El periodisme que l'actualitat necessita
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VilaWeb has interviewed exiled Catalan president Carles Puigdemont only hours after the Belgian authorities shelved the European arrest warrant which the Spanish government had withdrawn a few days earlier. The president is fully immersed in the election campaign. A snap election, imposed by Spanish PM Mariano Rajoy, is to be held on December 21. In our interview the exiled president explains his views on a hypothetical return to Catalonia following a pro-independence win at the polls. He also discusses why he believes that this time Europe will not be able to look the other way.
—Almost exactly three months ago we interviewed you in Barcelona’s Palau de la Generalitat. Did you ever imagine the circumstances we are living in today?
—Not these exact circumstances, but we often wondered about it during cabinet meetings. It was one of the possible consequences of Madrid’s reaction, which we had contemplated. We knew that an exiled or imprisoned government was one of the conceivable outcomes.
—What happened on October 10 for the Republic to be put on hold?
—I was explicitly told that dialogue would commence if we didn’t enact the unilateral declaration of independence.
—Who told you?
—Someone said so in public, and someone told me privately. They had the authority to tell me. I had to assume that relations between governments are based on mutual trust and good faith, especially when you are looking to resolve the conflict adequately. To me, holding talks was a worthwhile endeavour: it would have meant recognising the referendum of October 1 and the political problem. A lot could be built on that recognition.
—Was it a mistake to put independence on hold?
—I can’t blame myself for having given it a chance. Later, it became apparent that talks would not be held and that there wasn’t a genuine determination behind those efforts.
—Did they do that to gain more room to manoeuvre?
—Probably. It was essential to start a dialogue with Madrid to acknowledge the problem, but what happened was the exact opposite. Still, we needed time ourselves, too: setting deadlines is not the best way to manage such complex issues. Once it had become apparent that we had won the referendum, that a majority of Catalans had democratically voted to be independent, the result had to be managed and that required finesse rather than broad strokes. Multi-level talks by many actors were necessary, which obviously didn’t happen. Still, the Catalan Republic will be enacted after a long, uncertain period. We knew that and had never been coy about it.
—Why did they do that?
—I can only speculate. Perhaps they wanted to gauge our determination, to gain time to sort things out internally, perhaps to plan the crackdown better … We do not know. I honestly think that I acted in a responsible, upright manner to open up a window for dialogue. There was a widespread demand for that at home, abroad and among independence supporters … However, a week later we were in worse shape than on October 10.
—Did Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, deceive you?
—I don’t think so. If anything, eventually it will emerge that someone deceived the European institutions. That will be proven on December 21. I think the EU’s institutions believed that Mariano Rajoy had a recipe to end what they felt was a problem. They were persuaded that Madrid’s recipe (violence, arrests, exile, the suspension of democracy, fear-mongering and even an economic war) would bring an end to the problem. The elections on December 21 will show that this was a ruse because facts are facts and Mr Rajoy will lose at the polls. Rajoy’s recipe will have made a difference, but only for the worse and then, just then, perhaps the EU’s institutions will wonder —even if only in private, without any public comments— whether it was a mistake to give Mr Rajoy a free hand to work things out his way.
—We have lost mediators, such as Switzerland and Kofi Annan.
—The countries who have aimed to act as mediators or arbitrators have never been the problem. The trouble is that Spain won’t even admit that there is a problem. Therefore, if there is no problem, no mediators are needed, less so if they are foreign. On the evening of December 21 the logic that dialogue is needed will prevail. That dialogue will need to be held on the basis of the utmost trust, and mediators will be required to build that trust.
—Have they blown their chances, now?
—It think it will all depend on the elections. If the Catalan people validate the result of the independence referendum and reject Article 155 of the Spanish constitution and its consequences, a very clear message will be sent out to the world. Ultimately, reality always prevails over fantasy. Look at what’s happened in Corsica. France is probably one of the most centralist countries in Europe and yet when they see the result of the elections, they avoid a head-on clash and seek dialogue instead. That’s what should happen in Spain.
—There is a question that many people obsess over: what will happen if you win?
—Surely the same political ideas that get you elected president can’t get you thrown in jail. That is a contradiction which Spain ought to resolve for once and the fastest way of doing that is to accept the result and, therefore, allow those of us who were in office, in the vice presidency and the ministries, to go back to our jobs and continue from where we left off when Article 155 was invoked.
—But people are well aware that the Spanish government will stop at nothing and they are not considering their options in terms of other people saying “they daren’t do that” or “they’d pay too high a price” …
—There’s a caveat here that we should bear in mind. We are in a different scenario. This time we are playing by their book of rules and conditions, with individuals in jail and exiled, with a heavy onslaught on the judicial front and Spain’s news outlets openly supporting Madrid’s stance on the matter. For all that, I struggle to think that they will not acknowledge the results of a vote which they themselves have called. The evidence would be so flagrant that it might even conflict with the EU’s treaties.
—Allow me to insist: the Spanish government will stop at nothing.
