In English Voices From Spain

An idealized rebel

Foto: Patrick Hendry

Originally published in Spanish: “Políticos presos, no presos políticos”.  . Zeit Online.

11. April 2018

The Catalonian secessionist is inflicting severe harm on his country. Why then is he being idealized in Germany?

It is disconcerting to see Germany fall for the bizarre charm of Catalonian secessionist Carles Puigdemont. The former regional president, arrested by German police and briefly imprisoned pending extradition, is released on parole by the Regional Court of Schleswig–and, immediately, German Minister of Justice Katarina Barley demands that “the political aspects of the situation must now be discussed as well”.

Green Party leader Robert Habeck even offered mediation by the state of Schleswig-Holstein in the conflict between Madrid and the secessionists. After all, this Land located between the North and Baltic seas has learnt to overcome “suffering, death and hatred” between Germans and Danes. When Puigdemont publicly appeared in Berlin after his release, he was hailed as a peaceful rebel, and his entourage defined as “Catalonian politicians in exile”, as if Spain were a dictatorship.

One could write all this off as arrogant ignorance or as an uncontrollable urge to idealize the presumed underdog. But the issue is more serious than it seems. Germany risks becoming involved in a conflict which could be highly explosive both for Spain and for the EU as a whole.

Let’s start by looking at the other side, with Mariano Rajoy. There is no doubt that the conservative Prime Minister has neglected to signal to Catalonians that he takes their desire for further autonomy seriously. He has failed to grasp that politics is also a matter of symbols, gestures and well-meaning words. But he has essentially done what any European prime minister would or should do–he has defended the Constitution and democracy from Puigdemont and his followers.

Last autumn, the secessionists intentionally violated the Spanish Constitution by holding a so-called referendum on the independence of Catalonia. They inflicted deliberate harm on Spanish democratic institutions and put the country’s social harmony at risk. Rajoy could do nothing other than put obstacles in their path. Constitutions are not empty words, but rather texts that define a community’s ground rules and enable its citizens to live freely. The Spanish Constitution is a case in point. It was enacted in 1978, after almost four decades of dictatorship, and paved the way for Spain to join the circle of democratic states. The Constitution Puigdemont has violated is a success story. Catalonians have never had it as good as now, partly due to this Constitution. They are not an oppressed people and Puigdemont is not politically persecuted. Even if the reaction of Spanish courts to the secessionists has been excessively harsh, that does not change the fact that Spain is a country under the rule of law and a solid parliamentary democracy.

It remains to be seen whether Puigdemont is a dreamer or a fanatic, but in any event he has done great harm, especially to his own region. He has caused a deep rift between Catalonians. From the moment he took office, he and his allies have relentlessly pushed for secession, but they have done so going against the explicit will of half the Catalonian people, the Constitution and sound political judgement. Puigdemont has set up a bomb whose impact could be felt far beyond Spanish borders. His project is diametrically opposed to that of European unity. Puigdemont is a divisive nationalist.

And if he is now calling for dialogue in Berlin, these are at present empty words. Puigdemont is clearly playing for time. He will attempt to continue his tour of European capitals until he achieves his goal of internationalizing the conflict with the Spanish government. But Germany must not allow this. The conflict surrounding Catalonia is a Spanish domestic affair.

Why has Puigdemont’s plan taken hold in Germany of all places? Why is it that in his particular case his nationalism is overlooked or carefully hushed up? Why is he romanticized despite his message being fundamentally no different from the Hungarian Viktor Orbán or the Polish Jarosław Kaczyński?

Because the figure of Puigdemont apparently touches on a longing present in all fields of politics on Germany–a longing for rebellion, for a senseless rebellion. It is the dream of every upright citizen to start a fire at least once.

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