The European Parliament is voting on the vaiwer of the immunity of Carles Puigdemont and two other Catalan MEPs on Monday. Spanish authorities have charged the three politicians with rebellion and sedition in connection with the independence referendum held in Catalonia in 2017. If the EU lifts their immunity, the three MEPs could each face prison sentences of up to 13 years. Puigdemont insists that Catalan independence is not an ethnic identity issue and tells Azonnali that the EU has a clear interest in Catalonia remaining a member, as the region is a net contributor to the Union budget. Interview.
In an interview you gave in 2019, you said you listened to the Bruce Springsteen song "No Surrender" while speeding down European motorways, avoiding arrest. Do you still listen to this song while social distancing at home?
(Laughs) I like Bruce Springsteen and attended several of his concerts in Barcelona. "No Surrender" is a kind of anthem for our generation in Catalonia.
It's a kind of commitment: what we will use and find, to achieve our goals, because we know we face a big power and we need that kind of attitude - no surrender. It's very inspiring for us.
Later we will discuss the pro-independence movement, but first I want to ask about the last election in Catalonia. Your party, Junts came third, with 32 mandates, and the pro-independence parties gained a majority in the parliament. Is it time for a new referendum?
The results show that the Catalan pro-independence movement is stronger than ever, despite all of the attempts of the Spanish authorities to split and divide our parties. They even persecuted our parties and leaders!
Three years and three months after the start of the repression here we are: support for pro-independence parties is at its highest in the history of Catalonia. We have 74 of the 135 seats in Parliament.
We are still here, and we will continue fighting until we achieve our main goal, which is the international recognition of the Catalan Republic.
The turnout was very low, however.
You are right, it was very low, but that was due to the pandemic. However if you compare it with other elections, such as in the Basque country, Galicia or Portugal, you can see that the turnout was higher in Catalonia.
The election was won by the Socialist Party of Catalonia, which is a unionist party. After election night, its leader Salvador Illa called the results a clear message that Catalonia wants to be a part of Spain and wants a new government with the Socialist Party.
In light of that manner of analysis from Illa, I can understand Spain's failure in managing the coronavirus crisis, because that analysis is fake. We can see the results, the figures are there: 74 elected members of the newly elected Parliament back independence, which is an absolute majority.
Three years ago, the winner was Ciudadanos (Citizens), another Spanish party, but right now the Socialist Party – just like them – is not able to form a majority in Parliament in order to create a government and appoint its leader, Illa as president. Yes, they got the most votes, but if you want to run a government in Catalonia, you need a clear parliamentary majority. This is a basis of democracy and it is unbelievable that they think they won. Maybe in other countries it would be enough, but not in Catalonia.
If we look more closely at the results, we can see most of the votes for your party come from rural areas of Catalonia while the big cities such as Barcelona voted for the Socialist Party. Is there an urban-rural divide in Catalonian society?
To make that kind of analysis is complex. We won more than 500 municipalities in Catalonia, which was the clearest majority. We won in rural, urban, coastal and mountain regions, rich and poor regions. it is impossible to say there is a rural vote and a metropolitan vote in Catalonia. For example, in Girona the first option was my party, we won there, and Girona is one of the four capitals within Catalonia.
Well, if you look at the Barcelona figures, there is also a majority for independence and my party had twice as many votes as the party of the Barcelona mayor. However there are another cities where the pro-unionist party holds a majority, but participation is much lower in these metropolitan areas.
Finally, the only way to know how many Catalans support or oppose independence is by holding a referendum and deciding together what is best for our future. I am not afraid about the outcome.
There were rumours that Podemos's Catalan party would also be a part of the new government. Do you support this idea? Podemos is in the Spanish governing coalition.
The Catalan pro-independence movement was and will forever be an anti-fascist movement. So that it is clear that we are very close to parties who are against fascism and right extremism. In that sense we – and myself personally – enjoy a good relationship with Podemos.
