A year and a half ago, shortly after the new President of the Catalan government was appointed, I asked a mutual friend what he was like, as I had never met him. My friend informed me that he had impeccable manners, like someone from the 1930s, and that in his perfect world "he would have breakfast every morning with Rovira i Virgili [the President of Catalonia's Parliament in exile from 1940-1949] at Barcelona’s Athenaeum". Later I was able to see for myself how right my friend was when he spoke of Torra’s bonhomie and good manners and how his intellectual fascination for a Catalonia that wasn’t to be marks the president’s personality and influences his view of the reality of Catalonia in 2019.
I was received by President Torra last Friday at the Palau de la Generalitat [a historic palace which houses the offices of the presidency] with his impeccable manners, as he prepared to answer my questions in an hour-long interview. We met in the Verge de Montserrat hall, next to what had been his predecessors’ office, fully restored, empty and furnished in a style reminiscent of Game of Thrones. The president told me he works in a much lighter, quieter office alongside his assistants, and that he has no intention of using the empty one.
Quim Torra appears relaxed and is quick to laugh while also having the look of someone who is on a mission, with the sort of determination capable of weathering all manner of storms in support of the "people that never let us down", as he literally puts it during our conversation. Torra answers all the questions I put to him, either as a survival tactic, out of conviction or to avoid going into uncomfortable details, but he refuses to elaborate. He is convinced that the trial due to start on Monday for his failure to promptly obey a court order to remove a banner calling for the release of the political prisoners won’t result in his being barred from office. However, when asked if it would be worth being barred from office for making a gesture, he declares that "there’s no such thing as a small battle". Torra sees the trial as an opportunity to accuse the Spanish state of "violating human rights".
Nonetheless, Torra acknowledges the fundamental problem facing the pro-independence parties: their inability to build a joint strategy due to the lack of a shared version of the events of October 2017; and how these differences have affected his actions, his political thinking over the last two years and the possibility of providing a united response to the verdict. Quim Torra states that he personally made the decision to announce his intention to exercise "self-determination within this term" during a parliamentary session —thus upsetting ERC— as a response to the failure by the political partners that make up his government, and also the CUP, to reach an agreement. It is a proposal which, once again, establishes a timetable for the future, though Torra refuses to be pressed on it, arguing that "the details" should be a open to negotiations which he feels ought to extend beyond the boundaries of the political parties in government. However, the devil is in the detail and as yet there is not the slightest hint that those who favour independence will be capable of establishing a means to make it a reality in the foreseeable future. The goal is not to repeat the silence of 2017, when the unilateral declaration of independence was followed by a vacuum which still rings in the ears of the citizens of Catalonia, whether they are for or against independence.
Is strategic unity possible without a shared interpretation, without a shared diagnosis, of reality? The president admits that it is one of the factors which prevent Catalonia from emerging from the current impasse, which he also puts down to the large number of elections held in Catalonia in recent years.
In fact, the electoral cycle won’t be complete until an election in held in Catalonia and the decision to call it is in the hands of the president of the Catalan government or the calendar established by the Supreme Court, if it bars Torra from office. It is unlikely that an alternative political candidate would obtain a majority in the chamber without holding an election. Sources close to the government admit that a spring election can’t be ruled out.
President Torra, with a background in social activism, who during his time at Òmnium Cultural put forward the idea of a government without politicians, sees himself as an outsider despite holding the highest office in the nation. During the interview he declares that he "sees himself in the position of calling on the political parties to put a project for the country as a whole before the needs of the party". Torra speaks openly of his "disappointment" with the pro-independence parties and that he feels differently about the public’s reaction, which he feels "never lets us down".
Torra continues to hold the ground from his office in the Palau, flying the flag in the hope that a Spanish political leader will have the courage to face the worst crisis to affect Spain since the transition, including Basque terrorism, which had no chance of succeeding due to the use of violence. He lives in the hope that PM Pedro Sánchez will decide to engage in politics and take the risk or that events happening on the streets will create a new scenario, although based on past experience one can only imagine it would lead to further repression.