The disputed President of Catalonia has told Sky News the Spanish state has "damaged democracy in order to stop independence".
In an exclusive interview with Sky News, Carles Puigdemont said the European Union is failing to recognise the reality of the situation in Catalonia and failing to act in the face of authoritarian actions.
It is very disappointing to see that in a Europe Union that we are all a part of, they can respond to situations in Poland and Hungary but cannot respond to the situation in Catalonia, he said, speaking from a secret location in Brussels.
To be treated like a criminal, like a drug trafficker, a paedophile, like a serial killer, I think this is abuse… this isn’t politics, this is using the courts to do politics.
Mr Puigdemont is the subject of a European arrest warrant which he is appealing through the Belgian courts.
He is wanted in Spain on crimes of rebellion, sedition and misuse of public funds after the 1 October referendum and subsequent declaration of independence, both deemed illegal by the Spanish government.
When asked if he was willing to spend 30 years in jail he replied: It’s a threat because the crime I am accused of could result in 30 years in prison. It’s madness. It’s not justice. It’s vengeance.
He added: I am not a rebel. I don’t have the spirit of a rebel nor the wish to be one. I consider myself to be very disciplined. I just want to carry out what my parliament has approved.
This is very normal, there is nothing rebellious about that. It’s very uncomfortable for me to have this role of a ‘rebel’ and I don’t want to play it.
The exiled president left Barcelona for Brussels a week ago. He claims he is not running from justice but seeking it. He said he will not receive a fair trial in Madrid.
Eight Catalan ministers, who appeared in court in Madrid last week, have been denied bail and jailed pending their trial.
After the referendum, the Spanish government triggered Article 155 of its constitution, removing Catalonia of its autonomy and dissolving the parliament.
Fresh elections were called by Madrid for 21 December in an attempt to diffuse the situation and settle the matter. The gamble by Madrid is that anti-independence parties will secure the most votes.
He said: The Spanish state has damaged democracy in order to stop independence because through democracy which is the only thing we believe in, the reality is undeniable. So we need to recover that democracy that has been damaged by the Spanish state.
No European country has recognised his declaration of independence and the European Commission has repeatedly said the matter is a domestic one for Spain.
In a clear expression of disappointment and even isolation, he said: We deserve respect and we have earned the right to be listened to… maybe not understood, but don’t just listen to one side, to the powerful Spanish institutional machinery, which is very powerful, listen to the other side too.
He added: I admit that what’s happening in Catalonia is not pleasant for the European Union, but it’s a reality nevertheless.
The problem is that the EU doesn’t recognise the reality.
The result of the 1 October referendum was 90% for ‘yes’, but it was secured on a low turnout of just over 40%. Most anti-independence voters boycotted the vote.
How does that make his independence declaration valid, he was asked.
Yes – they are very good questions. In conditions with a very aggressive state, ‘chasing’ [confiscating] ballot boxes, arresting politicians and propaganda, 43% turnout is a miracle, he said.
He said that the number of Catalans who voted yes was bigger than the number who voted yes to the Catalan statute of autonomy, implying that the independence vote was legitimate.
One of the central motivations and justifications for Catalan independence is the claim that they are a persecuted and suppressed people.
Challenged on how he can claim this in light of accepted persecutions like that of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar or the historic persecution of Catalans under Spanish dictator Francisco Franco, which he lived through, he was adamant:
It depends. Is Catalan language equal to spanish language. No. No. Are the Catalan parliament powers protected? No.
He said he would accept the result of the 21 December election, but doubted whether Madrid would accept the result if independence parties won.
And he called for a proper Madrid-sanctioned referendum to settle the issue.
The December vote, he claimed, would not be objective because people would fear the consequences of voting with independence parties.
[The election] is not exactly a referendum. It’s an abnormal situation.
In recent weeks more than 2,000 companies have moved their headquarters out of Catalonia, concerned about the uncertainty and the economic impact of the crisis.
He blamed their relocation not on his own declaration of independence but on the Spanish government for introducing a law making relocation out of Catalonia easier.
The economic cost of authoritarian actions against Catalonia will be paid by the whole of the EU not just Spain and Catalonia. It’s not very intelligent to declare an economic war against Catalonia just to fight against the independence movement.
Catalonia accounts for 2% of European Union growth. The region has a growth rate of 3.5% which is now threatened by the crisis.
Mr Puigdemont is due before Brussels judge on 17 November to answer his arrest warrant but he can appeal any decision against him to a higher court.