We do not have any red lines in this case. The results and the will of the people are in the boxes, the voters are in favour of independence and
That is what is in the ballot boxes, so the government must respect that.
You already mentioned a couple of times that independence is the only way to solve this conflict, but in an interview in 2019 you said that independence is the last chance. What changed in these past two years?
No, I think I said the same. Firstly let's recall that the independence project was not our first choice. We wanted to improve self-government, and a huge majority of Catalan society supported that idea.
In 2005-06 we approved the new "Statue of Autonomy of Catalonia of 2006" law to improve our self-government. We achieved a significant majority in the Catalan Parliament, 120 members voted in favour and only 15 against (MP-s of People's Party of Catalonia – editor). Even the Spanish Parliament voted on the law and they had the same result: a huge majority of MPs approved the new law.
which had been approved by two parliaments and by a referendum. That was our first attempt to remain comfortable within the Spanish state.
And what other solutions were on the table?
After the failure of that path, we asked Spain to improve our fiscal agreement with Spain, because we are its richest and most powerful economic region but only collect 5 percent of our taxes and the Spanish state collects the rest. Catalonia has no fiscal or financial autonomy.
We said okay, then let's do this the same way as most countries: we collect our taxes and then we pay an amount of it for the Spanish state, but they said no. Then we asked them for a non-binding consultation in order to know the precise preference of the Catalan people: do they want to remain in Spain, remain in Spain as a federal state or be independent? I proposed this twice to the Spanish prime minister, but they declined.
Our last attempt to protect ourselves was the unilateral route to independence. Of course,
There is no alternative for the survival of Catalonia as a country, as a nation, as a minority language, as an economy, than having an independent state, because after over three years of oppression, there is no Spanish project for Catalonia, only repression.
There was a European citizen initiative called Minority Safepack, which could have given benefits to minorities all over Europe, but you abstained in the European Parliament at the vote about that.
I don't think we were the only ones unsatisfied by the final results of that initiative. We absolutely share this initiative and we want to thank the efforts of the Hungarian minority party in Romania who pushed it forward.
Of course, we favour a more diverse Europe and would like to see European Union protecting minorities. But then we see a kind of union where we only have one identity, one language and one way of life. Unfortunately, there are some big powers and big states in Europe who are threatened by the idea of recognising and giving powers to minorities. But for me, Europe is richest when we respect and protect minorities.
This initiative offers Europe a very good opportunity to improve the relationship between European institutions and its people. We will keep fighting on this issue, because the future of Europe is diversity not uniformity.
You said you supported the proposal, but only 48,000 people signed for it in Spain, and we don't know how many of those signatures were from Catalonia. Why did you not campaign more strongly for Minority Safepack?
We did, we made great efforts, but as you mentioned it is not possible to know how many Catalans signed it. The problem is not in Catalonia, because we are very, very committed to protecting and helping minorities. Catalan is the largest non-official language in Europe. We know the problem perfectly well, and that Spain has no culture for diversity.
When I was born, my parents were not allowed to register my name in Catalan, and when I was in school, Catalan was banned.
This explains why we cannot gather much support from the Spanish regions for this initiative, which could have helped them too. It is a very positive initiative, because it is not against something but it is in everybody's favour.
You still abstained from voting about the Minority Safepack.
I believe that it could have helped the case of Catalonia and other minorities in Europe, but
Many people expressed their disappointment regarding some aspects of this initiative. We still support some parts of the proposal, but of course, we do not hold a majority in the European Parliament and there are unionist parties like Ciudadanos who have a very bad influence and want to impose a narrative. For example, they say we cannot learn in Spanish in Catalonia, which is absolutely untrue.
So, do you think this initiative failed in Europe because of Spain?
Spain is a big, important country in the EU with an important economy and a big influence on the European institutions, as you can probably see. We know that personally, because despite winning the EP elections in Catalonia in 2019 by over 6 percent, we were not allowed to sit in the EP for six months. This was clearly a violation of our independence and our democratic mandate.
