Interview by EU Observer on February 4th, 2016.
By Helena Spongenberg.
The new Catalan government installed last month under Carles Puigdemont has promised to adopt a constitution and organise a referendum on independence in about 18 months.
One part of this strategy is to boost the region’s profile and influence in Europe. To this end, a foreign affairs department has been created in Barcelona to replace the previous secretariat.
The new portfolio was entrusted to Raul Romeva, a former Green MEP who led the separatist coalition in the last election in September 2015.
“We aspire to become a state and an ally of the states in Europe and in the world,” Romeva told EUobserver in an interview.
“We want to explain in Europe that we want to bring solutions. We have the will and the intention to continue contributing to the European project, being an asset and not a problem.”
The new foreign department, Romeva explained, would maintain and nurture the economic, social, political and cultural ties that Catalonia already has with the rest of Europe.
“We will also explain that we are preparing a series of structures and laws that at a certain time will be put to a vote to the citizens,” he said.
The Catalan government, run by Romeva and Puigdemont’s Junts pel Si (Together for Yes) coalition with the support of the left-wing separatist CUP, plans to implement judicial and tax laws as well as a social policy reform.
The objective is that the laws will be adopted by parliament within 18 months, and then Catalans will vote on a new constitution.
For now, however, the government in Madrid and most Spanish political parties say the Catalan push for independence contravenes the constitution, which describes Spain as the “indivisible homeland”.
The Catalan question is also one of the reasons why the Spanish left is having a hard time agreeing to form a government. The populist Podemos party has promised to back a legal referendum on independence but the socialist PSOE is opposed to such a promise.
“It is in no way useful for Europe that we for years have stagnant problems like this one,” Romeva told EUobserver. “We have an electoral mandate that we presented in an election with a road-map towards independence and as we have the majority in the parliament, we are implementing this program.”
Romeva’s role is, among other things, to give the regional authorities’ views on the situation abroad and give Barcelona more weight in the showdown with Madrid.
Catalonia has a permanent representation in Brussels and government delegations in Austria, France, Germany and Portugal, as well as in the US.
“We want to have a normal relationship with Europe – Europe is our natural environment,” said Romeva. “However, we have a series of difficulties with the Spanish state, which prevents us from having this normal relationship with Europe.”
But Romeva accepts that there are “very different sensibilities” outside of the region about the possibility of Catalan statehood.
“There are people and states that understand it from a democratic point of view and there are other states where the government keeps a more rigid line,” he explained.
“We are an ally, but the states obviously have a certain caution because of their state relations with Spain.”
He admitted that this caution was logical.
“It is difficult for a state to have non-state relations against the wishes of another state, especially if that state is a partner in other spheres,” he said.
Scottish role model
After many years of claims and stalled negotiations with Madrid, the “only option now is to become a normal state and have a normal relation with the world”, the foreign minister said.
“We’re not a normal state, and we’re not what Spain wants us to be. We have a bit of a strange situation and we want to resolve that,” he said.
If a new Spanish government, when it is formed in Madrid, puts an agreed and legal referendum on the table now, it would be welcomed in Barcelona, said Romeva.
“A perfect situation would be like the referendum in Scotland,” he said.
“But it won’t happen. We have asked for a referendum 17 times. What is the limit for how many times you can ask for a referendum? Seventeen times more or should we look for an alternative solution?
“We have for decades now tried to find solutions within the framework of the Spanish constitution to take account of the different realities that there are in Spain. It hasn’t been possible and it has now reached an exhausted dimension where enough is enough.
“In order for Catalonia to be useful for Spain and for Europe we have to resolve this issue.”
Romeva added that his government wanted “to resolve this in a constant dialogue with all parts, although to have a dialogue, you need someone who will talk to you”.
EU citizenship question
The foreign minister also complained about the “difficulties” put by the Spanish government when Catalan officials try to do business abroad.
“When you move to find foreign investors, you constantly have a Spanish representative looking over your shoulder to see whether it is in favour not of economic interests but of the unity of Spain,” he said.
“This criterion is absolutely irrational because they prefer losing economic opportunities that are also beneficial for the rest of Spain.”
Romeva mentioned the Mediterranean corridor – an EU railway project to link the South of Spain to the Hungarian Ukraine border – where he said that Spain had continuously played down the importance of Catalonia’s role.
Although he assured that Catalan authorities “do not want a situation of chaos”, Romeva admitted the separatist drive could create a problematic situation for Europe.
“Catalonia is part of the European Union and the 7.5 million Catalans have the nationality of a member state of the European Union and therefore also EU citizenship,” he said. “One cannot take that away.”
Potential problems arising from Catalonia becoming independent would continue to be “a European issue,” he said.