Carles Puigdemont, the ex-president of the Spanish region of Catalonia, spoke to the BBC's Europe reporter Gavin Lee about life in self-imposed exile in Belgium.
The interview took place as 12 pre-independence politicians face trials in Madrid and some could face up to 25 years in prison, if found guilty.
Mr Puigdemont has been on the run since his then-government led a failed attempt to secede from Spain after a controversial self-determination referendum.
Currently in Belgium, Carles Puigdemont will contest the European Parliament elections, his Catalan party has said. If elected, he would have to return to Spain and face arrest, Spanish media claim.
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Thousands of people marched through the streets of Madrid on Saturday in support of Catalan politicians and activists who are currently on trial for attempting to secede from Spain in October 2017.
Organizers said 120,000 people attended the march, but police estimated about 18,000 people attended the first major separatist march in the Spanish capital.
As the protesters marched through the city some waved the red-and-yellow striped Catalan flag and carried signs. A banner at the front of the march read: "Self-determination is not a crime."
Speaking to reporters at the protest, Catalonia's Regional President Quim Torra said the march in Madrid was needed in order to decry a trial that he described as a "farce."
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When seven men gathered in 1977 around a long green table in the Spanish Congress to write a Constitution for a new, democratic Spain, they spent a month, on and off, arguing over a single word.
It was just two years after the death of Gen. Francisco Franco, the Spanish dictator who had suppressed attempts to create regional autonomy.
The two Catalans at the table, Miquel Roca and Jordi Solé Tura, wanted the text to grant the right of self-government to Spain’s constituent “nations” — an implicit reference to Catalonia, Galicia and the Basque Country — Mr. Roca recalled in an interview. The other five, who included one of Franco’s former ministers, refused.
Eventually, they reached a compromise.
The final text spoke not of nations — but of regions and nationalities.
“We wanted a bit more, and some others wanted much less,” Mr. Roca said. But all in all, “it was a success.”
Forty-one years after the Constitution was passed in a 1978 referendum, that remains a widely shared opinion. For a text written while Spain was still governed by Franco’s acolytes, the Constitution, as well as the democratic transition in general, is considered a remarkable achievement.
But today’s Spaniards are increasingly questioning whether what was a triumph when it was written may, four decades later, have left the country in a deadlock.
Complications with the Constitution gave momentum to the Catalan independence movement — which has itself spurred the emergence of Spain’s first far-right party since Franco — and contributed to the downfall of two national governments in less than a year, the latest just last month.
“The Constitution was a great achievement for the time, as it was very unusual to get different parties to agree in that moment,” said Virginia Pérez Alonso, a co-editor of Público, a Madrid-based news website.
“But that consensus is what we don’t now have,” Ms. Alonso added. Today, “there are probably as many approaches to the Constitution as there are political parties in Spain.”
For some on the left, the Constitution has proved to be too vague in its promises about housing, employment, health care and pensions.
For some on the right, the Constitution has prove to be too flexible, allowing Catalan nationalists to demand more and more autonomy until attempting to break away entirely in 2017.
The decentralized state permitted by the Constitution is “a focus of instability and anti-Spanishness,” said Santiago Abascal, leader of Vox, the emergent far-right party that would scrap clauses devoted to regional autonomy.
The former Catalan president Carles Puigdemont and two of his former ministers are to be excluded from standing in next month’s European elections after Spain’s central electoral board upheld an appeal from two rightwing parties.
Puigdemont, who fled Spain to avoid arrest after his regional government’s unilateral independence referendum in October 2017, intended to run as a candidate in the European parliament elections for the Together for Catalonia platform.
Also on the list are former Catalan education minister Clara Ponsatí, and Toni Comín, who was health minister in Puigdemont’s administration.
But it emerged on Monday that the electoral board had accepted a petition from the conservative People’s party and centre-right Citizens party that the trio’s candidacies be declared ineligible because all three are “fugitives” abroad.
