On 4 December, at a Diplocat seminar held in Rome, government spokesman Francesc Homs announced a "reinforcement" and a "qualitative leap" in the presence of the Generalitat in Brussels. He did not give details, and the announcement of the opening of new offices in the Italian capital and in Vienna stole the headlines. Later, on 23 December, the Catalan executive created the position of Permanent Representative to the European Union (EU). This position, with the rank of Director General, will take over as maximum Catalan representative to the institutions, in addition to leading the delegation in the EU capital, now converted into his support office. This reinforcing action will be finalized with a important and imminent addition: Amadeu Altafaj will be named as the Permanent Representative to the EU by Artur Mas, President of the Generalitat, according to various sources who spoke to ARA. The Catalan government chose not to confirm this last night.
By raising the level and creating this new key position in foreign relations that Altafaj will assume, the objective is to take a qualitative leap in relations with European institutions, governments, and public opinion in a year in which the Catalan independence process is expected to enter its decisive phase. A journalist by profession, Altafaj, born 46 years ago in Barcelona, was spokesman and later deputy director of the cabinet of Finnish liberal Olli Rehn, Vice-President for Economic Affairs of the European Commission, who left the position in July due to the change in Community government. His right hand confirmed that this represented an end to his professional relationship with the EU government.
In recent years Altafaj has been in charge of explaining the crisis of the Euro and the austerity measures applied by Brussels. He had a very prominent role during the Greek bailout and in facing the unrest in southern European countries caused by the restrictive policies imposed by Germany’s Angela Merkel, and has been presented as a "supporter of stability more than of austerity". The high-ranking EU official, who is fluent in English, French, and Dutch in addition to some understanding of Italian and German, has also been spokesman for Belgian liberal Louis Michel, Commissioner for Development and Humanitarian Aid.
As Permanent Representative, the economy will now move into the background for him, as politics will take center stage. Altafaj, who was sounded out in 2012 by Artur Mas for a position of importance in the enhanced area of Foreign Relations, has had a significant role nationally in recent months, although he did it with the prudence demanded by his position. From his Twitter account in the summer of 2013 he announced that he would attend the Via Catalana (Catalan Way) in Zurich, and has also participated in ANC events in Brussels. He presented a book by Martí Anglada about the independence processes in Europe. Anglada has been delegate for the Generalitat in Paris since September of last year.
Shortly thereafter, Altafaj explained that there was much talk within EU power circles about Catalonia, and, in regards to the debate on continuing within the EU, he considers it essential to change the discourse from "We are and we will be" to "We are here and we will be here". He has already said that this is "a serious moment" and that all citizens must "take a stand for the country". In the last few days he has also made comments in social media. Two days ago, in a connection between the Three Kings Day (the Magi of Epiphany) and the negotiations between Mas and Oriol Junqueras, he intentionally asked: "If the Kings turned up separately tonight, instead of in a single list, would they bring more gifts? Shall we write one letter to them or three? (1)¨
With Altafaj, who will relieve current delegate to Brussels Pere Puig-- also a civil servant with the Commission-, the Govern hopes for the step forward that Mas has always considered to be one of the project’s keys to success. Until now the president has had fluid relations with the EU. He has visited Brussels on various occasions and has met with José Manuel Durão Barroso, then President of the Commission, as well as with his vice-presidents-- among them Rehn-- and some of the more important commissioners. Opening doors with the large countries --a task that consultants Independent Diplomat have actively helped with for the past year-- has been very difficult. When an EU country has shown sympathy or understanding with the process, as the Baltic countries did at one time, Spain’s reaction has been severe, calling ambassadors from those countries in for meetings.
The machinery of the Spanish State
Altafaj will have to combat the decidedly unionist campaign that Foreign Minister José Manuel García-Margallo has mounted using all of the powerful Spanish diplomatic apparatus in Brussels. He will also have to present Catalonia to the 28 member states as a trustworthy future partner in southern Europe. The new Permanent Representative can take advantage, however, of his list of contacts in institutions as well as in the media, lobbies, and with European opinion leaders who, as proven by the appearance of Mas in international media, have been more receptive to the process.
Two years weighing actions abroad and the process
The arrival of Altafaj, with his high profile, is consistent with the impetus in foreign policy to smooth the road towards a new state. In 2012 former Spanish ambassadors Senén Florensa (now with the European Institute of the Mediterranean) and Joan Prat -- both chosen by Josep A. Duran i Lleida in 2010-- lost their jobs in the Foreign and Brussels secretariats, respectively. With the area in the hands of Government Minister Francesc Homs, pro-independence candidates were chosen for the posts: Roger Albinyana (photo) to head the secretariat, and Albert Royo for Diplocat, which is dedicated to seeking sympathetic partners via public diplomacy. Changes were also made to political delegations (the USA, France, the EU, the United Kingdom, and Germany). In September, journalist Martí Anglada was appointed delegate in Paris, the US delegate was moved from New York to Washington DC to be closer to the center of political power, and new headquarters will be opened soon in Rome and Vienna. Delegates for the latter two sites still need to be named. They will have a political profile, but not the importance of Altafaj and Anglada. The next offices will be in Asia and in Latin America, where a previous office in Buenos Aires was closed in 2011.
(1) N.T. Catalan children traditionally write a letter to the Magi asking for presents to be delivered on the night before Epiphany. Altafaj’s tweet was meant in support of the idea that pro-independence parties should run as a single candidacy in upcoming plebiscite Catalan elections.