Fugitive says his ‘Council of the Republic’ will continue drive for independence from Belgium
The fugitive Catalan leader, Carles Puigdemont, has suspended his attempts to return to office but intends to preside over a government in exile and carry on his drive for independence from the safety of Belgium.
Speaking to the Guardian a day after he announced he was stepping back from the presidency and anointing a jailed MP as his successor, Puigdemont said he would use a new “Council of the Republic” to coordinate and further the secessionist cause.
“It’s like a government in exile,” he said. “It’s not in the shadows. We prefer to work in the free space without threats or fears. It must act without the problems of Spanish justice or police. It’s a cabinet or government that must represent … our political reality.
“It will represent the diversity [of Catalonia]. I will invite all the other parties to take part. The council must have representation from local communities and civic society … We will move from the old system of government for the people to a new system which is [government] with the people.”
Puigdemont said he would serve as president of the council, adding that the separatist parties’ victory in last December’s snap election gave him the necessary legitimacy.
On Thursday evening, Puigdemont said he had decided not to continue his bid for the regional presidency and suggested that Jordi Sànchez, an MP in his Together for Cataloniaparty, should be the candidate.
However, Sànchez, the former head of the influential pro-independence Catalan National Assembly, is in a Spanish prison as part of an investigation into alleged sedition and rebellion in the run-up to last October’s unilateral independence referendum.
Puigdemont admitted he had doubts as to whether Sànchez would be allowed out of prison to attend the investiture debate, but said the push for independence would continue.
The deposed president also launched a blistering attack on King Felipe, accusing him of ignoring the constitution – something of which Puigdemont himself stands accused – and the Catalan people.
He said the king, who has consistently supported the Spanish government, “has acted outside the Spanish constitution, outside the role of referee” which he should have adopted as monarch.
“[The king] excluded the millions of Catalans who voted for independence,” Puigdemont said.
“He has become head of state of only one part of society. For that reason, the monarchy has lost Catalonia. His visit [to the region this week] was not a happy one. It was a mistake.”
A Catalan independence supporter protests against King Felipe’s visit to Barcelona this week. Photograph: Yves Herman/Reuters
Puigdemont contrasted Felipe’s response to the Catalan crisis with the way his father, Juan Carlos, handled the attempted coup in 1981.
“His father put on a military uniform and made a civil speech,” he said. “This king put on a civic suit but made a military speech. A republic has no need of a king.”
Puigdemont, who faces arrest on possible charges of rebellion, sedition and misuse of public funds the moment he returns to Spain, accused the Madrid government of acting in bad faith and said he should have declared independence earlier.
“The Spanish state said that if we didn’t vote for independence [immediately] they would start a dialogue,” he said.
“Several diplomats [from other countries] told me they would encourage a process of dialogue. That was a misleading statement from the Spanish state but I only knew that afterwards. I prefer dialogue. For that reason I suspended our declaration [for several weeks].”
There were ultimately no talks and Spain’s prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, responded to the declaration of independence by sacking Puigdemont and his government, assuming control of Catalonia and calling new elections.
They won’t talk to us and we are democratically elected. We have never used violence or killed a single person
Puigdemont said that while he still he favoured dialogue with Madrid, “there’s no one on the other side of the table”. The Spanish state, he said, had conducted negotiations three times with the Basque separatist group Eta, which carried out bombings and killings.
“But they won’t talk to us and we are democratically elected representatives. We have never used violence or killed a single person.”
Asked if there will be campaigns of civil disobedience against the Spanish state in Catalonia, he replied: “Civil disobedience is not a crime. It’s non-violence. I will not promote it but I have to respect people’s choices. It’s a democratic tool.”
Asked why he had not chosen political martyrdom in prison – his former vice-president, Oriol Junqueras, has been in jail since November – Puigdemont said: “I must continue the struggle in the best conditions. I need to have freedom of speech and movement. That’s not possible in Spain. I’m psychologically ready for prison but I want to continue fighting for Catalonia.”
He resists descriptions of Catalan separatists as “nationalists”, preferring the term “sovereignists’; colleagues refer to the Catalan movement as “civic nationalism”. He added: “This is not a nationalist movement. We are expressing the right of self-determination. It’s not about flags or [ethnic] identities.”
Puigdemont traces his desire for Catalan independence back to his family’s humiliating experiences under Franco’s dictatorship.
“I was educated in the Franco era,” he said. “We could only speak Catalan at home; it was prohibited at school and in public media. There’s a whole generation that was not allowed to talk Catalan publicly.”
Puigdemont’s wife and two daughters still live in his hometown of Girona but visit every few weeks. He accepts that his experience of exile is very different from that of his grandfather, who fled to France after the Spanish civil war.
“Every day I can speak to my family through technology. I can help my daughters with their homework but I would not wish this situation on my enemies. It’s not human. I’m not a criminal, I have never used violence.”
Most of the time Puigdemont lives outside Brussels, in a sparsely furnished, rented villa in nearby Waterloo.
He acknowledges the inevitable historical echoes. “I pay homage to Wellington, not Napoleon,” he said. “For me, Waterloo is a place of victory not defeat.”