—If the Catalan people prove that they wish to forge ahead, that Rajoy’s Article 155 has failed, it is rather obvious that we will have to urge the EU to do something after December 22. If the EU found the courage to authorise Mr Rajoy’s crackdown, shouldn’t it also have the courage to admonish him, if he chooses not to recognise the election results? Otherwise the conflict would enter a new dimension. Can an EU member state violate the rules of the game in such a blatant way? Spain claimed that the October 1 referendum was illegal and that’s the argument which the EU latched onto. But it is the Spanish state that has called these elections. Is Spain saying that it won’t abide by the rules of democratic play? If so, the battle would rise to a European level and I would be prepared to go all the way. We have already won the battle of the European arrest warrant and we will also win this one, very clearly.
—What if you are detained and sent to prison?
—That’s untenable and unviable. I would have to be granted leave for every Question Time in parliament! That would be untenable. Besides, they would have to arrest me over charges which they did not have the courage to defend before Belgium’s justice. If they were so sure that we must be locked up for the crimes of rebellion and sedition, why didn’t they state their case in a Belgian court of law? They know very well that it would not hold water. This case has barely begun and it will end in an international court of law and, obviously, Spain will be more embarrassed than ever. Given the legal and political muddle which they’ve got themselves into, the most sensible course of action would be for them to acknowledge the verdict of the polls.
—So, if you win, you will be sworn in as president.
—Absolutely. In Barcelona’s Palau de la Generalitat. And I think I should go in accompanied by the vice presidents and my ministers …
—Are you implying that there should be a negotiation?
—Who with? No negotiation is necessary. They must respect the rules of the game. If the people of Catalonia vote for our slate, the result will not be negotiable. They will have to accept the outcome. The result of any election is not negotiated afterwards. It is accepted, regardless. Otherwise, it would not be a democracy and Spain would be held to account. Rajoy called these elections by his own rules. And he has bragged about it. I remember the headline of his interview in La Repubblica a few weeks ago.“I have saved Spain”, he boasted. Well, if he is such a miracle worker, how can he explain the fact that everything is still the same as it was in September 2015 and opinion polls paint a picture very like the parliament he has just dissolved? He will have to explain himself in front of Europe.
—What will happen to the legitimate government if your slate, Junts per Catalunya, does not win at the polls? Yesterday former CUP leader Antonio Baños suggested that the legitimacy should be passed on to ERC, if they win? Would there be two governments?
—Now is not the time to discuss anything that might be detrimental to the attitude with which we are facing the current situation on the back of the legitimacy of the Catalan institutions. We have travelled this far together. I am sorry we aren’t running in the elections as a joint ticket, as many wished. I have tried to put together a slate that closely resembles a joint candidacy and the people who voted on October 1. But the thread that binds us together remains unchanged. In all these weeks nobody has ever told me that we endorse Article 155 and we aime to build a new regional government. I’ve not heard anyone say that.
—This is about choosing between Rajoy and us. And when I say us, I mean the ones who won the 2015 elections, because we regard the decision to depose the government and dissolve our parliament as illegitimate. If we wish to stay true to the legitimacy of the parliament, it was that chamber that elected me and only it can remove me. Not Mr Rajoy. Therefore, accepting that I am not the president because Mr Rajoy deposed me is akin to accepting Article 155. I am not Madrid’s employee. I am the president of Catalonia and I do not take orders from PM Rajoy. That’s why I’m here. Otherwise, I would have stayed there and tried to find a personal way out. But I am not entitled to that. I must stand up for the dignity and legitimacy of the institution I preside over, no matter the consequences. On December 22, people (and, above all, Europe) will read the results in terms of the strength of October 1 and 27th, as well as in terms of the continuity of our legitimate government and its representatives.
—No matter who wins, is keeping the legitimate government a prerequisite?
—That’s what we all agreed. We felt it was the best way of standing up to Article 155.
—Unionists parties are behaving as if they were going to win.
—These elections were called so that they would win. It will be a surprise when they don’t. Not just that: the winning slate will have fewer votes than the number of people who voted for independence on October 1. That’s why we wish to stay true to the validity of the vote on October 1.
—Any advice for the remaining four days?
—Let’s not fall for the traps laid by those who are beginning to feel embarrassed by Article 155. Such as the proposal of an official pardon. There’s no good 155 and bad 155.
—You mean Iceta’s proposal, the PSC’s.
—Indeed. We don’t want to fall for that sort of thing. And we shouldn’t make any mistakes about the true nature of Ciudadanos. That political party was born to fight the Catalan language and Catalanism. You only need to read their most recent parliamentary speeches to realise who they are. They are not going to change and they cannot guarantee stability. Nobody should be fooled by the phoney moderation they exhibit and the narrative which argues that Article 155 has been an opportunity to change the government. The best victory on December 21 would be to show Mr Rajoy that what he intended to destroy is now stronger than ever. Needless to say, the worst possible news for Madrid would be a Junts per Catalunya win.