THE IRISH TIMES
After several years of steadily increasing tensions between Madrid and Catalonia, in recent weeks the relationship has become particularly strained.
The Catalan government wants to hold a legally binding referendum on independence by the end of September, as part of its so-called “roadmap” towards creating a new state. The Spanish government says any such vote would be unconstitutional. The standoff has been played out recently in the courts, with several high-profile Catalan nationalists on trial or under investigation for allegedly breaking the law by promoting the independence project.
As president of Catalonia, Carles Puigdemont (54) is the political figurehead of the independence movement and his mood seems to be a mixture of optimism at the prospect of fulfilling a lifelong dream and exasperation at the behaviour of Madrid.
“Finally, we have before us the chance to have the structures of our own state at our disposal and it depends entirely on us,” he tells The Irish Times, in the Catalan government building in Barcelona.
“The alternative to independence is decline, because the relationship with the Spanish state is not good, everyone knows that.”
Puigdemont’s Catalan Democratic Party (PDeCat) governs in coalition with the Catalan Republican Left (ERC) and, together, they are laying down the legal groundwork for independence.
Puigdemont says he wants to hold a Scotland-style vote that is negotiated with the central government. But that looks impossible given the stance of Spain’s prime minister Mariano Rajoy, who said earlier this month that he would not allow a referendum “that seeks independence and the break-up of Spain”.
“They have always said no, but it’s quite clear that this is a political conflict and it can only be resolved with political will,” Puigdemont says.
Split down the middle
Despite Rajoy’s opposition, Puigdemont appears determined to hold the vote, putting the will of the Catalan people above the letter of the law (polls show over three-quarters of Catalans would like a referendum conducted in agreement with Madrid, while they are split down the middle on the independence issue).
“This is not defiance,” Puigdemont says. “We have the will to do what democracies do – to receive the people’s mandate and implement it and in the face of this reality, the laws and the [central] government’s duties have to adapt themselves. That’s what we’re asking.”
Just over a year ago, this former journalist was the mayor of Girona and virtually unknown outside Catalonia. But in January 2016, he was selected as a consensus candidate to lead the Catalan government, after the anti-capitalist Popular Unity Candidacy (CUP) refused to support his predecessor, Artur Mas, in the post. The CUP’s support was needed in order to keep the independence roadmap alive and Puigdemont was thrust into the limelight.
Like many Catalan nationalists, he believes his region has long been the victim of shoddy treatment by Madrid, dating back to the Franco dictatorship, when the Catalan language and culture were forcibly repressed. When democracy arrived, a new system of autonomous regions was created and the wealthy Catalonia was granted a higher degree of autonomy than any other region apart from the Basque Country and Navarra.
But it wasn’t enough for many, including Puigdemont.
“After nearly 40 years of the [Spanish] constitution we have found that recognition of Catalonia is impossible within the Spanish constitutional system and that to continue being Spaniards we have to stop being Catalans,” he says.
He points to the state’s failure to invest in the region’s infrastructure, and his government claims the annual shortfall between what Catalonia pays to Spain in taxes and what it gets back is €15 billion – a figure Madrid contests. He also cites a litany of legal commitments that Madrid has not complied with.
The stand-off has recently been most visible in the courts. Earlier this month, Mas and two former members of his cabinet went on trial for disobeying the constitutional court by organising an informal independence referendum in 2014. While their verdict is pending, Carme Forcadell, the Catalan parliamentary speaker, is waiting to find out if she will be tried for holding a debate on independence in 2015.
In January, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights chided Spain for allowing the Mas trial to continue, and advised that self-determination was “an important strategy for the prevention of conflicts”.
However, just days later, Spanish justice minister Rafael Catalá said the central government was not ruling out triggering an article in the constitution that would allow Madrid to suspend at least some of the Catalan government’s powers.
For Puigdemont, this is all part of a conspiracy by the Spanish state against the separatist movement involving the “permanent politicisation of the judiciary”.
“I think in Spain they are too used to reaching the limits of democracy and then stepping over them,” he says.
However, the difficulties a new Catalan state could cause for an increasingly fragile EU have been ammunition for those opposing secession. In the past, senior European Commission figures have expressed concerns, and some national leaders have said an independent Catalonia would have to re-apply for EU membership. Puigdemont brushes aside such objections.
“No Catalan citizen and no Catalan company will leave the EU,” he says. “That is evident and nobody can dispute it.”
His argument is based on turning Spain’s rigid stance to his own advantage: If Madrid will not acknowledge a Catalan state, then the 7.5 million Catalan people will maintain their Spanish nationality and, therefore, their EU citizenship. If Spain somehow did recognise an independent Catalonia, it would be as part of an amicable agreement, under which EU rights are maintained.