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22nd Sep 2018

Feature

Catalonia shows that 'Europe of Regions' is dead

  • "We want to be a nation inside Europe with the tools of a nation," Puigdemont said in Copenhagen (Photo: EUobserver)

If there was any agreement among the debates on Catalan independence in Copenhagen this week, it was that the nation state is currently the most stable form of government in Europe.

Fears of Balkanisation and more Brexits have killed off an earlier ideal of a "Europe of the regions".

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  • "Catalonia is the richest region in Spain – are you just spoiled? Wanting to get rid of all the poor?" professor Marlene Wind (c) wanted to know. (Photo: EUobserver)

"I think, it is a failure," Carles Puigdemont, the Catalan separatist leader, told EUobserver in an interview at the Danish event.

"A Europe of regions created by the state is like electrical cars created by oil companies. They are not interested in the electrical car. If you are the oil company or you are the state, you are not interested," he said.

Rosy scenarios of a Europe of the regions were propagated in the 1990s, when individual EU states were seen as being too small for global competition, but also too remote for participatory democracy.

Going back further in history, nation states were also seen as the root of conflicts. Only the British Conservative Party consistently advocated an EU of strong sovereign nations.

But today, EU opinion has changed.

The UK is leaving, but the remaining member states want to defend the EU by supporting strong national structures.

The losers could be the separatists, whether in Scotland, Corsica, Catalonia or further afield.

"Our desire is to remain in Europe - not to build an independent republic. We want to be a nation inside Europe with the tools of a nation. Of course, if Europe was to be a federation of states, then our passport would be European. Our flag would be European. We have no interest in building a new border," Puigdemont said.

"The Basque country and Navarra have the right to collect their own taxes and this makes a significant difference. They collect the taxes and then they negotiate with the Spanish state what amount they must pay for its professional service," he said, referring to devolved powers in two other Spanish regions that Catalonia also wants.

Puigdemont landed in Denmark on Monday (22 January ) to attend a conference at the University of Copenhagen.

He did it despite the risk that Spain would seek his extradition via an EU arrest warrant.

It was the first time that he had left Brussels, the EU capital, where he fled to in October to avoid Spanish charges of sedition, rebellion and misappropriation of funds for organising Catalonia's independence referendum.

But there was no sign of police at Kastrup Airport when he landed, nor when he arrived at the university by private car with no protection from Danish security services.

The conference hall was packed, with students sitting on the floor, in hallways, and on the stairs amid the more than 100 journalists and photographers.

The audience spoke a mix of Catalan, Spanish, Danish and English. It heaved a collective sigh of relief when news spread via mobile phones that a Spanish judge had decided not to pursue Puigdemont's arrest.

Southern Denmark

Addressing the students he explained why he had come to Denmark.

He said: "When Catalonia becomes a fully functioning state we want to become a Southern Denmark".

Denmark and Catalonia both have small populations, speak their own languages, and have wealthy and open-minded societies, he noted.

"We are two small nations that have survived all historical events and have strong capital cities, Barcelona and Copenhagen, that are our best representation to the world. The size of nations is not as important as in the past," Puigdemont said.

"The European Union works pretty well in good times. However, we are all aware of its failures every time there is crisis. We saw it with Greece, with Ukraine, we saw it with the refugees, and now we see it with the failures to defend fundamental rights [in Catalonia]," he added.

He said Catalan citizens were concerned that the EU was letting Spain crack down on separatists, while acting tough with Poland over its lapses on rule of law.

"We want more integration, but only if it is linked to more democracy and a uniform application of European Union law in all member states. It is impossible to understand … why the European Union treats differently certain big countries than small ones. Why are there so many double standards?", Puigdemont added.

He answered some questions himself.

"How can it be that the European Union treats Poland and Spain so differently? It is because [Spanish prime minister Mariano] Rajoy belongs to the [centre-right] European People's Party and this gives him political coverage. Does it mean that belonging to a certain political family is more important than violating fundamental rights?", Puigdemont said.

Puigdemont roasting

The Danish university debate did not pull its punches.

Marlene Wind, a Danish politics professor, attacked the Catalan leader with a barrage of questions.

"Catalonia is the richest region in Spain - are you just spoiled? Wanting to get rid of all the poor?", she said.

"What is your vision for the European Union? Is Balkanisation your ideal? Do you want ethnically-cleaned states? Is it your vision that we should break up Europe into 200 states?" she added.

"The reason I use [the term] Balkanisation is because the only way found to solve the crisis of ex-Yugoslavia was to build states that were [ethnically] clean. I think it is a very dangerous way to go," Wind said.

"Is that what we want in the 21st century? To have small states that are based only on one language and one ethnicity or identity?" she said.

She said respect for the Spanish constitution was just as important for democracy as any referendum.

She also said Puigdemont's adventure risked destabilising parts of Europe and helping Russia in its campaign to weaken the EU.

"A lot of people in here would agree that [Russian leader] Vladimir Putin would certainly be happy to see the break-up of Europe into hundreds of entities where nobody could agree on anything," Wind said.

