Clara Ponsatí: “The Spanish state is unable to annihilate Catalonia”

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Clara Ponsatí left Brussels and flew to Scotland last week, where she has moved in order to go back to her old position as Professor of Economics at St. Andrews. The former Catalan minister has been welcomed by the academic authorities after handing in her resignation to president Puigdemont. Ponsatí met VilaWeb somewhere in the UK in order to discuss her tenure in the Catalan government, the reasons why she left Brussels, what she will do in Scotland and how she sees the future from a legal and personal standpoint, as well as her views on the current political process. Professor Ponsatí even found time to look back on the events of October 1 and the following days.

—Why have you moved to Scotland?
—I need to get on with my life, be employed gainfully and earn a living. At the same time, I thought it would be positive if the voice of one of the Catalan exiles could be heard in the UK. I have written a letter to president Puigdemont explaining that I wish to step down, ending my short but incredibly intense stint as a cabinet minister. I mentioned that I am grateful for the trust placed in me and that, despite very many wise decisions, there have been obvious shortcomings, too: Catalonia is not an independent country yet. It was an honour and a privilege to serve as Education Minister on October 1. The president has thanked me for my service and has asked me to continue to serve the cause of Catalonia’s freedom, which I will do.

—Do you feel safe in the the UK, from a legal standpoint?
—You are never 100 per cent safe. It is true that here I could find myself in a similar situation as we had in Brussels: detained by the police, questioned by a judge, waiting for a ruling to be handed down and so forth. And I could get a judge who agrees with Llarena [the Spanish judge who has prosecuted the Catalan leaders]. Unlikely, but who knows … You cannot rule that out.

—Perhaps one monarchy will save you from another.
—But in a few days I might be travelling to a republic. Academic life allows for a great deal of travelling.

—Have you hired a lawyer? How are you getting ready from a legal point of view?
—Yes, I’ve met with a number of lawyers here. It will all depend on whatever Spain does. If they issue an arrest warrant, then we’ll see …

—You’ve been in Scotland for a few days now. How did St. Andrews welcome you back?
—I’m valued, professionally speaking, and they appreciate me on a personal level. That is great. I particularly liked the sentence that my boss used: “Clara, we are very proud of you”. It is really good that the university’s management, who are politically independent and not especially sympathetic to the cause of Catalan independence, appreciate the fact that their staff can take on important positions and be political leaders. They have shown their support from the very first day.

—Flemish parties have gone to great lengths to aid president Puigdemont. What will the SNP do in Scotland?
—The impact of my arrival here will be smaller than the president’s in Belgium. I have a lower profile. Brussels will continue to be the hub of the Catalan exile. At the end of the day, I’m someone who is going back to lecturing and writing academic papers. Perhaps they might prefer to spare themselves any trouble. But here I am. I am a resident with a home, a job and my rights. Could that have a political impact? Perhaps. We’ll see. The only chance of any political impact will present itself if the Spanish justice system is so rash as to issue an arrest warrant against me. I think that could only backfire on them. The most likely scenario is that they will claim there are no grounds for it.

—How did you experience the process in Barcelona while living in Brussels?
—To me it looked as muddled up as is does from Barcelona or London. One the one hand, many are eager to form a new government. There are two elements to that. First, the natural element of wanting to get our institutions back [by lifting Madrid’s direct rule] and serve our nation. The second is the pointless attempt to bring back a normality that is never coming back. It is unclear which of these two elements will prevail. Furthermore, it is not clear whether the talks to form a coalition government have focused on what was most important: how to maintain the tension with Madrid in order to stop the repression and restore democracy. It an unfinished job. I don’t think I can offer any great ideas other than sharing my concern over the current stalemate. It is obvious that, for Brussels to do their job, we still need to take a number of steps. And those in Barcelona need to understand that: it seems as if they haven’t got the idea that this is not just about forming a regional government. It’s still very much a foggy issue.

—Why is that, you think?
—People experience Madrid’s crackdown differently in Barcelona than in exile. You could say that the latter have crossed a line and we are on the other side. Perhaps we enjoy greater freedom of expression and thought. The blackmail by Spain’s Supreme Court and the Spanish government on Catalan politics and our parliament is influencing the behaviour of some top government officials very effectively in Barcelona. This blackmail has no personal effect on those who are exiled in Brussels. Therefore, you get a tension between the desire to try to put an end to the crackdown and the notion —mistaken, in my opinion— that if we go back to a regional political narrative, the repression will end. We still haven’t understood that this is a lie. We have not quite taken it on board.