Puigdemont and Comín are in Belgium, while Ponsatí is in Scotland. They face arrest in Spain for their alleged roles in the referendum and subsequent unilateral declaration of independence.
A spokesman for Puigdemont said an appeal would be launched.
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The Canadian government blocked a visit by Carles Puigdemont days before the former Catalan president was to travel to the country at the invitation of a group advocating Quebec independence, his lawyer said on Monday.
Puigdemont had been scheduled to speak in Quebec earlier this month on his experiences as a leader of the Catalonian independence movement – including his spearheading of the region’s 2017 unilateral referendum on separation from Spain. His schedule was to include a visit to the province’s national assembly.
But days before he was due to land in Montreal on 2 April, the Canadian government revoked Puigdemont’s electronic travel authorization (ETA), a document issued to those traveling from countries from which Canada does not have visa requirements. Enacted in 2016, the ETA program was designed in part to weed out potential security threats.
Puigdemont is wanted by the Spanish authorities over the role his government played in trying to break away from the rest of the country in 2017.
“This guy is not a criminal or a member of a terrorist group. He was the democratically elected president of Catalonia, who happened to have organized a referendum like we’ve had here in Quebec,” said Stéphane Handfield, Puigdemont’s lawyer. On Monday, Handfield filed a motion in federal court contesting the cancellation of Puigdemont’s ETA.
A spokesperson for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada said the ministry would not comment on individual cases. “Applicants are asked a series of question on issues including health and criminal history. On occasion if the department becomes aware of information that is inconsistent with that provided by the applicant, it will cancel the ETA,” the spokesperson said. “It is not a political process.”
Nevertheless, Quebec sovereignty is a touchy issue for the Canadian government. The province has often elected the separatist Parti Québécois party, which held referenda on sovereignty in 1980 and 1995. Though the PQ lost both, separatism remains a going concern; nearly a quarter of Quebecers still consider themselves “sovereignists”, according to a recent poll.
Many among them still despise former prime minister Pierre Trudeau for his staunch anti-separatist stance, and have about as much regard for his son, current the prime minister, Justin Trudeau.
“By blocking the democratically elected president of Catalonia, Canada is showing how it is hostile to Quebec’s right of auto-determination,” said Maxime Laporte, president of the Société Saint-Jean-Baptiste, the pro-sovereignty group that invited Puigdemont to speak. “In Quebec’s name, the Canadian government is telling us who is welcome and who isn’t.”
In recent years, Quebec’s independence movement has suffered the ravages of old age and apathy, but the travel ban prompted some to ask if the Canadian government had unwittingly helped the cause. “If they had just let him in, there would have been far less reaction,” Handfield says. “I think the government is now wishing it hadn’t done this.”
Puigdemont was president of Catalonia from January 2016 to October 2017, but fled to Belgium after the Madrid government responded to his administration’s declaration of independence by sacking him and taking control of the region.
Other members of his government – including his vice-president, Oriol Junqueras – stayed behind and are now on trial at the supreme court in Madrid.
In July last year, a Spanish judge dropped the international arrest warrants for Puigdemont and other fugitive members of his government.
The dropping of the international warrant means Puigdemont and five former colleagues – currently in Belgium, Scotland and Switzerland – no longer face extradition proceedings. But domestic warrants remain in force, meaning the six will be arrested should they return to Spain.
It emerged on Monday that Puigdemont and two of his former ministers are to be excluded from standing in next month’s European elections after Spain’s central electoral board upheld an appeal from two rightwing parties.
The four jailed Catalan leaders who became Spanish MPs following the April 28 general election have been suspended over rebellion accusations that have resulted in their prosecution and preventative imprisonment.
Spain’s congress bureau agreed the ruling on Friday afternoon, with left-wing Unidas Podemos the only party voting against it due to reservations over the "rush" in which the decision was taken.
The chamber speaker, Socialist Meritxell Batet, defended the action on the basis that the body was following the advice of the parliamentary lawyers, who presented a report on the issue on Friday morning.
