BRUSSELS — Carles Puigdemont once tried to lead Catalonia to independence from Spain. Now his dominion is a house in the suburbs of Brussels.
He fled charges of rebellion after his fall 2017 attempt to split his prosperous province from the rest of the country. He is adapting to an odd new life where he can travel just about anywhere he wants — except the rolling hills of his native land.
Puigdemont on Monday scored a rare victory against the Spanish state, winning the right to run for European Parliament on May 26 after an election board initially barred the way. The case rose all the way to Spain’s Supreme Court.
As long as he seeks to avoid arrest by Spanish police, it will have to be a campaign-by-Skype and FaceTime. He will dial in to rallies in Catalonia from the pink brick building in Waterloo he and his supporters have dubbed “the House of the Republic.”
Meanwhile, some of his rivals and former compatriots will be running from behind bars in Spain, where they are on trial for rebellion, disobedience and misuse of public funds.
Puigdemont defends his self-imposed exile as strategic.
“We decided to live here in order to continue fighting,” Puigdemont said in an interview. “If all of us were in jail, the narrative, the version of the Catalan crisis could be very different.”
He said it was just a coincidence that his new home and headquarters is located in Waterloo, the site of Napoleon’s final defeat. (He cheerfully notes Napoleon’s defeat was the Duke of Wellington’s triumph.)
The Waterloo house “is a part of Catalonia,” Puigdemont said, looking more tired than he did when he stirred crowds in Barcelona and across his region during the ill-fated independence attempt.
The walls are covered with Catalan art. The shelves are filled with books in the Catalan language. A steady stream of Catalan visitors come and go, including last weekend, when a team of bicyclists rode all the way from Catalonia. Puigdemont even has jars of Catalan soil, gifts from the many Catalans who have tried to make the house in Waterloo an embassy for a country that has no independence.
“I am living here as a free man. I feel at home in some way, because I am very comfortable living around Europe,” he said. “But it is not exactly my office as in Barcelona.”
The old office was in the grand, 15th-century Palau de la Generalitat in the heart of Barcelona. It was from there in September 2017 that Puigdemont and his allies decided to hold an independence referendum. Catalonia, which speaks its own language and is richer and more industrialized than the rest of Spain, has long chafed under rule from Madrid, and pro-independence parties had won about half the vote in regional elections before the referendum.
More than half of Catalans boycotted the referendum, but those who did take part overwhelmingly supported a split. The Spanish state cracked down hard — and with some police violence — and Puigdemont fled the country while others in his government were imprisoned and charged with rebellion.
Puigdemont eventually wound up in Belgium, where he was given shelter by a Flemish separatist party that was sympathetic to Catalan independence and at the time controlled Belgium’s Interior Ministry.
Now Puigdemont gets up in time for an 8 a.m. video check-in with a team in Barcelona that still calls him “Mr. President.” He gives video interviews to Catalan television outlets. He speaks, by video, to political rallies. His wife and his daughters, aged 9 and 11, stayed behind, so he rings them in the morning as they drive to school, then chats with them over a video connection in the evenings to help his daughter with her math, Catalan- and Spanish-language class homework.
“I wake up every day thinking it’s my last day in exile,” he said — a coping strategy, he said, to help him keep fighting for Catalonia.
But there is a risk that Catalonia, and Spain, are moving on. The separatist leaders were always split between factions. The leaders who stayed in Spain and are now on trial have riveted Catalonia with their testimony. Oriol Junqueras, the leader of the center-left Republican Left of Catalonia, has been especially successful: In an April 28 election, his party nearly doubled its seats in parliament, while Puigdemont’s center-right Together for Catalonia alliance lost a seat.
The result puts Junqueras in a kingmaker position from his prison cell, as Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez works to find coalition partners for his Socialist party.
Next, Junqueras, who is Puigdemont’s former deputy, is poised to square off against him in the race for European Parliament. Junqueras will run from prison. Puigdemont will run from Waterloo.
Exile has forced Puigdemont to find new strategies to stay in the news. He released a video last week declaring Catalonia had created its own stamps — which turned out to be a design-it-yourself stamp available to anyone on the Belgian Post website. (Puigdemont put a Catalan separatist symbol on his.)
He drew headlines after he declared Canada had blocked his attempt to travel there to deliver a speech to Quebec separatists. But then it turned out the authorization did not come through because he accidentally tried to get his travel permissions through a third-party, for-profit website that is designed to look official. Canadian officials say they are reconsidering his application now that it has been submitted the ordinary cost-free route.
“Every day Puigdemont is in Waterloo he is less and less relevant,” said José Ignacio Torreblanca, the head of the Madrid office of the European Council on Foreign Relations.
Torreblanca said the current dynamic prevents both Puigdemont and Junqueras from backing down in their demands for Catalan independence, since the other could accuse him of betraying the cause. The end result is an impasse, even though Junqueras might now be able to win significant concessions for Catalonia, and possibly his own freedom, if he relaxes his strict demand for independence.
“The rivalry between the two leaders of the movement make it quite difficult for them to sit and to reach a compromise,” Torreblanca said.
In Belgium, Puigdemont downplayed splits between the separatist leaders, saying the main problem was that Madrid had no clear plan for Catalonia.
He said he hoped winning a European Parliament seat could help him raise the Catalan issue to the European stage. Most European Union leaders have deferred to Spanish leaders in Madrid throughout the crisis.
Members of the European Parliament enjoy legal immunity as they travel around Europe, another potential benefit for Puigdemont if he wins. But to be sworn in — and to get the immunity — Spanish law says he would need to travel to Madrid, raising the prospect he could be arrested the moment he touches foot on Spanish soil. Puigdemont said if he still faced arrest, he would not return to Spain but would fight to be sworn in remotely.
“My commitment is to put in the European agenda the discourse of self-determination in Europe,” he said. “Support for independence is higher than ever.”