A former journalist turned EU official, Amadeu Altafaj has been sitting on both sides of the fence. Now, as the Permanent Representative of Catalonia in Brussels, he wants the EU to give its blessing to the region’s independence process after the local elections to be held on Sunday (27 September).
Although the European Commission has said loud and clear that Catalonia would no longer be considered an EU member after its possible secession, Altafaj believes the EU will not turn its back on the Catalans.
Altafaj spoke to EURACTIV’s Jorge Valero.
The European Commission says that the dispute between Madrid and Barcelona is a domestic matter. But it has also stated that an independent Catalonia would not be part of the EU. What kind of support do you expect from Brussels?
I understand the position of saying this is a domestic issue. But then there should be almost automatically a follow up from the institutions to encourage dialogue between Madrid and Barcelona. Or rather to encourage Madrid to manage this political situation through politics. But this second part has not been assumed by the institutions at this stage. It’s a bit strange that they hide behind the ‘domestic issue’ argument and, at the same time, they are offering comments based on an interpretation.
This issue is first and foremost political, before being a legal issue. If we are serious and we want to engage in this exercise of screening what the treaty says, first we have to be honest enough to tell the people that the treaty does not specifically provide for such a situation of secession from a member state.
Therefore we are in the field of interpretation of the treaty. A legal analysis from the Commission side should be made if requested by a member state. It is not possible to give partial replies based on the responses given by the Commission president eleven years ago on a question related to Algeria, as the Commission spokesperson did a few days ago. It is just too partial, too easy and incomplete.
If we really want to have a debate in legal terms, let’s do it the whole way, and let’s make an interpretation on the consequences for the European citizenship of the Catalan citizens. The issue is at least extremely complex from a legal point of view.
According to the polls, most voters in Catalonia would prefer to remain in Spain with more competences. Why this quest for independence?
With regards to the polls, I agree with you. But nothing is set in stone. This parliamentary elections will reflect different options, including those you are referring to. It will be very clear after these elections which options have a majority support. But it is not a done thing.
The elections will kick-start a process. There is a roadmap for the next parliament not only to prepare a transition but also to draft a constitution for the future Catalan state. And there will be a referendum at the end of the process on this new constitution. All this will be in parallel with an open-minded discussion with our EU partners.
But is it fair to launch this process knowing that most Catalans are in favour of being part of Spain?
We will see that in the results on 27 September. If there is a majority of people against this process, it will not take place.
Is the government of Catalonia ready to become independent if there are no talks with Madrid or the negotiation process fails?
We are determined to pursue a number of goals. The first one is to give the opportunity to the Catalan citizens to decide on the future of Catalonia. But in any case, be sure that the legal certainty is for us a priority, that we will do anything in our hands to safeguard the legal certainty and all the rights, economic and social, of the Catalan citizens.
If legal certainty is a must, does it mean that the regional government will not take any decisive step before having a complete legal assessment of the consequences from the EU side?
As I said, the issue is primarily political. A legal opinion can be only provided upon request of a member state. There has not been any request at this point in time.
But would you wait for this legal certainty before taking any step?
No, we will not tie our hands to what third parties may not do. Otherwise we would find in the same situation we found ourselves with Spain over the past years.
If the Commission opinion is confirmed, would you vote for independence in a referendum?
Yes, because I don’t think that is a proper response from the EU. It is partial, it is only legal, and history shows that legality follows legitimacy and political debate and realpolitik.
So would you support Catalonia as an independent state outside the EU?
I don’t think this will happen.
But today, the Commission believes it would be a third state. This is the current scenario. Would you vote for independence then?
I don’t think the Commission thinks in that way. I think people in the Commission know very well that it goes beyond this.
But this is the public position today. So would you vote for secession?
I don’t put myself in that scenario. This is my answer to you. And I don’t think it is responsible from the EU or Spain to play such a game. It is totally irresponsible to put that in a purely and simple legal ground, and we have seen the consequences of this in the financial markets.
The risk premium of the Spanish debt is already reflecting this uncertainty, together with the uncertainty linked to the general elections later in the year. If people are irresponsible enough in Madrid or in Brussels to speculate with such hypothetical scenarios which have no historical and political basis, they will have to assume the consequences of that. And I don’t want to find myself in a situation similar to the one we saw in 2010.