One is the son of a humble baker, whose burning passion for Catalan independence has been all-consuming since he was a boy. The other, a scion of a distinguished Spanish family, is a hard-nosed political operator with a taste for cigars and bullfighting. In the heady days of the referendum, some even dared to dream that the Catalan David would beat Madrid’s Goliath. Yesterday, however, when Mariano Rajoy crushed Carles Puigdemont with merciless efficiency, it was obvious that this was the way it was always going to end.
It was a day of high drama shot through at every turn with irony. Ever since declaring independence on Friday, Mr Puigdemont talked a good fight. In a televised address to his countrymen, he called on civil servants to ‘peacefully resist’ Madrid’s efforts to seize the levers of power in Catalonia, and vowed that he would return to work on Monday unless he was ‘forcibly prevented’. Meanwhile, we can only assume that the idea of escaping to Belgium had already occurred to him. It may be a coincidence that his most recent foreign trip, in May 2016, was to Belgium; but there can be no denying that his jolly rum dash to Brussels had been planned for some time.
In retrospect, perhaps, the signs were there from the start. When I joined the 17,000 jubilant separatists crowded into the Plaça Sant Jaume on Friday night, we all expected their president to address them from his balcony. Strangely, he never made an appearance. Later, I discovered that Mr Puigdemont had been holed up in his anonymous-looking safe house in Sant Julia de Ramis, more than an hour’s drive from Barcelona, ever since Friday’s ill-fated declaration of independence. The night before his disappearing act, I drove out there with the hare-brained intention of trying my luck and knocking on his door. A very genial bodyguard turned me away, but not before revealing that Mr Puigdemont was ‘very nervous’ because he absolutely intended to go to work the next day, in defiance of Madrid’s threat to arrest him. Maybe I’m being naive, but I don’t think the bodyguard was lying. Like everybody else, he had been played for a fool by his boss. Puigdemont had pulled the wool over the eyes of the media, Madrid and his own people.
In the morning, he took to Instagram to post a picture taken from inside his office, accompanied by the words ‘good morning’ and a smiley-face emoji. The sharp-eyed journalists among us noted that the sky in the ousted president’s snap did not match the real-life weather; the picture was reported as a red herring. But this did not diminish the orchestrated nature of Mr Puigemont’s abscondment. He might have been chuckling into his café con leche as he pressed ‘send’, but to many disillusioned Catalans, the lion of the people had become the pussy-cat of Belgium.
That was another irony. EU leaders have consistently refused to support the cause of Catalan independence, standing four-square behind Madrid. Yet – partly because of Belgium’s unusual asylum rules which allow it to offer a safe haven to other EU citizens, partly because of the country’s Flemish history – it was Brussels, the seat of EU might, that was the city to which the separatist leader fled.
But for all this thicket of ironies, there was a quiet and more profound irony still. While Mr Puigdemont was rubbing his hands with glee at hoodwinking the citizens he had been elected to represent, Madrid had been putting tougher a strategy for decapitating, undermining and castrating the Catalan leadership. As news of Mr Puigdemont’s disappearing act broke, the Spanish prime minister addressed his National Executive Committee, stating simply and without triumphalism that his plan for taking control of Catalonia was going ‘very well’. Mr Rajoy didn’t make a fuss about it, but he had implemented his plan methodically and with devastating effect.
The key to Madrid’s masterful dominance of Catalonia was its focus on the Catalan police, known locally as the ‘Mossos’. Mr Rajoy’s first blow, delivered at 4am the night of the independence referendum, was to sack the Mossos chief, Josep Trapero. He was already facing sedition charges for his role in the October 1 referendum; he went quietly. Within a few hours, Trapero was replaced by a character by the name of Ferran López, who lost no time in pledging his ‘word and loyalty’ to the interior minister.
Clearly, Mr Rajoy knew that the key to subjugating Catalonia lay in subjugating its police. When Madrid sent its national police to brutally suppress the Catalan referendum on October 1, it was partly because the Mossos – who have roughly the same proportion of separatists as other sections of Catalan society – could not be trusted to quash the illegal referendum themselves. Indeed, in some instances the Mossos got into confrontations with the national officers, creating ugly scenes. Mr Rajoy knew that should this sort of thing happen when Madrid attempted to take over all Catalan municipal institutions, the cop-on-cop violence might very well spiral out of control.
And so, when it came to the crunch, and a handful of parliamentarians appeared to go to work in defiance of Madrid – it was anyone’s guess whether they were providing a smoke-screen for their leader or, like everyone else, had been left in the dark – the Mossos had already been co-opted into ejecting them. By order of Madrid, one Catalan officer was to accompany each official while they gathered their personal effects, then ensure that they left the premises. As it turned out, no force was needed. But the Mossos showed no sign of disobeying.
After the Catalan police had been tamed, the rest was history. The Spanish leadership had already showed that it was willing to deploy the national police with unconscionable brutality. The combination of demonstrations of power and strategic chess-play was enough to undermine and castrate Mr Puigdemont – especially when he faced a possible 30-year prison term for sedition, rebellion and embezzlement, and his own police could not be relied upon to protect him.
The current situation may be fluid and complicated, but only the most fanatical independence supporters are interpreting it as a win for Mr Puigdemont. The bald truth is this: after the Catalan leader had brought his country to the brink, while he was busying himself cleverly finding a way to save his skin, the grownups in Madrid were calmly and efficiently setting out a plan to destroy him. It worked.
Jake Wallis Simons is Associate Global Editor for Daily Mail Online