Catalonia’s Leader, Roaming in Exile, Loses Some of His Sway
Posted February 4, 2018 7:11 p.m. EST
BRUSSELS — The police seek him in Spain. Journalists seek him in Belgium. His whereabouts usually remain a mystery, turning the exile of Carles Puigdemont, the once and would-still-be leader of Catalonia, into a real-life game of Where’s Waldo.
In November he surfaced in the Sonian Forest, a woodland near Brussels. Several days later he was spotted buying candy in Ghent, before re-emerging at the city’s opera house. Residents of a small village near the Dutch border were surprised to find him dining there. Then in January he turned up in Denmark for a day.
“To get the man in and out of a place where he could eat without being seen was a huge feat,” said Lorin Parys, a Belgian politician who has befriended him.
All of this points to the paradox of Puigdemont’s strange existence since he fled Spain for Belgium in October after officials disbanded his government and sought his arrest on charges of sedition for leading Catalonia’s independence drive.
Since then, Puigdemont has been at once at the center of attention and outside of it — present while simultaneously absent — the virtual leader of an increasingly quixotic cause. He is often in the media, and yet shirks most journalists’ questions. (He would not speak to me for this article).
Puigdemont has nonetheless managed to make himself a persistent nuisance to Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy of Spain, who had hoped to be rid of him by now.
In December, Rajoy called for early regional elections in Catalonia, hoping voters would replace Puigdemont and other separatist politicians in the prosperous northeastern region.
Instead, Puigdemont managed to campaign, via video link, in the town halls of Catalonia. And he won — leaving him both the presumptive leader of Catalonia, and an exile. He continues to lead the Catalan independence movement from more than 800 miles away.
A cartoon in El Mundo, a conservative Spanish newspaper, recently illustrated the complexities of Puigdemont’s existence by depicting him as a bumblebee, buzzing around the head of Rajoy, who haplessly points an insect gun in the wrong direction.
This past week, however, a lonely Puigdemont seemed to admit that he had finally lost his sting.
Though a majority of the new Catalan Parliament wants to reappoint him as leader, the Spanish government and constitutional court will not allow him to be sworn in from abroad — prompting an ally to argue that he should stand down in favor of someone still in Catalonia. “I suppose you understand that this is over,” Puigdemont wrote to a colleague in text messages that were caught on camera by a Spanish broadcaster. “Our side has sacrificed us; me, at least.”
But there is a reason some journalists now refer to Puigdemont as “President Fudgemont.” He has often attempted to occupy parallel realities, most memorably when he declared independence in October before promptly suspending his decision moments later.
Last week was no exception, as he quickly backtracked on the texts. He remains the independence movement’s leadership candidate, he said in a Twitter post.
The despondent messages nevertheless offered a rare glimpse of the man behind the facade — a man who has built a reputation for openness while in practice giving little away about his inner life.
The episode forced his team to admit that in private their leader sometimes lacks the clarity of vision that he projects in public.
“He has his moments — he’s not Superman,” said Joan Maria Piqué, an aide to Puigdemont whom I met this past week in a hotel in a dreary Brussels suburb.
The hotel is owned by a Catalan family, part of a network of sympathizers Puigdemont has also relied on for financial support. Employees at the hotel said Puigdemont had sometimes stayed there when his family visited from Catalonia.
Was he there now?, I wondered. But Piqué would not say. Could I speak with him? Sadly not. Curious to meet the man himself, I drove with a colleague to Sint-Pauwels, a village in northern Belgium, close to the Dutch border. The local mayor had confirmed Belgian news reports that Puigdemont was staying from time to time in a secluded villa there, lent to him by a wealthy businessman.
It was dark by the time we drove down the villa’s tree-lined driveway. The only light came from the headlights of the car. The doorbell went unanswered.
Whether Puigdemont was there or not, the house seemed a good metaphor for the isolation of its housesitter, for Puigdemont has ultimately lived a lonely life since arriving in Belgium.
In October, Puigdemont said his flight to Brussels — along with a handful of his ministers — would put the Catalan debate “in the institutional heart of Europe,” since Belgium is the headquarters of the European Union, whose officials he hoped would bring Madrid to the negotiation table.
But Puigdemont was unable to make any meaningful headway on the diplomatic front, let alone get any country to recognize the Catalan republic. Instead, the most he could achieve was to put himself in the heart of a strong Flemish nationalist movement, whose leaders are supportive of their Catalan counterparts.
It was a wealthy Flemish nationalist, Walter Verbraeken, who lent him the villa. The main Flemish party, the New Flemish Alliance, or NVA, invited Puigdemont to their events and their homes. Parys, a NVA politician, made dinner for Puigdemont and his four colleagues. (Parys cooked a Flemish stew, while Puigdemont brought Catalan cookies.)
Puigdemont turned out to be “a very down-to-earth guy,” Parys said. “He had two phones, and I thought they would be ringing constantly, and he would be on the phone the whole time. But that wasn’t the case at all.”
To escape the news media, Puigdemont has moved houses regularly — sometimes staying in Sint-Pauwels; sometimes in a hotel apartment in Leuven, Parys’s hometown; and from time to time in Brussels.
“It’s not a very comfortable life,” said Mark Demesmaeker, a New Flemish Alliance lawmaker in the European Parliament who has met Puigdemont a few times for lunch. “Personally it is hard for him. He’s welcome here, and we are trying to make him feel welcome, but he is not at home.”
His stay has ultimately reaped few rewards, said Vincent Scheltiens, an expert on Flemish and Catalan nationalism at the University of Antwerp. “He made friends with the NVA, but he should have sought broader political alliances,” Scheltiens said.
Seeking to build better bridges, Puigdemont went to Denmark last week to meet with supporters — and then to speak at a public debate at the University of Copenhagen.
But even this had mixed results. One of his interviewers, a politics professor, Marlene Wind, surprised him with a barrage of critical questions that many viewers felt left him ruffled.
Since he had avoided tough questions for much of the past few months, Wind wondered if Puigdemont had grown unused to criticism.
“He had this expectation that he would be welcomed as a hero,” Wind said by telephone. “He simply got it wrong — and it could be because of the bubble he’s been living in.”
Where Puigdemont goes from here is unclear, both in political and practical terms. A Belgian newspaper reported last week that Puigdemont was moving this month into another rented house, this time in Waterloo — where Napoleon once fought his last stand.
But, naturally, Puigdemont’s actual whereabouts could not be confirmed.