Sunday, March 25, 2018

Detention of Catalonia’s Former Leader Caps Haphazard Week for Separatists
German police detain Carles Puigdemont on an international arrest warrant issued by a Spanish judge
Former Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont, shown at a meeting with his party in Brussels, in March, was detained by German police early Sunday.

By Jeannette Neumann
Wall Street Journal
March 25, 2018 2:19 p.m. ET

MADRID—Months after Catalan separatists made an all-out push for independence that triggered Spain’s worst political crisis in decades, Catalonia’s secessionist movement remains in disarray, with its leadership fractured and support for the cause falling among locals.

In a dramatic end to a particularly sobering week for Catalonia’s pro-independence forces, former Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont was detained on Sunday by German police, who were acting on an international arrest warrant issued by a Spanish judge. The judge wants to force Mr. Puigdemont to return to Spain from his self-imposed exile to stand trial on charges of rebellion against the state for his push to see Catalonia secede. Five other pro-independence leaders who remained in Spain were sent to jail on Friday on rebellion charges, joining other separatists who are also awaiting trial.

The jailed leadership and divisions within the separatist movement about how to achieve independence for Catalonia have stymied attempts during the past week to appoint a new regional government. As pro-independence forces struggle to agree on a new leader, direct rule by Madrid, which was imposed in October to quell the secessionist uprising, is likely to remain in place for at least several more weeks. An independent Catalonia, meanwhile, is becoming an ever-more distant prospect.

“You will have occasional bouts of noise coming from Catalonia, but I doubt you will see another big push for independence” during the next several years, said Antonio Barroso, a political analyst at consulting firm Teneo Intelligence in London.

The arrest on Sunday of Mr. Puigdemont, who had led separatists’ independence drive, further slows the flagging momentum behind Catalonia’s pro-independence forces. His potential extradition from Germany to Spain would cut short the former Catalan leader’s plans to remain in self-imposed exile.

Mr. Puigdemont fled to Brussels last autumn after declaring Catalonia an independent republic and has been using the Belgian city as a base to travel around Europe to speak at conferences, keeping the issue of Catalan secession alive. He was arrested in Germany on Sunday while driving back to Belgium from a conference he had been attending in Finland. Separatists say the judicial investigations and arrest warrants are politically motivated and an attempt to weaken their movement rather than uphold Spanish law.

“Madrid is seeking revenge, plain and simple,” said Joan Botey, a civil engineer who was protesting Mr. Puigdemont’s arrest on Sunday outside the German consulate in Barcelona. “Now, we’re at a point where things have gotten worse,” he said. But the 25-year-old said he is confident the former Catalan leader’s arrest and the rebellion investigation will galvanize pro-independence supporters. “From the beginning, we knew this was going to be a long haul,” Mr. Botey said.

Many separatists still consider Mr. Puigdemont the legitimate head of Catalonia’s regional government, even after Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy ousted him following the separatists’ declaration of an independent Catalan republic in October.

In response, Mr. Rajoy imposed temporary direct rule on Catalonia and invoked regional elections to seat a new Catalan assembly. Once Catalans elect new leaders who pledge to abide by Spanish law, the premier has said, Madrid will lift direct rule.

“What all of us want, which is pure common sense, is a return to normalcy,” Mr. Rajoy said Friday.

Separatist parties won a narrow majority in the December vote. But three months later, pro-independence parties have been unable to appoint a new leader. In their first attempt, separatists proposed Mr. Puigdemont, but Madrid has said it won’t allow Catalonia to be led by anyone who is tied up in the rebellion investigation into last autumn’s secessionist push.

That stipulation has hamstrung already fraught talks among separatist parties about who should be their new leader. The impasse also reflects divisions among the separatists regarding the best path to secession. Some argue for a less-confrontational, more long-term approach, wary of risking jail time for other leaders. Others advocate a return to unilateral secession.

The disarray appears to have eroded support for independence in Catalonia, whose capital is Barcelona.

In January, 33% of Catalans supported an independent Catalonia, down from 40% in October, according to the region’s survey agency.

Still, pollsters say, an estimated two million of Catalonia’s 7.5 million residents haven’t budged in recent years in their support for secession from Spain. That means the issue of independence is likely to remain at the forefront of Catalan politics in the future, even if an independent Catalonia remains unattainable in the eyes of many Spaniards.

—Patricia Kowsmann contributed to this article.

Write to Jeannette Neumann at

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