In his first month as Catalan president, Pere Aragonès has focused his efforts on the re-building of bridges with the Spanish government and paving the way for the resumption of a negotiated route toward the independence movement's goals. Relations with the PSOE-Podemos executive in Madrid have already acquired a direction - with the pardons for the political prisoners on the verge of being announced - and Aragonès has now turned to the other political folder which is pending. When, on behalf of the Catalan Republican Left (ERC), he sealed the agreement for the new government with Jordi Sànchez of Together for Catalonia (Junts), the two groups left it for a future date to tackle certain stubborn areas of disagreement. Hence, Aragonès's first official meeting this Friday with exiled Catalan president and Junts leader Carles Puigdemont, who received him with all due ceremony in the House of the Republic in Waterloo, Belgium, wearing a Council for the Republic mask. Both politicians brought their own agendas to the pro-independence re-encounter, but they did not go into detail on how the differences between the parties will be broached.
The weather forecast was for a rainy morning this Friday in Waterloo, but at the time of the meeting between presidents, the sun came out. Whether that is a metaphor that will apply to the relationship between ERC and Junts throughout the Catalan legislature, only time will tell. Both leaders were generous with words of mutual gratitude, during the press appearance after the meeting of nearly two hours. “It’s been a long, frank, positive and personal conversation that we both really enjoyed,” Puigdemont summed up. "I am here due to a question of institutional recognition," added Aragonès, mentioning his wish that "this meeting might never be held in exile again." That it cannot take place in Barcelona, he said, "is a sign that Catalonia is suffering from a situation of repression that we are determined to overcome."
A step made necessary by international pressure
Officially, presidential sources frame Aragonès's visit to Waterloo, which coincided with the day that Pedro Sánchez visited Barcelona once again, in the context of strengthening the institutional image of the Catalan government. However, no one misses the point that the president's trip is also an attempt to show that he has not forgotten the pro-independence exiles just as he gives his blessing to the pardons for the pro-independence prisoners. "The pardons will be a step forward, but they are not the solution," admitted Aragonés, reminding Pedro Sánchez that "a general political response is needed in terms of the repression and the underlying issues." That is, an amnesty law and the self-determination question.
Puigdemont was more incisive in his comments, making it clear that if Sánchez plans to pardon the political prisoners it is not because he wants to, but because "at the Moncloa government palace they feel forced to grant the pardons because if they do not take the initiative, others will take it for them”, referring to the international pressure on the issue. As evidence for the Spanish government's reluctance to make any movement on the Catalonia issue, he pointed out that "none of the Catalan folders will be settled [by the pardons], none of the historical demands have been satisfied".
No plan B for the dialogue table
Asked on several occasions if they had delved into a plan B to be put into action if dialogue with the Spanish state does not work, both presidents warned that today was not an executive meeting, but rather, an "institutional" encounter. All about "mutual recognition and respect for the role that each of us plays," in the words of Puigdemont. A subtle way to make it clear that he does not intend to guide the moves of the government, as had been speculated by ERC during the negotiation to form a new executive. “Opening the folder of agreements and disagreements is being done within this framework,” Puigdemont concluded.
For his part, Aragonés explained that he had not yet received any invitation to the event that Pédro Sánchez is holding on Monday at Barcelona's Liceu opera house to defend the pardons. In any case, he reminded the Spanish PM that their "position on the political future is a matter to be discussed between the two leaders." Specifically, starting at the initial face-to-face meeting which they have agreed on for this month but not yet scheduled. Puigdemont raised a warning, noting that "beyond the concept of dialogue, what is needed is to sit at the negotiating table"- dialogue, he said "is not necessarily a negotiation", and negotiation "is based on mutual recognition". And he stated that "the thing that is farthest from negotiation is called the Penal Code."
The unilateral route and the value of the 1st October referendum
On whether unilateralism remains an option, Aragonès avoided answering directly, but said that "it is clear that independence will never abandon its goal." For his part, Puigdemont took the opportunity to warn that the government agreement between ERC and Junts makes it clear that "only a referendum agreed with the state can replace the referendum of 1st October, 2017", reiterating the need to draw up a "joint strategy".
Puigdemont, encouraged by the exiles' victories
During the joint appearance, Puigemont spoke of the achievement which the Catalan exiles' judicial victories represent: "We have won our freedom not with the Spanish state, but against the Spanish state, in the European courts. We have won it by confronting the Spanish state. This is how we will be able to return. There is no shortcut,” he stressed. And he addressed Pedro Sánchez with a specific question: "will he or won't he respect the immunity of all MEPs in the European Parliament?".
Just last week, Podemos minister Ione Belarra - now appointed as the left-wing party's new leader, replacing Pablo Iglesias - gave the Spanish political chessboard a shaking, when she said that a solution had to be found for the return of Puigdemont and the other pro-independence exiles. In an interview with radio station RAC1 she stated that "their departure from Spain also has to do with the judicial process itself, it is a derivative of it, and ending that process also has to do with them being able to return". Continuing with her argument, she opposed the possibility that the security forces might arrest the former Catalan president if he entered Spanish territory.
Belarra's words set the Moncloa palace alight. The government's Socialist party ministers immediately contradicted her, arguing that Puigdemont is a fugitive from justice and the consequences of this would have to be addressed.
In the main image, Aragonès and Puigdemont in the House of the Republic, in Waterloo. / Rubén Moreno