Catalan separatist leader strains to rebuild momentum

BARCELONA — Trials, camera, action.

With interest in the Catalan independence movement fading outside of Spain, Regional President Quim Torra is betting the trials of pro-independence leaders can create a new window of opportunity like the one he says Catalonia had — and missed — last year to push for a break with Madrid.

“We’re going to mobilize and concentrate all our efforts on denouncing the grave situation that Catalonia is going through,” Torra told POLITICO in an interview Monday at the Catalan government’s headquarters in Barcelona. And he’ll be framing the issue beyond secession: “It’s civil and human rights which are at stake at this moment.”

Ahead of large pro-independence protests in Barcelona Tuesday — and almost a year after the regional government held a referendum that prompted a crackdown by Madrid — Torra can offer few detailed plans to make good on his anti-Spain rhetoric. It’s a telling omission that speaks to the challenges faced by the separatist movement here, when many of whose leaders are in jail or abroad and a new Socialist-led government in Madrid takes a more conciliatory approach toward the region.

Two dozen separatist leaders are expected to face trial this autumn on charges of rebellion, sedition and misuse of public funds for their roles in last year’s Catalan independence push. Some have been in pre-trial detention for 10 months. Others, including Torra’s predecessor Carles Puigdemont, fled the country to avoid detention. Though trial dates have not yet been set, people familiar with the process expect the Supreme Court to begin considering the cases in November and conclude in spring.

German court earlier this year declined Spain’s extradition request for Puigdemont for the crime of rebellion, while a Belgian court refused to process Spanish arrest warrants against some of his ousted ministers altogether on procedural grounds. According to Torra — a 55-year-old lawyer, insurance executive and writer handpicked by Puigdemont to succeed him as the Catalan leader — that exposes the shortcomings of the Spanish court system.

The EU should “at least start questioning what’s happening with the Spanish justice system, which isn’t acting in the same way as Germany’s or Belgium’s,” he said.

Torra is invoking the idea of “remedial secession”  — a theory of law stating that oppressed peoples can exert the right to self-determination — to try to win international support for Catalan independence.

Regaining the momentum

On Tuesday — Catalan national day, known as Diada — hundreds of thousands of independence supporters are expected to take to the streets in Barcelona. This will be the start of a series of public protests planned for the coming weeks that Torra said are designed to gain “momentum” for Catalans “to determine themselves.”

Torra wouldn’t go into detail about what else he and his Cabinet have planned to break with Spain. “At this stage in Catalonia, it’s very difficult to do any long-term or even middle-term planning,” he said.

“We’re in an impasse,” said Lola García, deputy director of Catalan newspaper La Vanguardia. “Some reckon there’s still a chance to achieve independence; others think it will all go more slowly as they need to broaden the support base.”

García said the most likely outcome is a new regional election after the pro-independence leaders are sentenced.

Looking back at the referendum last October 1, Torra said Catalan separatists didn’t capitalize on the opportunity for independence because of a lack of unity among secessionist parties and the timing of the declaration of independence.

Spain’s Constitutional Court declared the vote illegal, but it went ahead anyway. The conservative government led by then Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy tried to shut down the ballot by sending in riot police. After the Catalan parliament’s separatist majority invoked the contested results of the referendum to declare independence on October 27, Madrid sacked Puigdemont’s regional Cabinet and implemented direct rule on Catalonia. An election in December ended up with a new, tight separatist majority in the regional chamber.

“The momentum was probably closer to October 1 than October 27,” Torra said.

Madrid tries reconciliation

Spain’s new Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, who took over from Rajoy in June, has adopted a softer stance towards Catalonia. Sánchez met with Torra in Madrid in July. After years of inactivity under Rajoy’s conservative government, bilateral commissions that bring together the Spanish and Catalan administrations, often at ministerial level, are now once again taking place.

The jailed separatist leaders have been transferred to prisons in Catalonia and Sánchez’s Cabinet has made repeated offers to negotiate greater autonomy for the region through a new statute of autonomy or constitutional reform. Yet the Spanish leader has also hinted that Madrid could once again apply direct rule to the region if Torra’s Cabinet crosses the line.

“The government of Spain takes very seriously the dialogue and the negotiation with the Catalan government,” Sánchez said during a press conference in Sweden last week, arguing at the same time that Torra’s government lacked support to push ahead for secession. Pro-independence parties obtained 47 percent of the votes in the December election.

“The Catalan government also needs to open that conversation between nationalists and non-nationalists, because what’s at stake here is coexistence, not independence,” he said.

The liberal Ciudadanos party led by Albert Rivera and the conservative Popular Party, led by Pablo Casado, have attacked Sánchez’s approach to Catalonia, demanding a firm hand and calling for a renewal of direct rule over the region.

Torra, for his part, acknowledged Sánchez’s new conciliatory tone, but ruled outagreeing to greater autonomy if that meant giving up on holding another independence referendum.

“I can’t understand how we Catalans don’t enjoy the same rights as other Europeans, as for example the Scottish,” Torra said.


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