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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 17 December 2018

Catalan separatist leader seeks guarantees for return to Spain

Carles Puigdemont makes his first public appearance in Brussels after fleeing Madrid clampdown

Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont speaks at a news conference in Brussels on October 31, 2017. Yves Herman / Reuters
Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont speaks at a news conference in Brussels on October 31, 2017. Yves Herman / Reuters

The ousted leader of the Catalan provincial government, Carles Puigdemont, made his first appearance in public on Tuesday after fleeing to Brussels to escape charges of sedition that could see him sentenced to 30 years in prison.

Vowing to continue to agitate for independence from the capital of the European Union, Mr Puigdemont accused Madrid of “sowing chaos” through its confrontation with the separatists. He demanded guarantee of a fair trial before he would contemplate returning. "We want to avoid violence because peace and dialogue will always be our priority" he said.

“If they can guarantee to all of us — and to me in particular – a just, independent process, with the separation of powers that we have in the majority of European nations – if they guarantee that, we would return immediately.”

In fact the streets of Barcelona and other parts of the region are calm after a smooth takeover of the local police force and the branches of the devolved government.

Four days after the unilateral declaration of the republic, only the diehards would persist in the belief that the foundation of independence has been laid. It was effectively snuffed out at birth by Madrid’s use of constitutional powers to shut down the Catalan government and parliament on Friday.

Independence supporters expressed anger at Mr Puigdemont’s flight to Brussels ahead in the aftermath of the declaration.

“If you declare independence, you should stay close to your people,” said Xisca Pascual, an activist and academic.

The headquarters of Mr Puigdemont’s Catalan Democratic Party, a centre-right grouping, sits at the heart of Barcelona’s main tourist areas, on the same street as a fantastically curved building designed by the architect Antonio Gaudi.

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There is a desolate air in the office, where the receptionist was watching his Brussels press conference on her mobile phone. Next door at the Provenca cafe, only one man was watching the question and answer session.

“This is difficult to watch,” said Angel Navarro, a former hotel worker. "We have been left alone when we need leadership. The independently minded Catalans are still small in number and the belief in the division of Spain is still weak.

“How can Puigdemont do this from Brussels? Who will listen to him?”

Pro-independence politicians are split on participation in the December 21 regional elections. The executive of the Catalan Democratic Party says it will contest the polls but fears losses on its 2016 result.

Its coalition partner, the smaller, leftist CUP, is split with a fierce debate on boycotting the Madrid-run vote.

“We must strengthen the mobilisation of our supporters to create a popular movement that is clearly the majority and not of elections that are a clearly undemocratic framework,” said Benet Salellas, one of the outgoing MPs. "We need to reflect on what happened in the last days and weeks, they have demonstrated the limitations of the institution. There must be new institutions that reflect the views of the people, the street. These proposals must come from the bottom up.”

The more suspicious-minded residents suspect a conspiracy of interests between the central government of Mariano Rajoy and Mr Puigdemont ahead of his flit across the border. One man pointed out that the only office representing Catalan’s government abroad that had not been shut down was in Belgium.

“We already know why the Catalan 'embassy' in Belgium is the only one that does not close. Puigdemont needs it. Everything very agreed upon and premeditated,” said Josep Tou Tarres, a businessman.

The Belgian lawyer engaged by Mr Puigdemont has a reputation for working with separatists, including accused terrorists of the Basque group ETA and the Irish faction Sinn Fein.

Paul Beckaert, who specialises in asylum issues, said his client had yet to decide whether to seek protection from extradition from Brussels. Belgium is the only country in the EU which does not apply the so-called Spanish Protocol, which does not allow one member state to protect the citizens of another from prosecution.

"We have a lot of time to decide," Mr Beckaert said. "We will see in the coming weeks what we are doing.”

Belgium’s coalition government includes Flemish separatists and there are concerns the Catalonia crisis will revive campaigns to break up other European countries.

Despite the collapse of the putative republic, many Catalonians continue to insist the region’s moment will come. Even those with family in other parts of Spain say they feel a degree of separation from the kingdom that was not present during their childhood.

“It's a cultural thing and I know it makes a lot of people angry,” said David Banos, a waiter in Barcelona. “I have cousins in Madrid who feel very betrayed. But we in Catalonia have developed our own language and we want the opportunity of standing on our own in the world. We believe we have more opportunities to prosper if we run our own affairs. The Madrid government holds us back.”