The self-proclaimed Catalan government-in-exile has opened its first delegation abroad in an inconspicuous office building not far from Frankfurt's banking district. She wants to set up a diplomatic network to represent her interests "where the government of Catalonia, with fewer and fewer powers, cannot be pursued," said its President Carles Puigdemont at the opening.
Exactly five years ago, then regional president Puigdemont proclaimed an independent republic in Catalonia after a majority voted in favor of it in a referendum. However, the referendum was declared illegal by Spain's highest court. The government in Madrid under then Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy cracked down and deposed the Catalan government and Puigdemont.
Mass protests followed, against which the Spanish police sometimes used violence. Several members of the government were imprisoned on charges of rebellion, some of them were sentenced to up to 13 years in prison. Puigdemont left the country and has been in exile in Belgium ever since.
The referendum triggered Spain's worst political crisis in decades. To date the problem has not been solved. Even if the Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez is less intransigent than the previous government, he does not want to concede a new referendum to the Catalans. Is there a second chance for Catalonia's independence or will the separatists have to settle into a long-term exile?
From his Belgian exile, Puigdemont fights legal battles at European and international level. In 2019 he and two other politicians from his Junts per Catalunya (Together for Catalonia) party were elected to the European Parliament, but Spain has tried everything to prevent them from exercising this mandate. At the end of November, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) will rule on their immunity, which the European Parliament wanted to lift at Spain's request.
If it were taken away from him, Belgian courts would have to rule on Puigdemont's extradition to Spain. In 2018, when Puigdemont was arrested in Germany, a court in Schleswig-Holstein decided not to extradite Puigdemont to Spain for treason.
A year ago, following a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights, Pedro Sánchez pardoned nine imprisoned Catalan politicians. Spain, on the other hand, is sticking to the arrest warrant for Puigdemont. The Catalan independence fighters recently achieved another success: the UN Human Rights Committee ruled in September that Spain had violated the political rights of several Catalan politicians. The decision has no consequences for Spain, but the loss of reputation as a democratic state should not be underestimated.
Criticism of the Spanish rule of law is also central to the strategy of exiled President Puigdemont. However, the pro-independence Catalans cannot count on EU support. As early as 2017, there was no interference with the reference that the Catalonia conflict was an internal Spanish matter. The fear of creating a precedent in the EU with Catalonia was too great.
“The EU would have to act if the actions of the Spanish government are based on systematic deficits in the legal system, i.e. if human rights or constitutional fundamental rights have been violated. But there is no evidence of this,” explains Armin von Bogdandy, Professor of Public Law at the University of Frankfurt am Main.
The EU Commission is also looking the other way. Although the authority is concerned about another problem in the Spanish judiciary, namely the independence of the courts from political influence, they are silent on dealing with Catalan politicians. "Puigdemont miscalculated, he underestimated the influence of the big Spanish parties PP and PSOE in Brussels, which prevent the Catalan concerns from being a priority in the EU," says Adam Holesch, political scientist at the Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona. He has been largely isolated in the European Parliament since his election.
Meanwhile, there is another crisis in Catalonia: the Puigdemont party recently left the governing coalition with the more moderate Esquerra Republicana (ERC, Republican Left). While the former does not believe in a political solution with the Spanish government, the incumbent regional president Pere Aragonès from the left-wing ERC is banking on negotiations with Madrid and is trying to persuade Pedro Sánchez to allow a new independence referendum. However, he still refuses.
That the two pro-independence parties in Catalonia are now divided should make it more difficult to achieve their goal. In addition, support for independence among the Catalan population is no longer as great as it was five years ago. Recent polls show that a majority of Catalans do not want secession from Spain: 52 percent oppose independence, according to a September poll by the Center d'Estudis d'Opinió, the official Catalan polling institute; 41 percent are in favour.
Young Catalans in particular have turned their backs on the independence movement - partly disappointed by politics, partly for purely practical reasons because other concerns such as the consequences of the corona pandemic, rising prices and the energy crisis are more on their minds. But many are also disappointed by politicians and the EU because of the lack of support in the Catalonia crisis, explains Holesch.
Meanwhile, Carles Puigdemont and his government-in-exile are trying to promote independence abroad and seek international recognition. In Germany, the Catalans hope to be better protected with their concerns regarding freedom of expression than in Spain.