—“The ones who fled are such cowards compared to those behind bars”, some claim. But they don’t realise that staying in Catalonia seemed safer than going into exile when you left .
—When I began to consider the possibility of leaving, every lawyer I spoke to advised me against it. They mentioned how European arrest warrants are executed automatically and I’d be in custody within twenty-four hours. And I discussed this with more than one lawyer. But a barrister who practices in London made me see it differently. Not that he was very categorical about it. And it was just the one lawyer. At the end of August I was already making arrangements for this and I knew that European arrest warrants are not executed as a matter of course in some countries. I don’t want to get into a discussion about who has shown the greatest courage. Having said that, I find it inconsistent to decide to obey a Spanish court of law less than two days later, if you are a lawmaker in a parliament that has just declared independence. More so when the charges against you are baseless. I find that inconsistent and I criticise it. It strikes me as inconsistent to obey a Spanish court immediately after declaring independence. And that is as much as I’m prepared to say.

—So what do we do now?
—This will be a long race that will test our endurance. The Spanish state is unable to annihilate Catalonia, although that is their agenda: for all of us to be Spanish. How will they accomplish that? The only way is to ensure that Barcelona is not Catalonia, but Spain. And for them to achieve that, the people who live there must recognise themselves as Spaniards. And that requires proposing an attractive project. But they are not doing that. I don’t think they’ll be able to. But their failure does not mean that we will prevail. It’s a draw. But the pain is all on our side. They are not suffering. It would be very pretentious of me to say what we are supposed to do. I think we need to hold our ground and not worry so much about they day to day affairs in Barcelona’s offices. But I also understand that everyone’s analysis is made from their own individual position. And I am not unduly bothered by the fact that …

— … we don’t have a government.
—Quite. In contrast, I am rather concerned over the lack of resistance shown by the second tier of political appointees which we left in place to hold the fort. I believe that we are paying a very high price for our collective reaction of wishing the pain to go away very quickly, to avoid any more arrests, to do whatever it takes so that the political prisoners are released. You won’t hear me say that we need more prisoners and exiles. But if we are not willing to suffer … This will be a rather long race. I have a feeling that, to some extent, a new generation of leaders is needed. I don’t have any detailed information about the stance of our government’s deputies and undersecretaries, but I have a feeling that they are not putting up a fight. In fact, not even the Catalan parliament is putting up a fight.

I am rather concerned by the fact that the second tier of political appointees is not putting up the resistance that it ought to.

—Some say that we will make up for those shortcomings from outside the government.
—If we could go in and stand up to them … but we lack the necessary strength. Yes, I think that some stuff will need to be done abroad. In the future we might have to do things which will be unacceptable from within Spain’s regional system and they will need to be done from abroad.

—Has repression brought potentially destructive things to the surface?
—Repression has exposed the weaknesses of our leadership. And that is sad, but we cannot lie to ourselves. It would have been good if judge Llarena had heard more spirited statements in favour of what Catalans did on October 1 [the referendum on independence]. I heard some. And I should have heard a few more. I would have liked that. Of course I understand I wasn’t in court myself, so … Great leaders are able to express their views firmly in the face of adversity.

—How can we forge ahead now with a weak leadership?
—By resisting and allowing the new generations to take over. It will have to happen. Our institutions —which are Spanish— are filled with officials elected on closed lists, for example, which makes accountability and leadership renewal difficult. But the situation we’re in is so dire that it will come eventually. The other day someone referred to Catalan politics as a paper shredder.

—It’s a good thing we have Europe.
—Well, the whole Llarena thing is ludicrous. Spain could have opted for a more moderate crackdown. Instead, they’ve decided to impose prison penalties in advance. They knew and understood that they wouldn’t be able to keep anyone behind bars unless they bent their own rules. That’s why they’ve imposed advanced penalties. They’re teaching us a lesson. “Let that be a lesson to you all”. So the political prisoners are a message: “Watch it, or you’ll end up like them”. Still, Europe cannot allow this to happen at home, although it’s allowing it to happen in Spain. It puts up with it. They haven’t lifted one finger to stop it from happening in Spain, but allowing it to happen in the heart of Europe would be a different matter altogether.

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