Carles Puigdemont sought to wrest Catalonia away from Spain during his term as the region’s president. But when Madrid crushed his unlawful bid for independence in 2017, he fled to Belgium, crouched down on the back seat of a Škoda with tinted windows to evade police guarding his house.
Now allies are envisioning the next chapter for the mop-haired former journalist, who lives in Brussels as a fugitive from Spanish justice: a return to Catalonia as a separatist hero. But his homecoming would also stoke the national political fury that boiled over in Spain this week.
Not only was Puigdemont the lead Catalan negotiator of the political accord that enabled Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez to return to power this week. The exiled leader is also the most high-profile beneficiary of the price he extracted in return: an amnesty for all those facing criminal charges over the failed secession bid.
A draft amnesty law, expected to be passed by parliament early next year, should erase the criminal charges against him — disobedience and the misuse of public funds. The 60-year-old, an elected member of the European parliament and leader of the Together for Catalonia party, would then be allowed to return to Spain as a free man.
The amnesty legislation was “cut like a suit by a tailor for specific people”, said one of its critics, Esteban González Pons of the conservative People’s party (PP), which has described the plan as a perversion of the rule of law and a breach of Spain’s constitution.
Puigdemont’s return would be a watershed moment in the country’s modern history, marking a contentious postscript to Catalonia’s 2017 push for independence, which caused the worst political crisis since Spain returned to democracy more than 40 years ago.
But it will also make him the embodiment of an amnesty law that polls show is opposed by a clear majority of Spaniards — and elevate his status as a hate figure for diehard Spanish nationalists.
“My family, my friends are saying: is the president coming home already?” says Josep Rius, who was once Puigdemont’s chief of staff and is now a vice-president of Together. “People are asking, some because they are eager for it to happen and some because they are afraid.”
Puigdemont has not made any public comments about his potential return.
In his home town Girona, where he was once mayor, his Romanian wife and two daughters have maintained the family home. It is a heartland of the pro-independence movement, which is founded on a broader sense that Catalonia is a nation apart inside Spain with its own language, history and culture.
Many Catalans also complain that their wealthy region gives more money to the central government than it receives and is in turn mistreated by Madrid. The proportion of the region’s 8mn people who want it to become an independent state is down from 2017, but 31 per cent say it should be a state independent from Spain.
To some people in the rest of Spain, Puigdemont has long symbolised the attack on their country’s unity that secessionism represents. On top of that, he has struck a deal with Sanchez in which Catalan “blackmail”, as the PP calls it, has clicked neatly with the premier’s alleged willingness to do anything to stay in power.
Puigdemont has seen a sharp uptick in the number of death threats he receives, Rius said.
Sánchez says the amnesty will finally end the criminalisation of the Catalan conflict and promote “peaceful coexistence” between the region and the rest of Spain. It follows his 2021 move to pardon nine separatist leaders who did not flee and were serving prison sentences of between nine and 13 years.
This week another PP official, alluding to an apocryphal detail about Puigdemont’s 2017 escape, said Sánchez should “leave the country in the boot of a car”.
The first criminal complaint against Puigdemont was filed the day he arrived in Brussels. Since then he has been relatively secure, as both Belgian and German courts have rejected Spanish extradition requests. But he is on less solid ground since an EU court ruled in July he could be stripped of immunity as an MEP, a decision he is appealing against. A few weeks later Spain’s inconclusive election turned him into an unexpected kingmaker.
One close aide to Puigdemont said his homecoming was “an issue he doesn’t speak about with anyone”, arguing that he did not want to raise expectations or become the centre of attention given that the amnesty will benefit several hundred people.
The question of exactly when he returns is fraught. Some wonder if he will run to be president again in Catalan regional elections in 2025. He could choose to come as soon as the amnesty bill becomes law, but it is certain to be challenged by conservatives who will take it to Spain’s constitutional court, a process that could take months or years.
In Puigdemont’s favour is a clause that says the law will remain in force even during the appeals process. Lawyers say the constitutional court has a left-leaning majority, meaning it is unlikely to strike down the amnesty.
Still, Puigdemont’s team is deeply wary of the Spanish judiciary overall, which it views as overwhelmingly conservative and anti-separatist. Earlier this month an investigating judge opened a “terrorism” probe into Puigdemont, but public prosecutors quickly challenged it. “If there’s a doubt over his return,” said the close aide, “it’s that judges can do crazy things.”
When he comes home he is likely to receive a warm welcome from some Catalan separatists, but not all. His party’s great rival is another pro-independence group called the Catalan Republic Left. And within Together, known as Junts per Catalunya in the local language, there are divisions.
Its hardliners see Puigdemont’s pact with Sánchez as a humiliating capitulation. Clara Ponsatí, an ex-Catalan official who fled to Brussels with him, said it left separatists dependent on the Socialists and had made “renouncing self-determination” the price of amnesty.
But Together’s pragmatists, who now have Puigdemont on their side, accept that the dream of unilateral independence is dead. They view “dialogue” with the Spanish government as the only way forward, even if their hope of persuading Madrid to approve another referendum seems improbable.
“In two or three months [Puigdemont] has undergone a big change,” said Andreu Mas-Colell, a former Catalan finance minister, who faces administrative charges that would be dropped under the amnesty law. “Not necessarily a big rhetorical change, but a practical change. He’s now playing the game.”