For the last ten days, any visitors that president Puigdemont used to meet in a Brussels hotel have been travelling to Waterloo instead. The famous house, which was supposed to become Puigdemont’s residence in Belgium, is located in Waterloo, a town within Belgium’s French-speaking Wallonia. It is, indeed, the president’s new home. But it is also much more than that, as visitors soon realise, much to their surprise in some cases. The staff working there call it “the House of the Republic”. That is the first shock that visitors get on arrival.
Visitors in the last few days have included a string of Catalan mayors, reporters from several news outlets and countries, scientists, artists, members of parliament and no end of political representatives who watch with curiosity the new reality embodied by the Republican Council. At the end of last week, when Puigdemont announced that Jordi Sànchez was his candidate to become the new regional president back in Catalonia, he had stated that the time had come to start building in Belgium “the institutions of the Catalan Republic”, which was proclaimed on October 27. The first one such institution is its official seat. When visitors enter the premises, the initial surprise comes when they realise that it is not someone’s home, but a headquarters. As they travel from the entrance hall to the conference room on the first floor, they all notice people working behind a number desks, sometimes even the exiled ministers. You could refer to them as the first “civil servants” of the Catalan Republic, even though they are obviously not employed as such. Rather, they are staff on work contracts and they are putting together the projects which will give rise to the actual structure devised by Carles Puigdemont, his team and the members of his cabinet within six months after the declaration of independence, validated by the three pro-independence parties and the grassroots organisations back in Catalonia.
To enter the building, though, one first needs to get past the camera crews sent by the Spanish media who besiege it. Apparently, a good number of Spanish police officers and intelligence operatives have taken it upon themselves to get in the way of the House’s staff and gather any intelligence they can, not always by ordinary means.
A government in exile thanks to the Europe of liberties
The Catalan president has labelled this structure as “a government in exile”. But he has noted that it is not an exile in the traditional sense, thanks to the Europe of the liberties that has been built over the last decades. The six political leaders who reside abroad (Puigdemont, ministers Ponsatí, Serret, Comín and Puig, as well as CUP leader Anna Gabriel) are free citizens to all effects and purposes. Spain does not dare to demand that they be handed over because it realises that the request would be turned down as unbecoming of a democratic nation. The magnitude of the problem that Spain is facing became all too apparent when the European Arrest Warrant against the Catalan leaders was dropped. In the case of Anna Gabriel, who is exiled in Switzerland, the Spanish authorities have not even issued a warrant. Paradoxically, as a result of all that, any member of the Catalan government who remained in Spain is now behind bars (namely, vice president Junqueras and Joaquim Forn, the Minister of the Interior), whereas those who made use of their freedom to travel within Europe as EU nationals remain free and can build a government that will represent the legitimacy that stems from the Catalan elections and was interrupted by the coup d’état staged when direct rule was imposed by Madrid.
Therefore, in the so-called “free Brussels space” the incumbent president of the Generalitat and his government are ready to execute the structures —which they have devised and negotiated so far— without delay. The mission of the exiled government and parliament will be to keep the Spanish state on the ropes, legally and diplomatically, as well as try to lead the action of the pro-independence majority that cast their ballot in the referendum and the snap elections unlawfully called by Mariano Rajoy.
In an interview with The Guardian last Friday, Puigdemont said that the Republican Council was not a clandestine body and his cabinet preferred to work in a free space, without threats and fear, and that remaining in Belgium allowed them to act unencumbered by Spain’s police and justice system. He added that the Council should reflect Catalonia’s diversity and that is why “local communities and associations will be represented, too”. Puigdemont also repeated the motto that has been at the core of his thinking in the last months: “we must transition from the old notion of a government for the people to a government by the people”. That is why preparations in the Republican House have much to do with new technology and the example of Estonia. This Baltic republic has set up a virtual environment that would allow it to operate like an independent country in the event of a Russian invasion. It is a project that has been studied by the Generalitat for some time and will become a model for the Catalan government in exile.
In principle, the design that will be put into practice in the coming days involves setting up two institutions: the Republican Council and the Congress of Representatives. The former will be the government in exile and the political parties have agreed that it should consist of five members, two from Junts per Catalunya and Esquerra Republicana, plus one from the CUP. The Council is to meet weekly and liaise politically with the Generalitat government back in Barcelona, which will formally recognise the leading role of the Republican Council as the policy-setting body, assuming an agreement for a coalition government is reached by the pro-independence parties in Barcelona.
As for the Congress of Representatives, it will be the equivalent of a parliament in exile and, as is to be expected, it will be tasked with overseeing the executive branch. The Congress of Representatives will include MPs from the pro-independence majority in the Barcelona chamber who will be joined by representatives of local governments and other institutions, with a view to forming a highly-representative national body. The Congress and the Council will both meet in Brussels as a general rule, but the former might hold meetings in Catalonia, too, which would be another headache for the Spanish institutions.
