Amid turmoil in Barcelona, ex-Catalan president says independence push went ‘too far, too fast’

Sam Jones
Photograph: Jesús Diges/EPA

The push for Catalan independence, which has plunged Spain into its worst crisis in decades and riven the region itself, has moved too far, too fast, according to the former Catalan president who began the drive for secession.

Speaking to the Observer at the end of a week of unrest triggered by the Spanish supreme court’s jailing of nine separatist leaders, Artur Mas condemned the violence of recent days but accused the court of playing politics and the Spanish state of a “savage” response to demands for independence.

He said the court’s decision to convict the defendants of sedition was a disaster, adding: “It was a political sentence passed by people who aren’t politicians. They’re judges and when judges try to act like politicians, it normally ends badly.”

While denouncing the violence that has disfigured the traditionally peaceful independence movement, Mas said he took his hat off to “the massive mobilisation by people who realise they need to oppose this sentence and its consequences”.

On Friday an estimated 525,000 people gathered in Barcelona to protest against the sentence and call for the release of jailed and exiled independence leaders. The city’s Sagrada Familia church was closed after protesters blocked its entrance and later in the evening there were violent clashes as separatists hurled rocks and fireworks at police, who responded with teargas and rubber bullets.

However, Mas, who governed Catalonia between 2010 and 2016 and set the region on its collision course with Madrid by staging a symbolic, non-binding independence referendum five years ago, acknowledged that mistakes had been made.

The current crisis began when Mas’s successor, Carles Puigdemont, announced a unilateral independence referendum in June 2017.

The poll, staged in defiance of the Spanish government, courts and constitution, was held on 1 October that year and followed three weeks later by a unilateral declaration of independence in the regional parliament.

“In my opinion, the independence movement has made three mistakes,” said Mas. “The first is that it was in too much of a hurry and set out timeframes that were too short; it was making excessive demands of itself. The second mistake was the lack of internal unity – too often, there’s been a lack of unity within the movement and that’s still partly the case now.”

Artur Mas, who was banned from public office for two years, has not ruled out a return to Catalan politics. Photograph: REX

The third mistake, he added, had been underestimating the strength of the Spanish state. “We thought that in the 21st century and as part of the EU, it would act in a more democratic and civilised way,” he said. “But we’ve seen that it still acts the way it used to a few decades ago. We need to learn from those three mistakes.”

Mas conceded that the independence movement needed to do more to win hearts and minds in Catalonia, where support for secession has never risen above 48.7%, and where pro-independence parties have never managed to take 50% of the vote in regional elections.

The snap Catalan regional election called by the Madrid government and held in December 2017 saw the three pro-independence parties retain their absolute majority in the Catalan parliament, winning 70 of its 135 seats. Between them, they took 47.7% of the vote. But the biggest single winner was the staunchly anti-independence Citizens party, which took 37 seats.

Although Mas admitted that there is still not “a decisive majority in favour of independence”, he said another referendum needed to be held to settle the matter and heal the fractures within Catalan society.

Polls suggest that the vast majority of Catalans are in favour an official referendum held with the Spanish government’s blessing.

“It’s hard to find a solution that doesn’t involve a referendum because people want to take the decision over the future of the country, whether they’re in favour of independence or against it,” said Mas.

“The results may not be wholly positive but the current reality isn’t exactly positive either.”

He suggested that voters could be asked two questions in the referendum: whether they wanted to renegotiate their relationship with the central government with a new statute of regional autonomy, or whether they favoured independence.

“In any case, I think there has to be a referendum and people have to be allowed to vote on independence.”

Mas, who was barred from holding public office for two years after being convicted of disobeying the Spanish constitutional court by holding the symbolic independence referendum in 2014, said he is stunned by what has happened in the past two years.

He would never have imagined the nine politicians would end up in prison for sedition, nor that Puigdemont would end up in exile after fleeing to Belgium to avoid arrest and is now fighting to avoid extradition.

“I knew there could be legal consequences – I suffered them myself – but I thought they would be punished for disobedience with fines and not with charges of sedition,” he said. “Whether or not you’re in favour of independence, the sentences trample all over basic rights.”

Mas’s ban on holding office has now ended. While he feels his political career is complete, he is not ruling out a return to office given the turbulent state of Catalonia. “We’re living in such exceptional circumstances that I can’t offer a decisive no,” he said.

“My intention is not to run. But the circumstances in the country are what they are and I’m keeping an eye on what’s happening – and what’s happening within my own party – and I’ll take a final decision when the time comes. But if I had to give an answer now, it would be no.”