their origins in the failure to respect the right of self-determination. If we could learn to respect the right to self-determination we could save ourselves from a lot of conflict.

On Dec. 21, 2017, you headed the most voted-for electoral list in the “new” Catalan elections imposed by the Spanish state after its October suspension of the Catalan statute of autonomy. If that occurred, why are we sitting here in Waterloo, Belgium, instead of the office of the Catalan president in Barcelona?

My first response would have to be because it is frankly unexplainable. [Laughs.] Of course there is an explanation: The Spanish state has not respected the results of the elections, elections that they themselves called and that took place under frankly abhorrent conditions with one candidate in prison [Oriol Junqueras, now on trial in Madrid] and the other [Puigdemont] in exile. From my own list, all the top positions were held by people now either in prison or in exile.

On the day of the election there were 10,000 Spanish police in the streets of Catalonia, and people were obviously very fearful. The state thought it would win the election because they thought the Catalan people — whom the Spanish state does not know or understand — would act upon their fears, lower their heads, and issue a vote of surrender. But, in fact, they made a vote of “No surrender” [spoken in English]. And this completely threw them off.

But they were clever enough to accept the results and then undermine them through a series of improvised abuses of authority, the cumulative effect of which has been to prevent the parliament of Catalonia from swearing in three of its elected deputies as presidents of Catalonia. None of us has been convicted of anything, and there is no law against our taking office. So in a completely arbitrary manner, the Spanish government, working in connivance with the Constitutional Tribunal [which rules on constitutional questions], decided that they simply would negate what the Catalan people had decided.

I am obliged to defend the institution that I then represented. And I could not defend it from prison. I can only defend it from a place where I can be free to speak and denounce the abuses of power of the Spanish state. And this is what I now do.

Who is Judge Pablo Llarena [the prosecuting judge in the Catalonia case]? Would you say he is emblematic of a Spanish judicial system that, as some have suggested, was never really reformed after the death of [longtime Spanish dictator Francisco] Franco? Is it legitimate to speak in such terms?

It is completely legitimate to do so. Llarena is a judge who has presided over the case against us in an improper and illegal fashion. Improper and illegal. He has done so on the basis of political considerations, issuing and revoking  extradition requests according to the particular political needs of the moment. ... For example, there are far-right militants sentenced to non-appealable terms in prison for attacks on the Catalan delegation in Madrid. They were condemned and are still not in prison. The Constitutional Tribunal decided that because they have children, going to jail could have negative consequences for their families.

In contrast, we have nine people democratically elected who, for having publicly defended Catalonia’s right to self-determination in their parliament, are in prison without trial, some of them for more than a year. This is a completely improper double standard. And double standards are a sign of very poor justice systems. So why does this occur?  Because, as mentioned, there is a line of historical continuity between Franco's justice system and what came along after it.

When we consider that the head of state after Franco’s death was someone named by Franco himself, it is not that surprising. Spain is a monarchy thanks to the decision of the dictator Francisco Franco. The law of succession is a Franco-ist law. The fact that Felipe VI is now king is a result of that Franco-ist law. And given that the highest representative of the Spanish state is a product of Franco-ism, it is not surprising that the judicial system draws its inspiration from the same sources and from the same culture.

Judge Llarena is an integral element of the strategy to put the interests of the state above the pursuit of justice and the pursuit of democracy. And he is carrying out his appointed task.

One of the historic problems of the Catalan movement has been the sharp division between its so-called “left” and so-called “right” branches. According to the taxonomies frequently employed to describe Catalan politics, you are often labeled a person of the right. As I reflect on some of the things we have talked about here, this is rather hard to assimilate. Are you a person of the right?

These views are rooted in obsolete a priori notions of politics. Today we have supposedly leftist politicians that practice rightist politics. In the end, one is, ideologically speaking, his or her policies. Some say that the various governments of Felipe González [the Socialist premier, 1982–96] were leftist. But in fact, his policies were not leftist. Does the fact that they display the Socialist stamp or brand guarantee that they have to be seen as politicians of the left? These obsolete ideas are laughable.

But they seem to still have a lot of influence.

Because they work.

Why do they continue to work? Is it because the media’s tendency to repeat them?

To a large degree, yes. Because in Spain the large communication conglomerates have become …

But doesn't this also take place in Catalonia?

Because many of the Catalan outlets are part of the same Spanish media system. I know people from parties that call themselves leftist that are very conservative. And I know people from supposedly rightist parties that are very progressive in some ways.

