Brexit campaign resonates with Catalan separatists (The Guardian)
While regional president Carles Puigdemont is pro-European, he knows that the turmoil caused by Brexit would boost his independence campaign
Giles Tremlett, Barcelona.- There is something familiar about Britain’s Brexit campaign, to Catalan separatists such as new regional president, Carles Puigdemont.
At play are many of the sentiments that drive this wealthy Spanish region’s independence movement: sovereignty, identity, a sense that scroungers elsewhere are spending your money and dislike of a far-off, unfamiliar metropolis. Replace the word “Brussels” with “Madrid” and some of the literature could be recycled.
Puigdemont, like the vast majority of Spaniards, is a fervent pro-European. But he sympathises with those who seek to bolster their sovereignty by demanding a referendum. And he knows that the turmoil caused by Brexit would also boost his independence campaign by obliging the EU to accept a major reconfiguration of member states. That explains why, uniquely among Spanish politicians, he is critical of the remain campaign.
“We have also suffered campaigns of fear,” says Puigdemont, a 53-year-old former mayor of Girona who was catapulted into the Catalan presidency five months ago. “I remember when the banks started issuing their opinions. They treated us as if we were not grown-ups and said a whole lot of lies.”
Those who predict that Brexit will destroy the European Union are wrong, he insists. “The EU will make an extraordinary display of political realism, and an admirable, Darwinian ability to adapt,” he says, implying that it would also adapt to Catalan independence. “It will be very interesting.”
Catalan independence is as unpopular among European Union leaders as Brexit. Yet at the last regional elections in September, a majority of the deputies sent to the Catalan parliament were separatists. Puigdemont now leads a government which he claims is already 70% of the way along the path to independence.
That may be wishful thinking. Just as Europe considers Brexit a nightmare, so Spain sees Catalan independence as a calamity. Acting prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, of the conservative People’s party, is determined to stop that happening and has blocked a referendum. This means, for the moment, that Puigdemont is driving Catalonia towards a nasty showdown with Madrid.
Puigdemont believes that the rising tide of separatism will win the day. “In 2012 there were just 14 deputies elected on a separatist ticket in the Catalan parliament,” he pointed out in an interview during a break between debating and voting at the 135-seat parliament in Barcelona. “Now we are a majority.”
Puigdemont’s government has embarked on a plan that aims to break with Spain – but, somehow, remain in the European Union – within just a few years. He does not believe warnings that Catalonia would be instantly expelled from the EU and refused to say whether he would choose independence over Europe. Like most Catalans, he finds that an impossible choice.