Lunch with the FT: Jordi Pujol –

Lunch with the FT: Jordi Pujol –

Last updated: June 9, 2012 12:14 am

The former president of Catalonia says Spain has crashed its Ferrari and ‘Mrs Merkel’ is playing nurse

illustration of Jordi Pujol©Seb Jarnot

It cannot be easy to be the foremost champion of Catalan nationalism and stay cheerful. Once the heart of a Mediterranean empire, Catalonia is now just one of 17 Spanish autonomous regions stricken by economic crisis and facing the threat of a humiliating international bailout. These days, its name is less well-known abroad than its capital Barcelona and the city’s celebrated football team.

Yet as I wait in the quiet, drawing-room decor of Racó d’en Cesc, the Catalan restaurant Jordi Pujol has chosen in Barcelona, I wonder whether vindication might finally be near for the man who was Catalonia’s president for more than two decades and who in his eighties continues to campaign vigorously for its recognition as a European nation.

Certainly the idea is not as outlandish as it would have seemed 20 or 30 years ago. Scotland, under nationalist first minister Alex Salmond, is expected to hold a referendum on independence from the United Kingdom in 2014. Slovakia, Slovenia and Estonia, as Pujol will shortly remind me, have recently achieved nationhood within Europe, and all have smaller populations than Catalonia’s 7.5m.

I am contemplating my third green olive when I am told: “The president is here.” The first glimpse of Pujol in the flesh, with his bald pate and luxuriant grey eyebrows, is slightly disconcerting. You can see why he has been likened to Yoda, the ancient Jedi master in Star Wars, or to an elf, even if he is too stocky to be truly elvish.

He explains that he chose the restaurant – “not excellent, but good” – because it is near his office, although it is also the haunt of footballers and film stars. At 81 he is still engaged in Catalan politics through Convergència i Unió, the party he helped to found in 1974 after abandoning medicine for politics.

First we must resolve the question of which language the polyglot Pujol will use to communicate with a journalist who does not speak Catalan, German or Italian. In the end we opt for French, although he is also fluent in Spanish and English, and he immediately seizes control of the conversation; first by praising the adventurism of Ferran Adrià, the renowned Catalan chef behind El Bulli; then by asking me when I arrived in Spain – September 2008 – and joking that I must have brought the financial crisis with me.

As we spoon into our mouths a delicately flavoured appetiser provided by the restaurant – cream of celery, with dashes of anchovy, pine nuts and lemon – I bring the discussion around to the topic of Catalan nationalism and his long career, which included going to jail for more than two years for Catalan activism against the Franco dictatorship. “I didn’t go to prison – I was taken,” he corrects me drily.

A Catholic boy educated at the German school in Barcelona, he was a Catalan nationalist and an active opponent of Franco from the age of 16. He successfully campaigned for the removal of a Francoist newspaper editor who was heard to say “All Catalans are shit” when he went to his local church and found mass being said in Catalan rather than Spanish. Yet it was Pujol’s pamphlet against Franco himself that led to his arrest at 1.30am one morning in 1960. He was beaten up until he divulged the name of the printer, and then sentenced to jail when he refused to repent.

“I’ve said for at least the past 65 years: ‘I am Catalan, I want to be Catalan and I am Catalan above all,’” he says, tapping the table with his hand for emphasis. “I used to think that to be Catalan and to be Spanish was absolutely compatible … Catalonia should have an attitude that is co-operative, loyal and positive towards Spain to consolidate democracy, to help its economic progress and to help create a more just and equitable society. That was the ideal scenario.

“But,” – he waves his arms – “if someone from Spain says, ‘You can’t be Catalan’, attacks my language, my identity, or works against Catalan society, I would no longer have the feeling of being Spanish … Very rarely – in fact never in terms of a majority – have Catalan nationalists been pro-independence. But now there is more of that feeling.”

Pujol was president of Catalonia from 1980 to 2003, travelling the world and becoming an important power-broker in Spanish national politics. Franco’s death in 1975 had ushered in a rebirth of Spanish democracy in an age of growing European prosperity, and industrialised Catalonia reclaimed its place as one of the continent’s wealthiest and most culturally vibrant regions.

The post-2008 economic crisis, however, has soured the atmosphere of optimism that came with the restoration of Spanish democracy in the 1970s. Catalan nationalists complain that they cannot afford to subsidise the rest of Spain and have organised ad hoc referendums in pro-independence towns and villages to back their demands for secession. Many Spaniards, on the other hand, have turned against the post-Franco system of decentralisation, which they argue has spawned bureaucracy, overspending and a series of unviable “mini-states” within Spain.

Like his successor Artur Mas, who speaks of a “growing divorce” between Spain and Catalonia and wants to make the region “the Holland of the south”, Pujol is these days firmly associated with the pro-independence strain of Catalan nationalism. It is hard to believe that he was once so loyal a Spaniard that in 1984 he was named “Spaniard of the Year” by the patriotic and conservative newspaper ABC.

So what happened? “We’ll talk about it. We’re not in a hurry,” he replies, for the waiter has just brought our first course – fried baby squid with mushrooms for him and risotto with partridge and red wine for me, accompanied by a glass each of local white wine. I realise he has laid down a rule for our encounter: no serious interviewing while eating.

