Sacked Catalan councillor: We want to pursue a negotiated independence

Ousted Catalan leader, Carles Puigdemont (L) with former member of the Catalan government Antoni Comin (R) as they attend the 'Catalan Mayors in support of the government of Catalonia' conference in Brussels on 7 November 2017. [Stephanie Lecocq/EPA-EFE]

EXCLUSIVE / Antoni Comín is one of the four councillors of the sacked Catalan government who fled to Brussels with Carles Puigdemont following the unilateral declaration of independence on 27 October.

He spoke to EURACTIV hours after the judicial case in Belgium closed on Thursday (14 December), following Spain’s withdrawal of the European Arrest Warrant and one week before the Catalan elections scheduled for 21 December.

Antoni Comín was responsible for health in the ‘govern’. He is a member of ERC, a left party included in the governing coalition with PDeCat. He is a political philosopher and was a professor at ESADE business school. 

Antoni Comín spoke with EURACTIV’s Jorge Valero.

The extradition case is over. Have you ever considered going back to Spain?

I believe that my political and personal obligation is to avoid a decision that is clearly unacceptable under the Rule of Law. We will return to Spain when there are guarantees that we will not be imprisoned. It is wrong to criminally prosecute a government for its decisions as a government. That is why we claim Spain is not an acceptable democracy. Another thing is whether the electoral programme collides with the constitution or not. The Constitutional Court exists to settle this question.

The Constitutional Court had already declared the procés [bid for independence] illegal, and that led to the prosecution…

The mental framework of the Spanish state today is outside the normal mental framework in a democracy. Many resolutions of the Constitutional Court have been obeyed, some not. But once the Constitutional Court has ruled the illegality of any of our actions, this doesn’t authorise the Spanish government to activate the general prosecutor’s office and prosecute us as if we were criminals. What you do is sit down and talk. All mature democracies have negotiated a referendum: United Kingdom, Canada …

Regarding the Canadian case, its Constitutional Court said that the negotiations for secession could start if a clear majority exists. The pro-independence parties in 2015 got 48% of the votes. Does this support represent a clear majority to launch the process?

What the Canadian court did is to legitimise its referendum, which is one step beyond where Spain is. In the Catalan parliament, there has been a majority of seats and votes in favour of the referendum since 2012.

In the 2015 elections, pro-independence parties campaigned for the unilateral break-up, and you did not reach a majority at the ballot box. Why did you start the process in spite of that result?

This question is very legitimate. A total of 48% of votes were in favour, 38% were against, and 12% was difficult to share between “yes” and “noes”. Two parties (‘Catalonia si que es Pot’ and Unió) explicitly rejected in the campaign being included in the “no” camp, because they denied the plebiscite character of the elections. Therefore, to provide additional legitimacy, given that the election itself was not enough, we decided to call a referendum, given that the results were not unequivocal. While it was not possible to agree on the referendum, we chose to hold it anyway to give a voice to the Catalan citizens.

The referendum was part of a unilateral roadmap, and most Catalans were against that unilateral route. You were advancing against their will.

It is not true. When we voted the referendum law in autumn, Catalonia si que es Pot stayed and abstained [most of the opposition parties left the plenary]. Democracy works like this. You cannot add the abstentions to the votes against. Democracies work by a simple majority.

Important decisions in a democracy are not taken by simple majority, for example constitutional amendments are taken by qualified majorities of two-thirds. Do you think that important decisions must be taken by a qualified majority?

I believe that it has to be done as in Scotland, where no qualified majority was requested. The majority that came out in the referendum was respected. In political philosophy, if you request a qualified majority for a change, you represent a conservative position, because you privilege the status quo.

In the referendum you organised, 43% of the registered voters supported independence. Does that represent a majority of Catalans?

If you consider the total registered voters, around 43% of the census is far superior to the results that approved the Spanish constitution in Catalonia. If you look at all the elections in Western countries and referendums, there is practically no government, nor any referendum victory, which has received the support of 43% of the census.

So you can proclaim a new republic even if a majority of people do not vote for it…

Those who didn’t vote didn’t express their position. You cannot interpret if they are against. Those who were against went to vote against.

Voters against refused to vote because it would have legitimised the vote [the vote has been declared illegal by the Constitutional court].

In political science, only the people who express in the ballot box are counted. Abstentions, blank votes and null votes are not votes against. It is a matter of political rationality.

In regards to the campaign, Carles Puigdemont was hailed during the demonstration in Brussels as president. Catalans shouted even louder when they saw your ERC colleagues. Do you think that Puigdemont’s Junts per Catalunya could surpass you and become the leading pro-independence party?

I will not speculate with results. In Catalonia, where we hold a national feeling, the president of the Govern represents the highest political figure of the nation. Our system appears to me closer to the presidential systems of France or the US, than to those of Italy or Germany. I am not surprised by the support that the president of the Generalitat has, whatever his name is. The scene of the other day does not reflect the electoral campaign.

Since your programme prioritises building the new republic, and given that Puigdemont started the process, should he conclude it as president?

It is essential to continue with the process in a negotiated manner with the Spanish state. But we will not remain paralysed if the Spanish state refuses to negotiate. What you have to do from here is to articulate all available instruments, because there won’t be many at our disposal.

What do you mean?