Oriol Junqueras, Jordi Turull, Josep Rull and Jordi Sànchez took their seats on Tuesday. Raül Romeva, who became a senator the same day, is not affected by this particular decision by the lower chamber.
Why the jailed MPs are being suspended
The representatives were barred from sitting in the Catalan parliament last July, after the Supreme Court ruled that an individual on trial for rebellion or terrorism and in preventive prison can temporarily be suspended until a verdict is reached.
Batet, initially requested the Supreme Court to also rule on their current status, but the court said it "can only reiterate" its previous judgment and that settling the matter rests with the chamber.
After a bureau meeting on Thursday, Batet said that the parliamentary body had sought advice from the chamber's legal experts, who produced a report on Friday morning in favor of suspending the representatives based on the court's original ruling.
By refusing access to elected Catalan MEPs, the European parliament is going against all that it stands for
• Alfred Bosch is Catalonia’s minister for foreign affairs
Catalonia has always been a committed and reliable partner in the construction of the European project. Unlike the Brexit supporters, Catalonia has never given up its feeling of being European or its conviction that it is part of the European Union. We say yes to Europe.
Catalan society has shown its engagement with the common project by actively participating in the elections to the European parliament – turnout was 13 points higher than the European average. It is the only directly elected EU body, and that’s why, as democrats, we must demand that all those who have won their seat are allowed take their place. MEPs must be able to represent their citizens and work to defend their vision of an inclusive, social and better Europe for the five years to come. That has not been the case for some newly elected Catalonian MEPs, such as the former Catalan president Carles Puigdemont and former minister Toni Comín, who were among those denied access to the European parliament.
When the parliament sits for the first time on 2 July, Europe will be able to see first-hand the efforts by some to deprive elected officials, and their voters, of their political and democratic rights for purely political reasons. This isn’t new. Last month, the Spanish parliament and senate suspended five elected officials, all former members of the Catalan government who are currently on trial, from their duties as representatives. They ran legally, won the elections, took their seat in parliament while awaiting a sentence in their trial, yet they were denied their political rights.
Last week, newly elected MEPs from Spain were able to enter the building, and some even received their official badge. But after access was refused to Puigdemont and Comín, the current presidency of the European parliament, led by Antonio Tajani, in a botched attempt to end the continued bungle, ordered its secretary general to suspend all current and future accreditations given to newly elected Spanish MEPs.
A third elected MEP who could be prevented from taking his seat is Oriol Junqueras, the lead candidate of the European Free Alliance who has so far spent 19 months in preventive detention. The UN working group on arbitrary detentions recently demanded the immediate release of Junqueras and two others currently on trial in Madrid. According to the UN group, they are incarcerated for their political ideas.
Depriving political rights to elected officials does not sit well in a modern democracy. The legitimacy of the European parliament could be tested if the rights of those who were elected by the people are not fully protected and they are unable to be present on 2 July in Strasbourg.
Traditionally, Catalan MEPs have been active partners in the European project. They have been present at important European debates, and have always stood on the side of those defending fundamental rights and freedoms. Puigdemont, Junqueras and Comín, former members of the Catalan government who are currently in exile or in pre-trial detention, have been elected by 1.7 million citizens of Spain and Catalonia to represent them in the European parliament. If these three Catalan MEPs are not allowed to participate in the next legislature, Europe will not only have lost three active and pro-European members, but it will also have lost another chance to show the world that this is a space of freedom, democracy and support for fundamental rights.
Catalonia’s jailed former vice-president, Oriol Junqueras, will not be allowed to take up his seat in the European parliament until there is a verdict in the trial over the failed bid for regional independence, Spain’s supreme court has ruled.
On Friday, the court temporarily rejected a petition for Junqueras to leave jail on Monday to begin the process of becoming an MEP.
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President Quim Torra will face trial for the alleged crime of disobedience for going against the orders of the Spanish electoral authority and not removing the yellow ribbon from the facade of the Catalan government headquarters building.
The crime of disobedience that Torra is accused of does not carry a prison sentence, yet he could be ousted from his position as president of Catalonia should he be found guilty.
