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INDEPENDENCE

Moderates are Catalonia’s ‘big losers’: ex-minister

We moderates, we’re the big losers,” says Santi Vila, a former minister to Catalonia’s deposed separatist leader, Carles Puigdemont.

Moderates are Catalonia's 'big losers': ex-minister
Vila, who served as Puigdemont’s business minister, quit the day before Catalan lawmakers made a unilateral declaration of independence. Photo: PAU BARRENA / AFP
We moderates, we’re the big losers,” says Santi Vila, a former minister to Catalonia’s deposed separatist leader, Carles Puigdemont.
 
During last year’s secession crisis in the Spanish region, Vila, who served as Puigdemont’s business minister, quit the day before Catalan lawmakers made a unilateral declaration of independence on October 27.
 
Until then the historian, who has since been denounced as a “traitor”, had sought to mediate between Madrid and the Catalan regional government discreetly behind the scenes to ease tensions.
 
In his book “Heroes and Traitors”, the 44 year old describes the events of those critical weeks last autumn, charging his former separatist colleagues with pursuing an impossible dream — sometimes beyond the bounds of legality — and of placing their emotions before reason.
 
“There was a lack of pragmatism,” he told AFP in an interview. “In politics, the dream is very important but keeping a sense of the realities is too.
 
“You have to have an ideology, but still keep your feet on the ground. When the gap is too wide, everything falls apart.”
 
‘We’ve regressed’
 
The dream of Catalan independence collapsed on October 27 when the regional government was deposed.
 
Puigdemont and several of his former ministers went into exile in Belgium, and others were placed in detention while under investigation for their role in the secession drive.
 
The former semi-autonomous region in northeast Spain is now under the direct control of Madrid, for the first time in 40 years.
 
“We’re much worse off then we were,” says Vila.
 
“Now Catalan nationalism is back to demanding autonomy be restored and prisoners be given amnesty,” he says. That was the demand after the 1975 death of Spanish dictator Francisco Franco, who had repressed Catalonia.
 
“In the short-term, we’ve regressed,” Vila adds.
 
For him, the remembrance of overnight October 25-26 last year fills him with regret.
 
At 3:00 am, Puigdemont had finally resolved to call for regional elections rather than proclaim unilateral independence.
 
Vila was in favour of that move which would have eased the crisis and advised him to wait until the morning.
 
But then the Catalan separatist leader changed his mind, under pressure and facing accusations of “treachery” on Twitter.
 
“It was a mistake,” Vila says with a contrite smile.
 
Waiting for moderation
 
Even now, the separatists have not softened their stance.
 
On the contrary, they have pledged to press ahead with setting up a republic and draft a Catalan constitution that would need to be approved by referendum.
 
But such a vote would presumably be declared illegal just like the plebiscite on independence held on October 1.
 
“The separatist project has to learn that it must always act within the framework of the legal system,” says Vila.
 
In particular, the independence movement must drum up support, he adds.
 
Vila points out that in the last two regional elections of 2015 and 2017, separatist formations failed to secure more than 50 percent of the vote even if they took a majority of seats in the Catalan parliament, due to the over-representation of rural areas that are more pro-independence.
 
“A lot of mistakes are made in the analysis of the independence movement,” Vila says, adding that “one of them is to over-estimate support.”
 
“A project of such magnitude needs a bigger majority,” he insists.
 
Such criticisms have enraged the separatists, with two of Vila’s former government colleagues saying his book was “full of untruths” and accusing him of “indescribable moral meanness”.
 
For the time being, Vila is keeping his distance from politics, devoting himself instead to his teaching at the Ramon Llull University in Barcelona, as he waits for “moderation to come into fashion in Catalonia”.
 
 

INDEPENDENCE

IN PICS: 16 arrested in Catalan referendum anniversary protests

Police arrested 16 people who took part in overnight protests marking the anniversary of the illegal referendum on Catalan independence that triggered Spain's worst political crisis in decades, a spokesman said Friday.

IN PICS: 16 arrested in Catalan referendum anniversary protests
Photos: AFP

But compared with previous years, the demonstrations on the third anniversary of the October 1, 2017 referendum were sparse, with all mass gatherings banned under coronavirus restrictions.   

Fifteen of the arrests took place in Barcelona while another person was detained in the city of Girona, about 100 kilometres (60 miles) further north, police in the wealthy northeastern region said.


Demonstrators clash with police during the protest on the streets of Barcelona.

 

This year's anniversary came as Spain battles a second wave of coronavirus cases, chalking up close to 780,000 infections as of Thursday night, the highest number in the European Union, and almost 32,000 deaths.

The 2017 referendum saw police violently cracking down on would-be voters as regional leaders pushed ahead with a ballot that Madrid had declared illegal.

Later that month, Catalan lawmakers narrowly approved a motion to declare an independent republic, sparking an immediate backlash from Madrid.   

The failed independence bid also stoked political divisions within the Catalan separatist movement, which have sharpened in the ensuing three years.    

On Thursday night, several hundred demonstrators gathered outside the Catalan regional government's headquarters in Barcelona, accusing the authorities of not making good on their promise of independence from Spain.


Demonstrators hold a banner reading “Not a step back. Independence”.


Demonstrators hold up Catalan pro-independence flags outside the Generalitat 

Around 300 protesters later continued the protest in the city centre, hurling objects at police vans and burning barricades, an AFP correspondent said.


A man tries to extinguish a burning dustbin during the protest.

Although the regional government is dominated by separatist parties, there are deep divisions within their ruling coalition about what strategy to adopt to achieve independence.

Catalonia is now heading towards an early regional election after its president, Quim Torra, was disqualified from office earlier this week when Spain's Supreme Court upheld a previous conviction for disobedience.

Torra was convicted for refusing to remove a banner with separatist slogans from his government's headquarters in the run-up to the April 2019 general election.

Torra's deputy, Pere Aragones, is to serve as interim regional chief until the election, which is expected to take place in February.

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