We want to have the legally constituted government of the Generalitat, according to the legislation. We want to govern in Catalonia. But we also want to maintain a political instrument that is what the Catalans refer to as the legitimate Govern, which should have never been dismissed. We believe that we must claim the restitution of this government. While there is police persecution, we will probably have to continue working from here.

Will there be two governments?

We can only be sacked by democracy. I will not accept being dismissed by an anti-democratic action. And while I can not return, there is no full democracy. The proof of whether there is democracy in Spain is whether I can return.

If the independence parties lose in terms of seats and popular vote, would the pro-independence bid be dead?

Obviously, it would bring a change of pace. But I do not think the procés would die considering that there is such a large part of Catalans in favour of independence. The Scottish independence movement has not ended either.

Will you go back to register as a deputy in the Parliament?

It is not necessary to go physically to complete the process.

Is it not required to complete the process personally, by signing?

You must hand in the acceptance of your seat. That could be done by a proxy. Deputies have never gone to the Parliament personally for this matter. It has always been a proxy.

So you are saying you will not return after the elections…

As long as the illegitimate jail threat remains we will not go back. We will not let totalitarianism impose its injustices. It seems an obligation to resist.

Will you stay in Belgium? Or would you go to another country closer to Spain?

Belgium is a country where we see that our rights as citizens are guaranteed.

In regard to the relocation of the European Medicines Agency, where Barcelona was a candidate. When you visited the EMA headquarters in London in Spring you said that the independence bid would move ahead regardless of the relocation of the EMA. Therefore, there would be a European agency in an independent Catalan republic …

… within the EU, because we want to remain within the EU, and negotiate the divorce with Spain. The two posibilites are compatible for us.

But Europe had already said very clearly that if you leave Spain you will exit the EU.

But this is because Spain demands it. This depends on the political will. There is nothing in the treaties that prevents us from being able to join the Union again.

But Spain will not accept it.

That is why we said that the procés was not incompatible with the EMA, it was the Spanish position. A negotiated separation with Spain would allow us to be independent, to continue in Europe and to have the EMA. In April the president again asked the Spanish government for an agreed referendum.

In spring there was no possibility of an agreed referendum, you were pushing for a unilateral break-up, and the EU had told you that you were going to be left out. Therefore you were heading to a scenario of, at least, legal uncertainty. Do you think your comment damaged the possibilities of bringing the EMA to Barcelona?

I was the first to publicly propose bringing the EMA to Barcelona. The central government spoke days after. From the beginning, I clearly stated that we were not going to renounce to the independence of Catalonia because of the EMA. We consider both were compatible. Barcelona was not the favourite anymore when the repression [as a response to the referendum] took place.

Speaking of repression, your colleague Marta Rovira said days after the proclamation of independence that the Catalan Government heard from sources that the central government would react with a deadly response if you implemented the declaration of independence. To date, you have not provided any evidence or indicated where the information came from. 

I was in meetings where well-informed people said that there was ample evidence that there was a risk of violent intervention by the state.

Do you not think evidence should have been provided, or your sources indicated, given the seriousness of the statement?

Marta Rovira explained that, faced with the risk of violence, which was based on indications, we decided to stop the implementation of the declaration of independence. Do we have proper evidence? We have indications, and many people in meetings where these indications were explained.

Who are these people who provided these indications? Were they from the Catalan government?

Yes, they were. They were people to whom we had an obligation to listen, who explained to us that they had reliable information, according to which the risk of violence was real.

Have you made any mistakes over the past months? Do you regret something when you see the consequences, including the flight of companies or the social fracture?

The fracture is a consequence of the unilateralism of the Spanish government since 2010, when the Popular Party decided to take the Estatut to the Constitutional Court.

And on your side?

There are two things that we should reconsider. We held a paternalistic attitude under which we avoided mentioning all the dangers of the procés. This paternalism is not good. There should be less paternalism and we should explain clearly the dangers and risks. It is neither good setting fixed deadlines so hastily, because you limit your room for manoeuvre. I do not believe that independence must be declared 48 hours after a referendum.

So the pro-independence discourse will get darker? 

I believe that the referendum and the declaration of independence have not been in vain. They are the basis of our future that must be pursued democratically and peacefully, no matter how harsh the repression of the Spanish state may be.

I meant being more clear about the consequences, including that there would not be international recognition of a unilateral break-up, that companies would leave because of the legal uncertainty…

These are your opinions.

I am describing what has happened so far since the declaration of independence took place.

But there is no rule of logic that says that what happened in the past will continue to happen in the future.

So do you believe that if you unilaterally declare independence again there would be international recognition?

I come from political sciences, and I have always said that international relations are governed by the pragmatic principle. We have appealed to the democratic principle, and the Spanish government to legality. The pragmatic principle means that you support the winning horse. If at a certain moment, countries confirm that the Catalan republic is an irreversible reality, they will recognise it. Not the first day, not the second day. But you will end up recognising it.

Even if it is reached unilaterally and against Spain, their partner and ally?

Yes, when they see that the Catalan state actually works as such. Therefore we understand that we must force Spain to reach a negotiation that allows us to resolve this in a democratic manner.

Are you going to look for another unilateral declaration of independence?

Independence would not be declared unilaterally again because it has been already declared. You do this only once. Now we must explore how we open a political scenario in which we can implement our declaration of independence or, if that is not possible, reach a solution similar to the Scottish one.