Former Catalan President Puigdemont 'I Don't Like Being in Exile'

In an interview with DER SPIEGEL, former Catalan president Carles Puigdemont talks about fleeing Spain, his detention in Germany and the future of the independence movement.
Former Catalan President Carles Puigdemont

Former Catalan President Carles Puigdemont

Foto: Benoit Chattaway / DER SPIEGEL

Carles Puigdemont, the man with the mop-top haircut, hit international headlines last year when he called an independence referendum that was held on Oct. 1, 2017, despite it being declared illegal by the Spanish Constitutional Court. The dispute with Madrid escalated into a full-fledged crisis. Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy temporarily took over the regional administration of Catalonia. The Catalan government was sacked and Puigdemont charged with rebellion. He fled to Belgium, while members of his cabinet were remanded in custody.

In late March, Puigdemont was detained in Germany under a European arrest warrant while traveling by car to Belgium from Finland, and was held in a jail for 12 days in the country. In mid-July, the higher regional court in Schleswig-Holstein ruled that he could not be extradited on the charge of rebellion.

Two weeks ago, 55-year-old Puigdemont returned to Belgium, where he is continuing his fight for Catalonia's independence. He met DER SPIEGEL for an interview in Brussels, wearing a black suit and a blue tie, accompanied by a bodyguard, who, it transpired, belongs to the Catalan police and may only protect Puigdemont in his free time. It's just one example of the absurd situation in which Puigdemont now finds himself.

DER SPIEGEL: Mr. Puigdemont, you spent four months in Germany, including 12 days in jail. What was that like for you?

Puigdemont: It might sound surprising, but it was an enriching experience -- both personally and politically. I had no unpleasant encounters in Germany, everyone was respectful and polite toward me, even when they didn't share my point of view. Even when I was behind bars, I was treated well. I had faith in the fact that I was in a country where the rule of law prevails and that I was in the hands of people who knew what they were doing.

DER SPIEGEL: Are you suggesting that it's different in Spain? Spain also adheres to the rule of law.

Puigdemont: Unfortunately, it is indeed different in Spain. The Spanish legal system has more weaknesses. If we Catalans want to split from Spain, it's because of the 1978 Constitution. For example, the judge who will decide on my appeals used to be a senator in the conservative People's Party. How can he be trusted? We can turn to the European Court of Justice, but that would leave many people languishing in jail for years before any ruling in their favor on the grounds that Spain has violated their fundamental rights.

DER SPIEGEL: Why did you return to Belgium?

Puigdemont: I want to resume my work there, to pick up where I left off. We decided it was best to make Brussels the headquarters of our efforts, essentially the EU's capital. Nothing that I have done since last fall has been personally motivated. What motivates me is a sense of responsibility toward Catalonia.

DER SPIEGEL: But you shirked that responsibility when you fled Spain instead of staying to face up to charges.

Puigdemont: If I had only been acting in my own interests, I would have gone underground. Instead, I used my freedom to pursue my political goal. I went to Denmark, Switzerland and Finland, I gave speeches. I will continue my mission.

DER SPIEGEL: Do you think it's fair that many of your fellow separatists are in jail but you have your freedom because you fled the country?

Puigdemont: I don't like it. But nor do I like being in exile. Like many others who are part of the movement, I left the country because true freedom of opinion does not exist in Spain and there is no guarantee of a fair trial.

DER SPIEGEL: You succeeded in bringing the drive for Catalan independence to international attention. Does that make you proud?

Puigdemont: It wasn't only my doing. It was a combination of two factors: The fact that the people mobilized, and the new communication platforms. What would have had to happen in secret just a few decades ago can now be shared all over the world. When I was in Helsinki, just before I was arrested in Germany in March, I said: We want a society in which the smartphone is more powerful than the sword.

DER SPIEGEL: Who helped you build up this digital independence movement?