Private bodies to avoid the Spanish state’s trap
Formally both institutions will be private in nature so as to avoid becoming entangled in the legal net that Spain is aiming to cast. Their public actions will be covered by the Generalitat itself, which will endorse the Council’s decisions to the extent that this is legally possible. However, the Council will elude Spain’s crackdown and take on tasks that would otherwise be impossible, such as re-opening Catalan representation offices abroad. Following Madrid’s direct rule, it is clear that the Spanish government will not lift the ban on those offices, but the free space in Brussels will be able to activate them nearly with the same format as they had until they were shut down by the Spanish authorities.
Brussels will also steer the drafting of the Constitution of the Republic based on a broad-based discussion at grassroots level, which will draw on experiences such as Iceland’s. Once again, being a private entity will allow the Catalan government in exile to take on jobs that the repression by Spain’s courts of law —under Rajoy’s orders— would otherwise make impossible.
On this point, the connection between the Republican Council, the regional government in Barcelona and the two million separatist voters will lead to the constant querying of Spain’s power in Catalonia. The Council and the Congress will encourage alternatives to allow the Catalan people, for instance, to avoid keeping their savings in banks that cooperate with the Spanish repression, which is nearly unavoidable at present. Likewise, they will foster an electronic form of democracy that, for example, will allow the Generalitat to hold online consultations outside of Spain’s legal framework. As a matter of fact, the concept goes beyond what has been traditionally known as electronic democracy and will enter the domain of “active” democracy based on the principles outlined by Puigdemont in his interview with The Guardian.
The exiled government, then, will also be privately funded and will be backed through a totally transparent fund open to the people’s participation. Anyone will be allowed to contribute to the coffers of these institutions, which do not expect to require a large number of staff. Their day-to-day affairs will be handled by the Generalitat in Barcelona and the government in exile will focus on any projects which the Spanish government might not allow the regional government to embark on, particularly from a legal standpoint and in terms of seeking support for the Catalan cause abroad.
A very hot potato for the EU, too
On the surface, the birth of the Catalan government in exile has been snubbed by the Spanish authorities, but the reaction and the violent attacks which it has elicited are indicative of Madrid’s serious concern on this matter.
In fact, over the last weeks the temperature of Madrid’s open conflicts with several EU partners has risen a notch. Spanish government sources have even hinted that they might go as far as breaking diplomatic relations with Belgium, an unprecedented threat. Spain’s Foreign Minister Dastis referred to Switzerland in the same terms as Anna Gabriel when she announced her decision to stay there. Finland’s consul to Barcelona saw his diplomatic credentials removed last week and his was the fourth on the list of incidents involving Barcelona-based consuls as a result of Spain’s feud with Catalonia. Except on this occasion the decision has been rebuffed by the entire consular body in Barcelona, as well as Finland’s embassy in Madrid. The matter has been debated in the Finnish parliament and its government is now expected to provide an explanation.
Spain’s rattled nerves reveal a growing realisation that the legal action undertaken against the Catalan government was a mistake that will have catastrophic consequences. It violates every principle of the separation of powers and the right to a fair trial. Besides, jailing members of a government and creating a new one in exile within the EU causes a major problem of definition in the EU itself. As it is, the European Union is already struggling to explain how come Hungary —and especially Poland— are implementing policies which infringe upon the most basic democratic principles and violate European laws. The situation is further compounded when that happens not just in the former eastern bloc, but in a western country, Spain, which behaves with the utmost contempt for the separation of powers and civil rights. When the EU gave Spain its consent to impose a no-holds-barred form of direct rule on Catalonia via Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution, it allowed a regression of liberties not just in Catalonia but in Spain as a whole and the resulting scandals are increasingly harder to conceal. The whole world heard about Madrid’s ARCO exhibition banning a number of works about Catalonia’s political prisoners, as well as the prison sentences imposed on two musicians, Valtònyc and Pablo Hassel, for writing critical songs and posts on Twitter.
For the first time ever, last week president Puigdemont admitted that he had made a mistake on October 10 when he agreed to suspend the declaration of independence after Donald Tusk’s public request. The Catalan government expected the gesture to prompt a reaction in Europe to help to find a political solution for such an obvious constitutional problem in Spain. In fact, what happened was quite the opposite, although the Catalan government is quick to point out that there is more to Europe than the European Commission and emphasises the sympathy and support from countries like Belgium, Slovenia, Denmark, Ireland and Latvia, which has allowed the exiled government to realise that Europe and the space of freedom it has created are the solution to the political conflict, even if some of today’s political leaders in Europe are unable to appreciate that.
Therefore, taking every opportunity to show that Spain’s behaviour is entirely incompatible with Europe’s democratic standards is key to the exiled government’s strategy: to get to a point where the cost of justifying Spain’s totalitarian arbitrariness is no longer acceptable to Europe. And this can be more easily achieved from a house only sixteen kilometres from Brussels than from Barcelona, a city that is being subjected to constant, indiscriminate repression.