from STEVEN FORTI
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Steven Forti: Italian historian. He was born in Trento in 1981. He received his doctorate in history in 2011 at the Autonomous University of Barcelona with a thesis in which he deals with the issue of the transition to fascist positions of left-wing politicians in the interwar period. He belongs to the Center for Studies on Franco and Democratic Eras (CEFID) and the Interuniversity Seminar of Researchers of Fascism (SIdIF)
The former Catalan president, known for fighting for the region’s independence from Spain in 2017, was recently arrested (and later released) in Sardinia. How the Italian left could have gone mad for him is a real mystery
I must say that I just can’t understand the mistake that a part of the Italian left took for Carles Puigdemont, recently arrested in Sardinia and released by the Sassari Court of Appeal less than 24 hours later. Let us clarify immediately: this author does not hope that the former Catalan president will spend years in jail and is firmly opposed to the delegation to the courts of the complex and long-standing Catalan crisis. The conflict between Madrid and Barcelona must be resolved with politics – as the Spanish coalition government led by Pedro Sánchez is trying to do – and not with the penal code and the actions of the judiciary.
That said, it is surprising how a certain left has espoused the cause of a politician who represents anything but the ideas of the democratic left (and even the revolutionary one, if it still existed). And it is surprising – if anything today can still surprise – given that Catalonia, for better or worse, has been talked about a lot in recent times and you should have a slight idea of who is who beneath the Pyrenees.
To summarize and to be clear: Puigdemont is not Mandela, his party (Junts for Catalunya) is not of the left and Catalonia is not Palestine. If we really had to look for comparisons and definitions, the Catalan independence leader, who fled to Belgium after the failed unilateral declaration of independence in October 2017, is rather a kind of post-modern Bossi; Junts per Catalunya (JxCAT) is a national-populist jumble with many similarities to the new European ultra-right; and Catalonia is not an oppressed people, but an example of what Gianfranco Viesti called “the secession of the rich” (his GDP is worth 20% of that of Spain).
I might be told that this is a personal opinion. Let’s go, therefore, to the facts. The party in which Puigdemont has been active all his life is Convergència Democràtica de Catalunya (CDC), a conservative neoliberal group that has governed the region for years thanks to an extensive network of patrons. A mix between DC and Forza Italia, so to speak. With CDC, Puigdemont was elected mayor of Gerona in 2011 and at the beginning of 2016, at the last and almost by chance, he became president of the Catalan Generalitat: the policies approved when he was mayor and as president of the region were of clearly neoliberal mold, including the harsh cuts to health and education, as well as privatizations.
Things have also worsened after the earthquake in autumn 2017 with the formation of Junts for Catalunya (JxCAT), a political force heir to CDC, of which Puigdemont is the undisputed leader. In fact, JxCAT has also converged radicalized sectors of society for the independence ‘procés’: it is a mix of difficult definition, in short, which has clearly far-right executives or candidates who praised Trump, use hate speech against political opponents and without hesitation they blurt out supremacist and xenophobic statements against the Spaniards or the non-independence Catalans (who by the way are more than half of the population). And, mind you, they are not isolated cases. Former president Quim Torra, who succeeded Puigdemont and closely related to him, was rightly accused of identity nationalism and ethnicity, while the current president of the Catalan parliament, Laura Borràs, has made Hispanophobic statements on several occasions.
Beyond some blunders, Puigdemont is an international pariah. In Brussels, together with the other two MEPs from his party, he sits among the non-members: expelled by the ALDE liberals, they knocked on all doors, but no one opened them. Moreover, the only friendships he seems to have are those of N-VA, the Flemish nationalist party ally of Giorgia Meloni, which welcomed, hosted and financed him in his early days in Belgium. Who was the first politician who visited Puigdemont when he was arrested in Germany in the spring of 2018? Bernd Lücke, co-founder of Alternative für Deutschland. With whom did he take a picture with a smile in the European Parliament in January 2020 in one of the first sessions he was able to attend? Nigel Farage, the leader of the Brexit Party, on the verge of leaving the much-hated European Union.
Moreover, since he had to flee abroad, Puigdemont has had a more or less marked Eurosceptic drift. Before 2017, the EU was portrayed as the one who – it was said – would immediately recognize Catalan independence and liberate a people fighting for a just cause. As we know, and as anyone who had the slightest knowledge of how European and international diplomacy works knew, this was not the case. Moreover, even before the referendum on self-determination, considered illegal by the Spanish Constitutional Court, Puigdemont’s entourage sought Russian support which was maintained – and possibly strengthened – in the following years.
An extensive report in the New York Times identified above all in Josep Alay, a close collaborator of Puigdemont, and in Gonzalo Boye, the former president’s attorney with a troubled past, the key figures in this operation. Not surprisingly, on 15 September last, the European Parliament requested an in-depth investigation into the relations between the Russian government and Catalan independence, possibly used by Putin to interfere in the EU. Furthermore, a recent investigation by Scotland Yard has linked Sergei Fedotov, an agent of the Russian secret services accused of the attempted murder of Sergei Skripal, to Catalan independence.
There will still be those who will say that I am mischievous. Then I add three more elements. In September 2017, the Catalan Parliament, at the time of the Puigdemont government, passed the so-called legal transition laws that should have allowed the legal transition to the new Catalan Republic after the declaration of independence. These laws provided that in the new state the judicial power depended on the executive: not even in Hungary and Poland it has come that far (even if we are close to it). The laws in question, of course, never came into force, but they give an idea of the concept of democracy of the character and his party.
Second element: in 2018, already in Belgium, Puigdemont then founded an elusive Council for the Republic, a private institution that should represent the Catalan government and parliament “in exile” opposing the commissioner of the region in October 2017. The Council still exists, but it was a flop. What interests me to underline, however, are its internal statutes: the council can only be chaired by Puigdemont, without elections or votes, practically for life, and the other members can only be chosen by Puigdemont himself, as if it were a sort of monarchy of the ancien régime.
Third and final element: JxCAT is the political force – currently a minority member in the Catalan regional government – which, together with the Spanish right, is spending the most to wreck the dialogue table that has managed to set up in recent times, in addition to still deferring unilateral secession, an option supported by less than 20% of the Catalan population, according to recent polls. Obviously one can criticize or be skeptical about the ongoing negotiations: the fact remains that any good democrat should not only be happy that, after a decade of tensions and silences, they are trying to resolve the conflict politically, but should invest their efforts for this to happen, without abandoning one’s ideals.
In short, how can a person of the left, who considers democracy, social justice, equality and fraternity as their ideals, embrace the cause, and raise him to the level of a quasi-Mandela, of a man and a party who want the collapse of the dialogue to resolve the Catalan question; they defend the unilateral secession of the richest region of Spain when, among other things, they do not even remotely have a social majority, they seek support in Russia in the style of Savoini and Salvini, they have good relations with the allies in Meloni’s Europe, they apply neoliberal policies, they dream of a republic where the separation of powers does not exist and they found an institution without the slightest internal democracy, I just can’t explain it. It will probably be the sign of the times. Or the difficulty for the left to find itself.