Hundreds of students filled up the entrance hall of the E-building at Roeterseilandcampus last Wednesday in anticipation of a visit from Carles Puigdemont, former president of Catalonia. Following the Spanish state’s rejection of Catalonia’s referendum on independence in early October 2017 – an event marred by police brutality and interference – Puigdemont has lived in exile in Belgium. He is still a wanted man in Spain, with authorities continuing to pursue him for charges of rebellion and sedition. Room for Discussion, the group hosting the event, had invited the former premier for an interview about his experiences and the future of Catalan separatism.
The accounts and details of the police action against the referendum were the most compelling part of Puigdemont’s talk. Ballot boxes and ballots had to be bought in China and stored in France, only brought into Catalonia in the last second to avoid their interception. Puigdemont’s account of his personal effort to vote sounds like it was lifted straight out of a crime novel. Followed by a police helicopter, he switched cars on the way to a polling station, letting his official car drive back to his house three times while he stayed with family members. In moments like these, his message about the importance of people being able to speak their mind not only in the streets but also on the ballot paper has the most power.
Throughout the interview, however, Puigdemont fell back onto generic principle too often. Having opened the talk by stating that he sees it as his duty to explain why he took the actions he did last October, and following the motto “Democracy in Crisis” that stands above the Room for Discussion event series, Puigdemont took the role of an advocate for the pro-independence’s voice. The man of the hour did so not with a cogent speech and sharp argumentation, but by retreating to his iron principle throughout the talk; “the people should have a right to have their voice heard and determine their future.” This, however, was not enough to convince some audience members. Luisa, a second-year studying Communication and Media, described how “There was no legal backing” for this attempt at independence and if it is entertained, “It sets a dangerous precedent across Europe”.
Such a principle is hard to argue against, but also remains rather vague. Students attending the interview generally agreed that his appeal was not connecting with them, stating that it was too generic and not daring enough for the setting. While some thought this was due to the Catalonian ex-president’s dodging of critical questions, others chalked it up to the interviewers not digging deeper into what was a good appeal by Puigdemont. Max, who hails from Catalonia and is in his third-year at UvA studying Political Sciences, echoed these frustrations that Puigdemont “relied too much on platitudes and not enough on the historical and contextual justifications for Catalonia’s rightful independence.”
The interviewers and members of the audience tried to nail down their guest by presenting him with potential scenarios such as a compromise with Spain that gives Catalonia greater independence within the country, or a referendum to include all of Spain. The answer to these suggestions was mostly the same which may or may not be worth considering, depending on the views of the Catalan people. But – for the moment at least – those answers are not on the table.
Puigdemont did give, however, one clear message, often overlooked in the media reporting on Catalonia: a resoundingly pro-European call. Puigdemont emphasised that the crisis following the referendum was a European one, and that Europe – its individual countries, but also the EU – needed to defend its democratic values assertively rather than treating the crisis as internal Spanish politics. His vision of Europe was one of a community serving its citizens.
This sentiment was present from the start when he said that he felt home in Belgium, the nucleus of an integrated Europe. A federal Europe that is geared towards its citizens and allowing cultural expression, rather than focusing on the idea of nationality and nation-states, was what he outlined as Catalonia’s ideal home. When pressured on the question of whether Catalonia could stay in the EU, he affirmed that “we do not believe in a Catalonia outside Europe”. In an evening saturated in talk of principles and values, it was a rare moment of clarity in his message – but one that shows us that the visionary power of Europe is alive.