I like to talk about policies. The politics of the government I headed can be examined in the light of the a priori assumptions we were just talking about. A government like mine that levied a tax on bank deposits of those possessing large fortunes: Does that make us rightist or leftist? When a government like mine levies a tax upon sugared drinks to prevent obesity and further public health, and that bothers the big companies, is this a leftist or a rightist measure? When a government like mine makes a law to guarantee the effective equality of men and women, or when it issues a decree to guarantee medical coverage for everyone who lives in Catalonia, including for those without legal status, are these things leftist or rightist? When you levy a tax on nuclear power plants to help in the fight against climate change, is that leftist or rightist?  

In short, for me it’s always about “the facts” [spoken in English] over propaganda, and then let the people decide. And that's it. I do not allow labels to intimidate me, condition me or imprison me. That any person who knows me and knows how I have lived my 56 years should say that I am a man of the right is merely revealing either bad faith or solemn ignorance about who I am.

But I often wonder, do people really have the desire to go beyond the labels applied by the press?

I think the labels employed by the press have only a relative importance nowadays. Today, the press, which in the past facilitated the creation of those a priori categories, no longer is able to impose them in a hegemonic fashion. For example, nowadays social media drive the creation of narratives much more than La Vanguardia or El Periodico [leading anti-independence dailies in Catalonia]. And in this more complex and sophisticated world, it is not as easy to say “You’re a right winger!” Now you have to explain it to me. Are you going to tell me that you are a leftist even though you privatized all sorts of things?

Is it a generational thing?

I think it is. There are those of us who grew up with print journalism, which is a wonderful form of journalism, but that no longer holds sway. I am not going to say that I don't have an ideology. But the easy, simplistic and reductionist labeling that says, “You are from the right, bad” and “You are from the left, good,” are simply laughable. Laughable because our entire social model is now diverse, sophisticated and complex.

When someone tells me that I or someone else is of the right, I ask, “How do you know? By the way I dress? My way of talking? Because I read? Because of my opinions? Do you really know about all my opinions and how I think?” All this is a product of the tendency, as I was saying earlier, to deal with society through democratic paternalism. All this is so puerile. So, yes, it is probably true that our generation is more susceptible to these frames of analysis. But I don't see people who are 30 accepting them.

It seems that the press’ apparent inability to explain the gilets jaunes [Yellow Vest] movement in France in its full complexity might be emblematic of what we are talking about. Is there any connection between what is happening there and what is happening in Catalonia?

I believe it is an important phenomenon. I can’t say I have a deep understanding of it, and this being so I have not wanted to fall into making a simplistic judgment. That said, I believe it demonstrates the failure of both the traditional press and traditional politics. It is rooted in the sense of unease that is sweeping across Europe that in some cases, such as Italy, is expressed in Europhobic and xenophobic terms in groups such as Five Star and the Lega, and in the United Kingdom is expressed through Brexit, and I suppose in Catalonia in opposition to our reality of kidnapped democracy, and in France in many ways, including the gilets jaunes. It is a terrain in which one can go fishing for many things, certainly populist movements, but also democratic ones. It is not always simple to know what is what.

Might it be that that France, for various reasons, has a subsoil that is richer in political options? I am thinking here of Naomi Klein’s invocation of Milton Friedman’s words: “In times of crisis, people latch on to the ideas than are lying around.” Could it be that in France there are more power-challenging ideas and traditions still lying around?

We Catalans have always been very French in that sense. Catalonia has always had a great deal more political plurality in its parliament and political life than is the case in Spain. There, for example, they have never had a coalition government in the 40 years of [post–Franco] democracy. Catalonia, in contrast, has had a number of them.

But again, back to France, I am not a big enough expert on the social phenomenon of the gilets jaunes to come to a lot of hard conclusions. What I will say is that it is complex and multi-faceted and yet another symptom of something bigger. It is not an isolated French story but part of a wider set of dynamics. And we would do well to read it properly, to change the glasses we used to look at reality in the 20th century for new ones — this is no longer May 1968 — adequate for viewing the much more complex realities of the 21st century. We need to make an effort to understand the plural sense of unrest sweeping across Europe.

Today I read poll numbers that said that the National Front, now called the National Rally, is the preferred political choice of the French. Yikes! So what has happened here? Let’s not be reductionist about it. What is going on to make people who do not correspond to the typical profile for those political alignments join them now? It is not enough to insult them.

Might it just be that they have not been offered what they really need?  

Of course. This is also true in the case of Trump. Trump is what he is, and as a person he we might not like him. But what about respecting the people in the society who voted him in? His election has surprised us and profoundly dismayed many people, but we have the duty to try, in a sophisticated fashion, to understand what has taken place.

The same applies in the case of Brexit. It is not as simple as saying “They are just anti–Europeans who want to…” What bad things has Europe done to offend those who are not part of the City of London [the financial district]? The European political class is not understanding these things, and consequently it is providing all the wrong answers and is allowing, as we said, opportunists to come along, grab an idea, and take advantage of people with it.

By Thomas S. Harrington

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

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