In the buildup to April’s Spanish election, and in the midst of the trial against many high-profile Catalan politicians and leaders, Torra was ordered by the Spanish electoral authority to remove the symbol that represents solidarity and support to the jailed and exiled leaders.
The electoral authority deemed the yellow ribbon "partisan" and unsuitable for public buildings during election periods. At first, Torra resisted, before then removing the yellow ribbon and replacing it with a banner reading 'Free political prisoners and exiles’.
The public prosecutor recommended Torra be barred from public office for 20 months as well as face a €30,000 fine this week, and on Friday the Catalan high court announced that the Catalan president will face trial.
Earlier this month, the pro-independence leader admitted to disobeying the orders when facing the court in relation to the case. "Yes, I disobeyed, because I owe a debt to a higher public mandate to defend human rights," he stated.
Eventually, Torra complied with the order to remove the yellow ribbon, but the symbol returned to the government building’s facade as soon as the elections had finished.
Catalan pop star uses Spanish words in Milionària, her first single in the local language
The Catalan pop star Rosalía has upset language purists with her first single recorded in Catalan, by using “Spanishisms” that critics say dilute the language.
In Milionària, which received 2m views on YouTube in its first 24 hours, the 25-year-old singer uses the word cumpleanys – a corruption of the Spanish cumpleaños – to mean birthday, instead of the Catalan aniversari.
She also uses escoltada (accompanied) when in Catalan the word is escortada and refers to botellas of champagne instead of ampolles.
“The most famous international Catalan artist sings for the first time in Catalan and says a barbarism like cumpleanys,” tweeted actor Ignasi Guasch. “Get lost!”
“Will we really forgive Rosalía for saying cumpleanys?” asked Twitter user @LuxSpeculi.
“The singer suffers from a linguistic deficit but at least now everyone now knows that cumpleanys is a gross Spanishism,” wrote Gabriel Bibiloni in El Periódico.
Rosalía was presumably referencing the fact that many people, especially in the Barcelona area, mix Spanish into their Catalan, much to the chagrin of purists.
While she is hugely popular in the area, the fact that Spain’s biggest international star is a Catalan who sings in Spanish is a source of irritation to Catalan nationalists, many of whom would prefer a monolingual Catalonia.
Catalonia’s separatist president, Quim Torra, did not congratulate Rosalía when she won two Latin Grammys last year, and the pro-independence paper La República complained that she made no reference to the “repression” of the Catalan people in her acceptance speech.
“The separatists don’t like Rosalía because she doesn’t dance to their tune and they can’t use her for propaganda,” said Mercè Vilarrubias, a Catalan writer on linguistics. “Also she dares to sing in Catalan, which they regard as their personal property. They don’t like this gesture of freedom and look for ways to criticise her, like her saying cumpleanys, when everyone knows that creative artists invent and adapt.”
Several cultural institutions welcomed Rosalía’s decision to sing in Catalan, errors notwithstanding, and as people took to Twitter many agreed that what mattered was that an international star was singing in Catalan, several adding that they, too, say cumpleanys rather than aniversari. Mariàngela Vilallonga, the Catalan culture minister, said her family said cumpleanys, although they know it’s incorrect.
There are also a few English words thrown into the song but, amid the fuss, no one seems to mind that the refrain repeats the words “******* money man”.
There are also a few English words thrown into the song but, amid the fuss, no one seems to mind that the refrain repeats the words “******* money man”.
Alliance of pro-independence parties and those against prisoners’ treatment could put pressure on Madrid, says VP
Catalonia’s vice-president has warned the looming verdict in the trial of 12 separatist leaders could trigger the formation of a regional “government of national unity” of pro-independence parties and those in favour of an officially agreed referendum on self-determination.
Speaking as Catalonia prepares to celebrate its national day (Diada) on Wednesday, Pere Aragonès said such an alliance would help increase the pressure on the Spanish government to find a political solution to the Catalan issue.
