Colm Tóibín: Indignant Madrid playing into Puigdemont’s hands

Rajoy must soften tone as overbearing response boosts support for Catalan independence

Late on Friday October 27th, Carles Puigdemont, president of the Catalan government, having declared Catalan independence, made his way from the Palau Sant Jordi in Barcelona, the seat of power, to the city of Girona, where he served as mayor for five years. The next afternoon, he was seen eating in a restaurant and seemed very relaxed. Sometime that night or the next day, with seven members of his cabinet, he travelled by car to Marseilles and from there by plane to Brussels where, at the time of writing, he remains, even though a number of his colleagues have returned to Barcelona.

In his absence, the Spanish authorities are preparing a case against him for rebellion, sedition and embezzlement of funds. If found guilty, he could be sentenced to up to 30 years in jail.

At a press conference on Tuesday October 31st, he stated that he would not, in fact, be seeking asylum in Belgium, and emphasised that he and his supporters would be taking part in the elections in Catalonia that the Spanish government, having taken control of the Catalan region under article 155 of the constitution, an article never before used, has called for on December 21st. He did not say when he would return to Catalonia. For the moment, he is seen by many in the region as still the president, or as the president-in-exile.

Famous speech

The last Catalan president-in-exile was Josep Tarradellas, who had served in the Catalan government before the civil war. He was appointed to that role while in exile in France in 1954. In October 1977, with the agreement of the Spanish government, he returned to Catalonia as president and made a famous speech from the balcony of Palau Sant Jordi to the crowds below in the Placa Sant Jaume.


It was a Sunday, and to get into the square you needed a special badge. His listeners were mainly members of the Catalan faithful. I was deeply moved at the news that this 78-year-old man who had witnessed the civil war and known the main players on the loyalist side, was returning to the city after all the years of fascism. His speech – he repeated the phrase "Ja soc aqui", which translates loosely as "I am here at last" – brought tears to my eyes as I stood in the square, having convinced a friend to get me a badge.

What amazed me, however, was that the people around me found the speech oddly ludicrous and made jokes about it later. They had scant interest in this old man from the past. Catalans tend not to be sentimental about their politics. They are more usually pragmatic, hard-headed. They want things done. About 2½ years later, Tarradellas was replaced by Jordi Pujol, who would serve as president of the Catalan government for the next 23 years, winning six elections in a row.

Pujol's style was crisp and brusque and businesslike. His speeches lacked flourish, to say the least. His aim at the beginning was, as he put it, to "fer pais" – make a country – from the ruins of the dictatorship that had maintained an open dislike for Catalonia and its culture. He defined a Catalan as someone living and working in Catalonia with a view to permanence, thus removing, or at least reducing, the concept of blood or race from Catalan nationalism.

In one election, Pujol's party slogan was "Dit i Fet" – "Said and Done". Pro-business, pro-European, deeply nationalist, he created a Catalonia in his likeness while working as best he could with Barcelona town hall, which was run most of the time by the Socialists, and the Madrid government. He spoke of Catalonia, with its powerful economy, as one of the "engines of Europe", rather than as a region of Spain. When travelling abroad, much to the consternation of the Spanish diplomatic service, he behaved as a head of state.

When I met him, I noticed that he watched sharply and listened rather than spoke. He was greatly helped by his wife, the astute Marta Ferrusola, who was a tremendous talker, and someone who took a more narrow view than her husband of what constituted Catalan identity. They seemed to me a pair who did not miss a trick.

This turned out to be indeed the case, but more than anyone had ever imagined. In the summer of 2014, Pujol admitted that he had kept secret bank accounts over the past 34 years, including all his years in power. He and members of his family were reported to have had more than €100 million in foreign accounts and in foreign investment. Pujol was stripped of all the honours he had received. An investigation into his finances is still going on. His friend Xavier Trias, who was mayor of Barcelona from 2011-2015, said: "He must disappear . . . He failed us. It is a disaster that has taken place and the shadowy times of Pujol are finished while a new era begins."


After Pujol lost power and retired in 2003, the Socialists held the presidency of Catalonia until 2010 when Artur Mas, who had been a close ally of Pujol, was elected. Mas, from a wealthy family, was a more suave figure than Pujol. During Mas's time in office the left-wing nationalist party Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya increased its seats in the Catalan parliament, thus putting pressure on Mas, whose party's nationalism, as controlled by Pujol, had traditionally been milder.

