• ‘CATexit’ vote comments generate criticism from political Left and Right
• Remarks appear to reflect shift toward Euro-sceptic parties’ positions on EU
Former Catalan President Carles Puigdemont of Catalonia’s centre-right pro-independence PDeCAT party has sparked yet more controversy from Brussels with the suggestion in a televised interview that Catalonia should hold yet another referendum, this one to let Catalans decide whether Spain’s politically divided northeast region should exit the European Union (EU) altogether.
Puigdemont made the remarks in an interview with Israeli public television recorded in Belgium, where Puigdemont and several of his former regional cabinet ministers are now fighting extradition to Spain on charges including sedition and rebellion in relation to their role in organizing Catalonia’s illegal 1st October independence referendum and the unilateral declaration of independence from Spain by a pro-independence majority in the Catalan regional Parlament on 27th October.
Four days after the unilateral declaration, the Catalan president and several of his regional cabinet ministers fled Spain after receiving an open invitation from Belgian immigration minister Theo Francken of the right-wing New Flemish Alliance (NV-A) party to apply for political asylum in Belgium. The Spanish government has since imposed direct rule on the Catalan region, dissolved the Catalan Parlament and called new elections for 21st December, in which Puigdemont is running at the top of the PDeCAT electoral ticket.
In his remarks to Israeli television, widely publicized Monday in the Spanish and Catalan press, Puigdemont said that following the outright rejection by EU authorities of the Catalan independence referendum, Catalonia needs to consider whether or not it wants to belong to the EU and the citizens of Catalonia should decide whether they do or don’t “want to belong to this European Union? And under what conditions? Let’s see what the people of Catalonia say.” He also slammed the EU as a “club of decadent, obsolete countries, controlled by a few that are increasingly linked to very questionable economic interests.”
The remarks were roundly condemned by politicians of the left and the right in Catalonia and Spain, with Podemos (We Can) national spokesman Pablo Echenique saying Puigdemont’s statements were “out of touch with reality” and Ciudadanos leader Albert Rivera comparing them to the pledge by France’s Marie Le Pen to hold a referendum on EU membership should her far-right National Front party have won the last election.
Puigdemont’s PDeCAT party, formerly known as known as Convergència Democràtica de Catalunya (CDC), is officially a member of the pan-European Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE). Following several years of decline at the polls and in an effort to distance itself from ongoing corruption scandals that tarnished the party’s image, in 2016 the CDC re-branded itself as the Partit Demòcrata Europeu Català (PDeCat, or Catalan European Democratic Party), indicating a commitment to democracy and to Europe.
Faced with outright rejection of the Catalan independence referendum by the ALDE leadership, however, since arriving in Brussels Puigdemont has increasingly made overtures for support to the coalition of nationalist European parties of the European Free Alliance, whose members include the NV-A and other right-wing nationalist parties across Europe.
Puigdemont’s first stop on the morning after his arrival to Brussels was offices of the Free Alliance and his stay in Brussels has been virtually coordinated by the NV-A. The evening before their 17th October extradition hearing in a Brussels courtroom, Puigdemont and the Catalan ministers dined at the home of NV-A politician Florin Perys, who Tweeted a photo of the dinner meeting, as if to publicize the close ties between the Catalan and Flemish nationalist parties.
On Monday, after former governing partner Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (ERC, Republican Left of Catalonia) and his own party distanced themselves from his remarks, Puigdemont quickly attempted to dial back his comments, saying his criticism was only directed at the current EU leadership and not the EU as a whole.