A dozen separatist leaders, including Aragonès’s predecessor, Oriol Junqueras, are on trial at Spain’s supreme court over their alleged roles in the failed push for regional independence in October 2017.
Nine of them – including Junqueras, the former speaker of the Catalan parliament Carme Forcadell, and two influential grassroots activists, Jordi Cuixart and Jordi Sànchez – are accused of rebellion, which carries a prison sentence of up to 25 years. Other charges include sedition and misuse of public funds.
Notably absent from the trial has been the former Catalan president Carles Puigdemont, who along with some colleagues fled into self-imposed exile abroad after the then government of Mariano Rajoy responded to the unilateral referendum and subsequent declaration of independence by using the constitution to assume control of the region.
With a verdict expected next month, pro-independence Catalans and those who view the prisoners’ treatment and possible sentences as unnecessarily harsh are planning to use the Diada on 11 September as another show of support and defiance.
Aragonès said while the verdict could prompt legal appeals on human rights grounds and unleash “massive, peaceful civil demonstrations”, it would also yield an “institutional” response.
“Our first option would be for what we call a government of national unity made up of all of us who want a political, rather than penal, solution – all of us who want a referendum, freedom for the political prisoners and the return of the leaders in exile,” he said.
“We could join together in government to force the state to open political negotiations.”
Aragonès said such a government could include pro-independence parties – his own Catalan Republican Left (ERC), Together for Catalonia and the far-left Popular Unity Candidacy – as well as the so-called Commons, an alliance of leftwing parties including the local branch of Podemos, which favours an independence referendum agreed with the Spanish government.
He also said a regional election could be held in an effort to increase the pro-independence bloc in the Catalan parliament.
“But that’s not our plan A,” Aragonès said. “Our plan A is to reinforce the governing majority to pass the 2020 budget and secure the backing of all those who believe that the solution lies in voting, not prison sentences.”
Catalonia is fairly evenly divided on the question of independence. Pro-independence parties have never managed to win 50% of the vote in the regional parliament, and the October 2017 referendum held in defiance of the Spanish courts and constitution had a turnout of about 43%.
Aragonès, who described the Rajoy government’s heavy-handed efforts to stop the referendum as “a laboratory study in how to suppress political dissidence in western Europe”, said the prisoners’ plight had attracted the support of many people who opposed independence.
“Solidarity with the political prisoners is far greater than the support for Catalan independence: there are a lot of people who, despite not being pro-independence, have been against the pre-trial detention and who view any custodial sentence passed on social and pro-independence leaders as a clear mistake,” he said.
The ERC, which governs Catalonia alongside Puigdemont’s Together for Yes party, has opted for a markedly less confrontational approach than its coalition partners. Puigdemont and his successor, Quim Torra, both favour keeping tensions high with Madrid in order to maintain the pro-independence movement’s waning momentum.
Aragonès acknowledged the divisions within the independence bloc but said they were smaller than the differences between the Socialist party of the acting prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, and the anti-austerity Podemos, which are still trying to form a national government after the general election in April.
Sánchez, who toppled Rajoy’s government in a no-confidence vote last year, has shown himself far more willing to listen to the Catalan government than his predecessor.
But he has made it clear there will be no independence referendum and the country’s constitution – which stresses “the indissoluble unity of the Spanish nation” – must be respected.
Aragonès conceded there was no fast track to Catalan independence.
“The people who lead [the ERC] – and I’ve been a campaigning member for 20 years, since I was a teenager – know that this is a historical process,” he said.
“When it comes to historical processes, you have to build up your forces and it’s not a lineal business. It’s not an administrative process of step one and then step two. It’s a complicated business. You can’t just arrive at independence at 6am tomorrow morning, however much you might want to.”
Last year, about 1 million people gathered in Barcelona to use the Diada as a platform to renew their calls for Catalan independence and demand the release of the jailed leaders.
Although the annual celebrations commemorate the fall of the city at the end of the Spanish war of succession in 1714, in recent years they have been used by pro-independence groups as a show of strength.