Mas came to power in an interesting moment. Months before Mas’s inauguration, the Spanish supreme court made rulings on the terms of Catalonia autonomy, deciding for example that the word “nation” had no standing if it referred to Catalonia, and watering down other aspects of Catalan autonomy, including language policy. These rulings infuriated many Catalans, and set the agenda that led to the strengthening of the independence movement.

This was also the period of economic bust in Spain, which affected Catalonia very deeply, undermining confidence in the competence of any Madrid government to manage the economy.

Mas's standing was helped by the landslide victory of the Partido Popular in the 2011 general elections when Mariano Rajoy became prime minister for the first time. Rajoy's party has no strong roots in Catalonia. In recent elections, its Catalan wing has hovered around 10 per cent of the Catalan vote. This meant Rajoy and his advisers had no sense of how the middle ground in Catalonia was giving way. No alarm bells rang loudly enough in Madrid when someone as generally rational, middle-of-the road and stable as Mas was declaring himself the leader of an independence movement.

Rajoy had his own problems. Two years before his victory, a corruption scandal in his party broke, which involved bribery, money laundering, tax evasion, slush funds and undercover payments to politicians in his party. The party treasurer resigned, as did the leader of the party in Valencia. If the Pujol scandal in Catalonia is the elephant in the corner of Catalan politics, the Partido Popular has its own elephant. The divisions over Catalan independence have been a gift to both sides, a welcome distraction from corruption in politics.

In the election to the Catalan parliament that took place in September 2015, Mas's party joined the more left-wing Esquerra and two smaller nationalist parties to form Junts pel Sí (Together for Yes). They were six seats short of an overall majority. After much discussion, a small nationalist anti-capitalist party called CUP, who had won 10 seats, agreed to support them on condition that Mas stepped aside; they believed he had been too closely allied with Pujol.

This, then, is how Puigdemont slipped into the position of Catalan president in a last-minute agreement, to lead a coalition, many of whose members were more vehemently in favour of total independence from Spain than his own party had traditionally been.


Unlike Pujol and Mas, Puigdemont comes from a less than wealthy background; unlike them too, he comes from the Catalan heartland, outside the city of Barcelona. He speaks five languages, is pro-European. His aura is self-deprecating, modest; his tone when he speaks is rational and clear. He is not a demagogue. On the night when independence was declared, for example, he could easily have come out on to the balcony of Palau Sant Jordi, where Tarradellas had once stood, and made a rousing speech. Instead, he slipped out of the building and went home to Girona.

Although he has been greatly demonised in the Spanish press, Puigdemont comes from a political tradition that makes pacts. But he is also in a coalition that sees an opportunity that may not come again for generations. According to an opinion poll for the December election, Puigdemont could, if he is lucky, be returned to power with the same coalition as he has now.

In the same poll, support in Catalonia for complete independence from Spain has risen seven points (from June 2017) to 48.7 per cent, while opposition to independence has dropped six points to 43 per cent.

Puigdemont, who is fighting for his life, has to do nothing more in this campaign than what he has already been doing – quietly, rationally and peacefully making the case for secession. Should his coalition win the election, he can come back to Catalonia and face arrest with equanimity. He will be operating from an unassailable position. He can dream of standing on the balcony where Tarradellas stood in 1977 and giving an even better speech, a calmer one, one that will make clear that he belongs to a European political mainstream, one in which he wishes to be allowed to take part in full, as prime minister of an independent Catalan republic.

Rajoy, on the other hand, who has been using coercion rather than argument in Catalonia, might be wise to soften his tone. Since he has dissolved the Catalan autonomous government in a region (or a country? or a nation?) in which the vast majority, including those who do not support independence, want much greater autonomy, then his representatives in Catalonia, including the police, will have to be careful not to throw their weight around in the next six weeks.

And it might be helpful to hear from Rajoy and his ministers, and from the Socialist party in Madrid and El País newspaper who have been offering them such vehement support, what are the actual reasons why Catalonia should not be an independent state within Europe? Who would suffer? How? Who would benefit? How?

Their response so far has been merely emotional and quite indignant. Rather than threatening elected representatives with long prison terms, or sending in their police, it would be useful if they remembered that they are in the European Union and, in line with the values the EU espouses, it would be good if they entered into a serious dialogue and a detailed debate with those with whom they are in conflict.– Guardian Service