Corsica model

The Catalan leader fought back.

"Our goal is a more and more unified European union. Not in the hands of the very old states, but also in the hands of the citizens," he said.

"The domino effect [of other EU regions seeking independence] is not the real problem. If we find our way to using European tools, like dialogue, negotiation, agreements, we can make a more strong European Union and face future crises," he added.

"Look at what [French president Emmanuel] Macron has done with Corsica elections. He has started, which Rajoy never did, a dialogue with the people who won the elections in Corsica. If Catalonia and the Spanish state acted like this, it would not be threat to Europe and for this reason I am not afraid of a domino effect," he said.

Puigdemont also met individual Danish MPs, but was not invited to any official event at the parliament because Denmark does not recognise Catalonia as a state.

At first glance, a blue, yellow, and reg flag hanging outside the Danish parliament looked like a Catalan flag, but on closer inspection it was a Moldovan flag.

Legitimising MPs

Puigdemont went in on the invitation of Magni Arge, an MP from the Faroe Islands' separatist Tjothveldi party.

The Catalan met two left-wing Danish deputies and one from the hard-right Danish People's Party, but the Nordic country's mainstream political parties declined to see him, mostly on grounds of too-short notice and busy agendas.

Nick Haekkerup, a centre-left Danish MP who chairs the parliament's foreign affairs committee and who used to be the country's defence minister, told EUobserver he did not want to meet Puigdemont because Catalonia was an "internal Spanish affair".

"I think the Spanish are the best suited to solve Spanish internal affairs," he said.

"We did not participate because it would have legitimised the meeting. If the more important parties had turned up, it would have signaled that the Danish parliament is backing the [Puigdemont] course," he added.

Bad trend?

Nikolaj Villumsen, an MP from the Danish parliament's Red-Green Alliance, did meet the Catalan visitor.

"I am very disappointed because we have a long tradition in the Danish parliament to meet people that we disagree with. There has been a lot of bad excuses from my colleagues here in parliament to not show up today," Villumsen told this website.

He said some MPs had said they wanted representatives of the Spanish government to be present at any talks. "Of course I would like to meet them too. But we never have meetings in the foreign affairs committee, for example with both the Palestinians and the Israelis. We meet them separately," the Danish MP said.

"It is a bad trend for Europe that we put elected politicians in jail," he added, referring to Spain's criminal charges against Puigdemont and its detention of other Catalan separatist chiefs.

Villumsen drew a contrast between how Denmark treats its devolved regions and how Spain treated Catalonia.

"Imagine if Denmark terminated its agreements with Greenland and the Faroe Islands, as Spain did with Catalonia in 2010, and then we deposed their prime minister. I'd be OK with someone [from Greenland or the Faroe Islands] speaking out abroad in such a situation," the MP said.

Greenland's former prime minister, Aleqa Hammond, who is also a Danish MP, said after meeting Puigdemont that the orderly way in which Greenland split from Denmark could inspire Spain and invited him to Nuuk for talks.

"The road to independence is not a process for one of the parties only. Both need to be included in shaping the process," Hammond cautioned, however.

Nuuk model

"The Greenland Committee was established with equal representation from Denmark and Greenland and can serve as a good example on how to run the process. I believe we have shown best practice on how to do it without a conflict between the parties," she told EUobserver.

She said diplomacy had failed in Spain and that neither party felt in control of events.

Puigdemont's visit to Denmark is likely to be followed by more trips abroad from his base in Belgium.

Sources close to the Catalan delegation told EUobserver that he had received several invitations to visit other countries and planned to do so in the near future.

His return to Spain is not on the cards so long as Spain upholds its national arrest warrant.

Puigdemont said in Denmark that he would soon meet the speaker of Catalan parliament and other leading politicians, but he did not say where. He met him in Brussels on Wednesday in the offices of the European Free Alliance, a group of nationalists parties.

The comment fuelled speculation in Spanish press that Puigdemont could be smuggled into Barcelona without being caught by Spanish police in order to be there when the Catalan parliament elects its next president later this month.

"Against all odds, against all threats, the Catalan people gave us again a parliamentary majority so that very soon we will form a new government to try to find a political, negotiated solution for Catalonia," he said.

Catalonia prepares for rule by Skype

The two biggest parties in Catalonia have vowed to put Puigdemont back in office despite Madrid's threat to maintain direct rule.

Let Puigdemont fight elections, Nobel winner says

Spain should allow Catalonia's deposed political leaders to return freely home and participate in the upcoming December elections, Finnish former president and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, Martti Ahtisaari, has advised.

Italian regions demand autonomy from Rome

The Lombardy and Veneto regions in northern Italy are seeking greater self-determination from the central government following referendum results on Sunday.

Interview

Catalan crisis will 'go on for months'

The president of the EU's Committee of the Regions, Karl-Heinz Lambertz, said that both the separatists and Spanish authorities made mistakes.

Puigdemont ghost hangs over Catalan vote

The Catalan parliament is due to elect the president of the regional government, amid uncertainties over the whereabouts and strategy of the self-exiled separatist leader.

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