So instead he tucks his napkin under his chin, telling me that his wife allows him to ruin only one tie a week and he has already damaged one. Then he begins to speak almost incomprehensibly with his mouth full – about his seven children and 17 grandchildren, his life as a (very active) pensioner, he and his wife Marta’s penchant for walking in the mountains and their family homes in rural Catalonia – until an empty plate permits him to expound the next part of his political thesis.

Pujol argues that relations between Catalonia and the rest of Spain have reached “a very negative turning point”. This, he says, is partly because in the past decade many Spaniards have got cold feet about the amount of autonomy granted to the regions after Franco’s death; some now crave a French-style, centralised system of government.

Another reason is that Catalonia transfers, by its own estimates, 8-9 per cent of its annual gross domestic product, or roughly €17bn a year, to poorer regions of Spain such as Andalusia – a much greater share of wealth than is conceded by Germany’s richer regions, for example, to other parts of the country. “With 9 per cent we are condemned to ruin,” says Pujol, adding that Catalonia (like Madrid) has simultaneously had to absorb hundreds of thousands of immigrants from Latin America, eastern Europe, Africa and Asia. Mas is, with Pujol’s support, now demanding a new “fiscal pact” with Spain.

Warming to his argument and refusing to be diverted by my questions (I am reminded of the scathing comment from his predecessor Josep Tarradellas that Pujol “believes himself in possession of all the truth when it comes to Catalonia”) he embarks on a long analogy with spendthrift Spain depicted as a man who has just come into some money and wants to show off to his wealthy neighbour (read Catalonia) by buying a Ferrari.

Spain, of course, does not know how to drive a sports car, has an accident and ends up in hospital, tended by European leaders and central bankers and the International Monetary Fund. “He’s going to survive. He has a very good nurse called Mrs Merkel, who looks after him. And a doctor called Strauss-Kahn, though now it’s Mrs Lagarde, and he has friends who are doctors like Mr Trichet [former president of the European Central Bank]. They say, ‘Be calm, do this, do that.’ Since 2010, the Spanish government hasn’t run the economy. It carries out the instructions of the nurse and the doctors. What will Mr Rajoy do?” he asks, referring to Mariano Rajoy, the Spanish prime minister. “He’ll do exactly what Brussels says.”

Pujol’s argument implies that Catalonia is grappling with southern Spain in the same way that German discipline struggles with the fecklessness of southern Europe. “The big obsession of this man [Spain] is to enjoy his wealth and secondly to show the people in his life, above all his neighbour, that he’s as rich as him or richer. That’s his obsession. That’s Spain.” Yet he does not deny that Catalan leaders such as he must share the blame for its current economic and political predicament. “This feeling that everything was easy [during the boom years], this sense of drunkenness, we had it too,” he admits as arrival of the main course – a light dish of poached egg salad from the starters for him, hake with clams for me – signals the onset of some more casual conversation.

Eventually, I am allowed to ask him how closely is he watching events in Scotland, which like Catalonia might settle for “devo max”, or maximum devolution, rather than full independence. Pujol’s cautious response is to say that Catalans are watching many “nations without a state”, including Scotland, Wales, the Basque country and Flanders, and to reaffirm the non-violent and “cultural” as well as political nature of Catalan nationalism. “One of the main advantages we have, and the raison d’être of our nationalism, is our language and our culture. That is to say that Catalan nationalism is not an ethnic nationalism, not at all … or religious either, as in the case of Ireland.”

I put it to him that “identity politics” are old-fashioned in the era of globalisation; that it’s unrealistic (even for a convinced pro-European) to hope for independence within the European Union in the midst of a grave financial and economic crisis. Above all, is it not the smaller countries of the eurozone – Greece, Ireland and Portugal – that have needed multibillion-euro bailouts from the EU and the IMF?

“No, look, there are little countries that have done very well: Denmark, Finland, Austria. Then there are countries that have done relatively well given that they are new: Estonia works well, Slovakia works well – and Slovenia, it’s much smaller than Catalonia, 2m inhabitants. It’s not a question of being a big country or a small country. It’s whether one is serious or not serious.”

He recalls the time in the late 1990s when he and his party supported José María Aznar, then Spanish prime minister, in persuading French, German and other northern European leaders that Spain would meet the strict economic criteria required to join the euro when it was launched a decade ago. Theo Waigel, then German finance minister, told him that what he doubted was Spain’s ernsthaftigkeit – its seriousness. “Between ourselves, he was right,” says Pujol.

Dessert is a simple ball of vanilla ice cream for him, and for me a kind of fruity soup of sorbet, yoghurt and pineapple. The lunch has lasted two and a half hours, more or less normal in Madrid but unusually long for Barcelona, where business lunches tend to be brisker. He concludes by admitting that “the independence process is almost always a fairly traumatic one” and saying that the future depends on Spain’s response to two issues: Catalonia’s finances and the status of its culture and language.

Is it possible, then, that he will see an independent Catalonia in his lifetime? “Logically, my life should be very short,” says the octogenarian Pujol. “But we are at a turning point, and at a turning point you never know which way you’ll end up facing.”

With that Yoda-like remark, he says goodbye, shrugs on his coat and strides back to work.

Victor Mallet is the FT’s Madrid bureau chief

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