The then EP president Antonio Tajani was absolutely linked with the Spanish Socialist Party and has given them anti-democratic favours. We denounced this and went to the European Court of Justice. After six months, we finally won, but six months had passed.
What do you think of the European Commission's work on minority rights?
Well, I have been very disappointed by it, but that is not my first disappointment regarding the European Commission. We will work hard in order to have a real European Commission that would be more committed to minorities and their citizens.
For example, in the case of Catalonia, when we had a referendum in 2017, we did not expect that the European Commission would support our independence process, but we did expect a message from the European institutions expressing protection for more than two million European citizens. But it did not come. European citizens were violently beaten up by the Spanish police and that is unacceptable. That was a very big disappointment.
Why would you have expected such a message?
We understand that the Commission is in the hands of the states and some states, like Spain, refused to recognise diversity. As I already mentioned
You can obtain translations into Maltese and other languages that are far less widely spoken than Catalan.
It is impossible for me to use my own language when addressing the rest of the European Parliament. But most shameful of all is that we cannot use Catalan in the Spanish Parliament. I think it is a clear sign of how Spain can influence the European institutions.
Do you believe that the resignation of EU's High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell would bring the goal of creating a "real Commission" a little closer? 50 MEPs already support you in this case.
The reasons why Borrell must resign are not linked to the battle between our party and the Socialist Party: it is more serious than that. Borrell has failed as a high representative of Europe's international interests because he very actively sparked the repression against Catalan leaders.
You can read it in the report drawn up by the UN Human Rights Council's working group on the Catalan case, which said Spain is violating the fundamental rights of these people and that their detentions were arbitrary and Spain must immediately release them. However Spain has refused to respect that mandatory decision.
How could Spain teach other countries to respect the international agreements and individual duties after that? That is impossible and undermines Europe. Borrell is not the best option for Europe to represent it around the world.
In February you wrote questions to the Commission about the case of the Catalan rapper Pablo Hasél, who were arrested by Spanish police after being given a jail sentence on charges of glorifying terrorism and insulting royalty in his songs. Have you received an answer yet?
No, we did not yet get an response, but we will see how they will answer, because there is a narrative that these kinds of things are internal matters. We absolutely deny that, because that concerns European democracy!
The Commission must know very well what is going on in Spain now because it is a major problem for the EU as a whole, and there are big problems with the rule of law in Spain. It is unacceptable for the EU to have a member state in which artists are persecuted and prosecuted. Spain is ranked first in case of prosecuting artists. This is not an internal affair of Spain, it is a European Union matter.
As an MEP what can you do for Catalonia and the independence movement when you have been living in exile since 2017?
Well, we are connected in our current world and there are no distances. We can work for our country from Brussels or from Barcelona or from anywhere of the world. One of the best ways to help Catalonia is to improve European democracy.
It is very helpful for Catalonia that we insist that the EU protects minorities, fundamental rights and democracies across the EU. And we have to finish with the double standard that undermines the moral and international credibility of the European democracy.
If you are committed to fundamental rights, it does not matter whether a country is big, small or medium-sized. You have to be brave against Spain too, because this is a real problem. The lack of judicial security or safety is a threat to business, a threat to our freedoms and a threat to all the European agreements and values we share together.
The European Parliament will vote on your immunity on Monday. What do you think the result will be?
We will see next Monday, but we know the people involved. A majority of the Jury Committee support the removal of our immunity, but as we have always said, this is not the last step, there is one more in our case and that is the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg and we have many reasons and arguments to denounce the procedural irregularities.
And I think this threat against our immunity is a threat against democracy and minorities, because we were elected with the same electoral system that Spain uses. It is clear that this is a political prosecution.
What will happen if the EP suspends your right of immunity? Do you have a plan to leave Belgium?