Puigdemont: It happened spontaneously. Many young Catalans studied in the United States or elsewhere in Europe, and many of them are IT experts. Our digital counteroffensive to the attacks on our movement was carefully orchestrated. It was only thanks to this digital strategy that we were able to vote in the referendum in the first place. Our supporters rallied together on WhatsApp, Telegram and Twitter. It's very difficult for the state to control what happens on these platforms.

DER SPIEGEL: To the world, you're now the face of the Catalan independence movement. How do you feel about that?

Puigdemont: I don't like it at all. It's not what I want to be, and it's not fair to the Catalan independence movement. We don't need leaders and we don't need martyrs. I lead a very reclusive life. I work my way through a huge amount of mail and I receive visitors every day. It feels a little like being under house arrest.

DER SPIEGEL: In the European Union, the idea of an independent Catalan state has so far met with little sympathy, despite your best efforts.

Puigdemont: That doesn't surprise me. I always warned that no one would recognize an independent Catalan state. I have criticized the EU for failing to make an official statement on what position it would take on an independent Catalonia. But above all, as a European citizen, I was deeply disappointed by the silence after the police violence on the day of the referendum.

DER SPIEGEL: You breached the Spanish constitution by holding an illegal referendum on a split from Spain a year ago.

Puigdemont: I did not contravene the constitution. The Constitutional Court contravened the constitution in its 2010 ruling, when it cut back the 2006 Statute of Autonomy of Catalonia ratified by 74 percent of voters.

DER SPIEGEL: How can the Constitutional Court contravene the constitution?

Puigdemont: Of course, it can -- especially seeing as the judges are appointed by the politicians. Moreover, the Spanish constitution does not outlaw referendums.

DER SPIEGEL: Article 2 of the preliminary part of the constitution states that the constitution is based on the "indissoluble unity of the Spanish nation."

Puigdemont: The UN's International Covenant in Civil and Political Rights, signed by Spain in 1976, also has constitutional status. It says: All peoples have the right of self-determination.

DER SPIEGEL: But the UN Covenant does not guarantee a right to secession other than in cases of colonies or enslavement under a dictatorship.

Puigdemont: A number of international law experts would disagree. It would be a terrible shame if violence were the only route to recognition of independence. Scotland was not a colony and Britain was not a dictatorship. The referendum on Scottish independence did not breach any international law.

DER SPIEGEL: But it took place with Downing Street's approval.

Puigdemont: Let's be honest. We Catalans, who account for just 16 percent of the Spanish population, are in no position to push through constitutional reform. That's a highly complicated matter in Spain and has only happened twice in 40 years, at the instigation of the EU.

DER SPIEGEL: How did you become a fighter for the Catalan cause?

Puigdemont: I was 13 when Franco died ...

DER SPIEGEL: ... the Spanish dictator under whose rule the Catalan language and culture was suppressed.

Puigdemont: Franco's death coincided with my own coming-of-age. I sensed that my life would be defined by playing an active part in the political fate of my country. During Franco's dictatorship, there was no freedom of opinion. Instead of complaining, I saw that I could actually do something for my home, Catalonia.

DER SPIEGEL: Did you always want it to be an independent state?

Puigdemont: I was never and am still not in favor of a traumatic break with Madrid. I always wanted an independent Catalonia, but achieved as a result of a democratic process, not by violence.

DER SPIEGEL: But why? Nationalism is an ideology that belongs in the 19th century.

Puigdemont: We never talk in terms of nationalism, but of sovereignty. What is happening in Catalonia is not a traditional, nationalist struggle for independence. If our aim were to create a nation-state, we would have tried to do so earlier. Nationalism is a danger to Europe.

DER SPIEGEL: But ultimately, what you want is your own state. That's nationalism.

Puigdemont: Yes, we want an independent state in the form of a republic. We want a politically united Europe in which citizens live, not just members of nation-states. We believe in a European identity. A majority of Catalans would be content to be granted self-governance along with a European passport.

Several people protest outside Lledoners Prison protest for the release of imprisoned Catalan pro-independence politicians in a village near Barcelona.

