For thirty years Josef Lang (1954) was an MP for Switzerland’s Green Alternative Party, twenty-two of them as a representative in his canton and a further eight in the national parliament. Mr Lang is a prominent figure who held the office of vice president of the Green Alternative Party. Currently he is an activist against militarism who regards institutional politics from afar. He is a historian by trade and very interested in the Catalan question. So much so that he was one of the people who met Carles Puigdemont in Switzerland a few months ago. We interviewed him over the phone.
—Where does your interest in Catalonia stem from?
—In the 1980s I wrote a history dissertation on the Basques. And when you study the Basque case, you are also studying the national question in Spain, where the other big issue is Catalonia. Hence my knowledge of the matter. But there is one more reason.
—I am truly impressed by the Catalan movement, by its power and, therefore, its peaceful nature. And the fact that it did not make the same mistake as part of the Basque movement after Franco’s dictatorship: to continue their armed struggle. I think its peaceful nature is a powerful factor and a message to the whole world. The message is that you can be more effective when whole crowds rally without violence than when a small violent elite goes up in arms.
—Your own background is on the left and pacifism. And you’re a historian as well. Is the Catalan movement nationalistic?
—I don’t consider it nationalistic. The only relevant nationalism in the Spanish State is Spanish nationalism. The Catalan movement is, first and foremost, democratic. It is the people who wish to decide their own future and exercise their democratic rights.
Secondly, it is a republican movement above all. So what is a republican movement doing within a monarchy? It is not like back in the 1930s. Back then, Catalonia declared a republic and Madrid followed suit only hours later. That’s not going to happen nowadays. So I think that it makes sense for a republican movement to wish to separate from a monarchy.
—You spoke to Carles Puigdemont in Switzerland a few months ago. How did your meeting go?
—We met on March 19 in a Bern hotel that used to be the city hall. He showed an interest in Swiss federalism and communalism apropos a future Catalan Republic. In fact, a Catalan Republic might adopt a centralist, federal or communalistic form. We also discussed direct democracy and how that fits into the draft Catalan constitution. I wanted to know his views on how things might evolve, but also what assurances we could have that the movement would remain peaceful. It was a very frank dialogue and ten minutes into the conversation we were already on first name terms. He was very approachable throughout. We were two people with political experience (his more substantial than mine and, especially, of a different kind) who were interested to know how a modern, 21st century democracy is organised. Two people who know the importance of pacifism, indeed, but who also understand that purely representative democracy cannot live up to the needs of the citizenry.
—Is your position on the Catalan issue shared by the majority in the Green group?
—Well, people sympathise with Catalonia but have doubts as to whether independence is the way to go. The generation under the age of 40 are influenced by the horrors of the war in the Balkans. For them words like “separation” and “self-determination” are a reminder of the Balkans horror. Besides, as this generation grew up in the 1990s, they experienced first hand the rise of right-wing nationalism in Switzerland. That also has an influence. In contrast, people over the age of 40 are more principled, they recall May 1968 and the solidarity against Franco’s regime. This generation understands the Catalan movement better than the younger age group. It is our job to explain to the young that Catalonia and what is going on there has nothing to do with the Balkans.
—What would you compare it to, then?
—I am certain that the Catalan movement is a new thing. It’s hard to find anything to compare it with. As a social movement, it is new. In my view, you are the future of social movements for emancipation. Firstly, it is a movement that can regularly rally a large segment of society.
When one or two million people take to the streets in a nation of 7.5 million, it is extraordinary. Secondly, it is structured very well: thousands of small bodies, groups, associations and organisations. A civil society in the best sense of the word. An organised citizenry. And, thirdly, it is a violence-free movement but with a great deal of imagination, as proven on October 1. In Catalonia’s I see the future of emancipation movements in Europe and beyond. Look at the US today, the whole movement against fire arms. There is a resemblance. Still, as a historian what first springs to mind is the 1989 Velvet Revolution in the Czech Republic, and May 1968. In other words, massive rallies. Very powerful self-organisation, where there is no mighty central command, but it is the people who are in the driving seat. Very open to different internal trends. And, ultimately, peaceful. They are civil disobedience movements, in the best sense of the word.
—What about now? How do you see the new Spanish government led by PM Pedro Sánchez?
—First of all, it’s a good thing that the right-wing government has been unseated. Sánchez has been in office for a very short time and we can’t say much about him. Still, there are some positive things: direct rule has been lifted, Catalonia has regained its devolved powers and there is a chance that the prisoners might be moved to Catalonia. The downside is the new Foreign Minister, who is an anti-Catalanist, and the Interior Minister, who had a prominent role in the anti-terror effort [in the Basque Country]. There is no terrorism any more. To me those two are the drawbacks.
—What’s your take on Podemos, given that you are a member of Switzerland’s greens?
—If I lived in Madrid or Andalusia, I’d vote for them, obviously. They are straight talkers on social matters and are more sensitive towards national minorities than the PSOE. Therefore, they are a step in the right direction. But I fell that it is too apparent that Podemos was born in Madrid. I’m not sure if, deep down, they feel that the struggle of nations for self-determination —which is an unconditional right— is also their fight. I’ve criticised them for that, not for their words. For example, they were critical of direct rule and holding the Catalan leaders in pre-trial custody. They were critical but did not actively oppose it with a proper campaign, which was necessary. You must also bear in mind that Spanish nationalism has grown exponentially lately and they were afraid that some of their voters would be put off. But I am one of those who believe that principles are worth more than votes in politics. At the end of the day, I don’t think they would have lost very many over all that. Some opinion polls suggest that people are becoming more sympathetic towards the Catalan cause, even outside the Basque Country and Catalonia.
—What would you criticise the pro-independence camp for?
—I believe it was a mistake to take a step back once independence had been declared. Puigdemont himself has stated that he believed Madrid’s promises.
Still, myself I would have taken a different path, not far from independence but a little more integrative towards the people who are afraid. Perhaps they could have started a constituent process which initially would not establish full independence. And so you embark on an open journey.
Now, it is equally true that the Spanish government would not have accepted such a constituent process. But things would have been very different then and many who harbour doubts about independence have none about the Catalans’ right to initiate a constituent process. My strategy would have been a little different. As a matter of fact, I think it’s not too late for you to start such a process. Think about the people who are afraid. I told Carles Puigdemont: you should work harder to win over the segment of the population that is afraid of independence. Many of them are working class and they would like to know if social benefits in an independent or sovereign Catalonia would be better than in Spain.
—And what is your view on the EU’s position?
—I feel that the attitude of the EU and the European governments can’t be interpreted as fear of separatism. I don’t think so. Otherwise, the UK and Belgium ought to be very anti-Catalan because those states have a separatist threat within. But, in fact, it’s the opposite: Belgium and the UK are very sympathetic towards Catalonia. I believe there is a different reason. The EU is not afraid of separation, but of something else. They are afraid of a social movement that embodies the future of social movements in Europe. The homeless, the jobless, trade unions. Catalonia might be setting an example for all of them by proving that an organised citizenry can actually bring about change.