No, absolutely not. When we decided to move to Belgium, we were not MEPs, we were members of the Catalan government and normal citizens. We did not want to escape. On the contrary we want to live in the heart of Europe in order to defend our rights, something which would have been impossible to do if we had stayed in Spain.
We have a lot of confidence in the European institutions and in independent European justice, which is not the case in Spain. We will fight from Brussels in defence of our rights, in front of Belgian justice. I was at the disposal of the Belgian justice system in the first case, in December 2017, then that of Germany, when I was arrested. Now the third European arrest war is being waged against us, and we are at disposal of justice in Belgium.
Our goal is to continue fighting, not to escape.
If we could defend ourselves in Spain, we would have remained there, but history shows that this is not possible.
We already mentioned the 2017 referendum a couple of times and that you have had to live in exile ever since. The Spanish government considers this illegitimate and the Spanish courts want to lift your immunity. What do you think about the referendum, three years on? Was it worth it? Was it a success?
Well, it was a clear success and we are very proud of it, because on October 1 they sent more than 6,000 Spanish police officers to Catalonia in order to prevent the referendum, but we held it anyway and more than 2.2 million people took part, despite the huge violence carried out by the Spanish police. We showed that there is a way that we can win in a non-violent way and this is very important for us.
But Catalonia remains part of Spain.
The reaction of the Spanish state has rendered it impossible to apply the referendum result. The Catalan parliament ruled at that time that Catalonia is a free, independent state, so the decision is doubly mandatory. However the message is clear: if we want to solve this conflict all we have to do is ask the people. It is not an agreement between one government and another: just ask the Catalan people and let them decide.
Let's assume there would be another referendum. What would be different? How would you make the Spanish government find it legitimate this time?
Only a referendum as a consequence of an agreement with the Spanish state could substitute the October 1 referendum.
Do you think the Spanish government would agree to that?
There is a political conflict and normally a democracy uses democratic and nonviolent tools in order to solve a conflict and the result is respected by everyone. However Spain is not a full democracy, nor an exemplary one.
For obvious reasons there is no possibility at present of Spain agreeing to Catalonia calling a referendum. This is unfortunate, because if you look at polls in Catalonia, there is a huge consensus in society to hold a binding referendum. Even people who oppose independence think this way. There is no conflict in Catalonia concerning the referendum, it is a matter of consensus. That would be the normal answer from Spain, but we are talking about Spain and not the UK.
If there is a referendum, and it is a success, that means Catalonia would have to leave the EU and apply for membership as a separate state again. Even with those stakes would you favour independence?
We will see what happens in Scotland after their next referendum. If Scotland became independent there is a consensus among European countries to accept an independent Scotland as an EU member without trouble, as they have a European economy. Catalonia has a European economy too, we use the Euro as our currency, all of our institutions, administrative offices and companies are inside the European regulatory framework. So we would not need any process to adapt to these laws and framework.
Thirdly and most importantly, if Catalonia is recognised as an independent state, it would be the consequence of a friendship agreement, because we would need to clarify things with Spain such as assets, public debt, borders, dual citizenship, and so on.
When you reach an agreement on issues as complicated as these, how is it possible to fail to ensure an agreement on the easiest thing we share with Spain? Because it is also in the interests of Spain that Catalonia would remain an EU member state. We are geographically in the middle and Barcelona is one of the most powerful cities in Europe. I believe that Spain would be able to find an agreement with Catalonia on these issues.
What rights would you give to Spaniards living in Catalonia?
We have said clearly that we do not have a single problem with Spaniards. The Spanish language is one of the four official languages in Catalonia, which are Catalan, Spanish, Occitan and Catalan sign language. We want to remain a multilingual country, where people can have several identities.
We think that everyone should keep the national identity they want. For example, my wife is from Romania, she lives in Catalonia: she still feels Romanian and she wants an independent Catalonia. Once Catalonia becomes independent, she still can feel Romanian, just as I still feel Catalan while living in Belgium.
PHOTO: Fred Marvaux / European Parliament
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