Several people protest outside Lledoners Prison protest for the release of imprisoned Catalan pro-independence politicians in a village near Barcelona.


DER SPIEGEL: As an autonomous region, Catalonia already has considerable powers. Why does it need full independence?

Puigdemont: The autonomous communities in Spain are only autonomous in administrative terms. We Catalans, like the Basques, are powerless to bring about change in the Spanish state.

DER SPIEGEL: You say you speak for the Catalans, but at least half of them voted to stay in Spain.

Puigdemont: At least half of them voted in regional elections for parties that are calling for independence.

DER SPIEGEL: Your struggle has created rifts between families and friends, has it not?

Puigdemont: Equally, you could say that what is dividing us is Spanish unity. Remaining silent on problematic issues just to avoid argument would hardly be in the spirit of democracy. The trouble is, there are no mechanisms in place for resolving these conflicts. The only workable tool we have at our disposal in a democracy is the ballot box.

DER SPIEGEL: Pedro Sánchez, the new Socialist prime minister of Spain, has held a first meeting with the Catalan leader, in an effort start to normalizing relations between Barcelona and Madrid. Is he your best hope for a solution?

Puigdemont: Sánchez also voted for deploying central administration over Catalonia in the Senate. A Socialist party member described the independence movement as a virus. The only party in Spain in favor of a binding referendum in Catalonia is Podemos, the left-wing populist party. But I will concede that there has been a changed in the atmosphere with the new Socialist government.

DER SPIEGEL: In late 2017, the Socialists set up a parliamentary commission on constitutional reform with a view to moving toward federalism.

Puigdemont: In our experience, the Socialists are not keen on federalism when they are in government. We are not so naïve as to believe that this time they mean it. We are only interested in seeing what offer Sánchez actually puts on the table. What would reform look like? What purpose would it serve?

DER SPIEGEL: Is the way you are fighting the cause in Brussels not in contradiction to the more pragmatic approach of the government in Barcelona?

Puigdemont: Who says what we are doing in Brussels isn't pragmatic? I and other exiled politicians are working on raising international awareness of the conflict. We can speak more freely here, without fear of being taken to court for a tweet.

DER SPIEGEL: You cannot return home, and at home things are continuing without you. Have you failed in your mission?

Puigdemont: I would have failed if I no longer had a say or a role in Catalan politics. Mine is the strongest party in the independence camp in the Catalan parliament. If there was a possibility of freely electing the president, it would be me. I am in constant contact with the Catalan government and my party.

DER SPIEGEL: Does the new Catalan president, Quim Torra, listen to what you have to say?

Puigdemont: Yes, and I listen to Quim Torra. We are on the same side, we coordinate our efforts. He is the new Catalan president in Barcelona, but everyone knows he has little room for maneuver.

DER SPIEGEL: You recently co-founded a new movement called Crida Nacional per la República (National Call for the Republic). Why?

Puigdemont: We believe that such a movement is best-suited to the current political situation in Catalonia. Every generation requires its own form of politics with its own tools. That is incompatible with the fossilized parties that are in crisis throughout Europe.

DER SPIEGEL: Are you working together with other independence movements?

Puigdemont: Of course. If we are seeking independence, we need to defend the same call in other countries. But every movement has its own particularities. There's no union of independence movements.


The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 33/2018 (August 11th, 2018) of DER SPIEGEL.

DER SPIEGEL: Who is paying for you to stay in Belgium?

Puigdemont: For now, all I have is my salary as a former regional president. I am using my savings. Fortunately, many people support our effort with donations, our "Republic Council" in Waterloo and our legal costs.

DER SPIEGEL: What's next for you?

Puigdemont: Even being optimistic, I expect to remain in exile for many years. To be more pessimistic, I could spend years in jail. In the very best scenario, we would be able to go home and everyone would be released from jail. That's the goal we are working toward. I have great faith in the European justice system and the UN Human Rights Committee.

DER SPIEGEL: Mr. Puigdemont, we thank you for this interview.

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