On Friday president Quim Torra met this newspaper at Palau de la Generalitat, his official residence. Our camera crew was still setting up their gear when he turned up —earlier than scheduled— looking casual and relaxed. He made the most of that time to proudly show us the Sala Tarongers —whose floor has been restored to its original state— and the Sala Torres-García, which features the murals that the artist painted for the Saló de Sant Jordi. Torres-García left Catalonia for good when Puig i Cadafalch scrapped the project. The president explained that he wanted to have the frescos moved back to their original location and laughed as he spoke candidly about his unexpected appointment to office. A lover of history and culture, Torra enjoys exploring the hidden corners of such a grand building. His favourite spot is the chapel, which holds the relics of Saint George, the last one purchased as late as the 1980s. President Torra is not your textbook politician, but an intellectual much like Rovira i Virgili. He comes across as someone who is here to save our symbols, someone whose strategy for the future is to take back the Generalitat and persevere tirelessly, in the hope that good governance might help a majority of Catalans to understand that the secessionist camp is right. The road map would require getting the patient stabilised first, with a view to making a full recovery, even though there is no set date for that. In the meantime, we will wait for what Torra refers to as “our second chance”.
Gestures and symbols
A week after the Catalan government was sworn in, Catalonia is living under the weight of gestures and symbols. The yellow ribbon, a tribute to the prisoners and exiles and a must for independence supporters, is the very symbol that the leader of the opposition uses to justify her scorn for the Catalan institutions by refusing to attend a meeting called by the president himself. We meet president Torra on the same day when he has been stood up by Inés Arrimadas and he is sore about it. His demeanour is exquisite, which contrasts with the tweets and articles that haunt him. Meanwhile, Ciudadanos can’t seem to understand that there has been a change in style which has knocked them off kilter for the time being.
Besides taking back the symbols and the words, the Torra administration must recover Catalonia’s self-rule after seven months of direct rule by Madrid. It is imperative to jump-start the administration’s engine and make the most of the new scenario in Madrid. Our conversation with Torra suggests that he is willing to “not only start a discussion but sit down for talks” and he believes that there is room for agreement on welfare policies that might promote a broader understanding. To begin with, Torra accepts that the disagreements with the socialists must be resolved. The plan is to save the symbols while building a project for a better future that broadens the pro-sovereignty support base. President Torra admits to being stuck between symbols and pragmatism, and sees that as his own risk to make a mistake: “I think that we cannot become entangled in rhetoric and symbolism and, therefore, we must forge ahead. And we will do so”. How? That is the question and the answer takes us back to the hardships of reality. Torra talks about “trust” in a people “that never fails” and quotes a poem by W. H. Auden: “Our destiny is freedom”. Therefore, his government will seek leverage in perseverance and the will of a pro-independence movement which has repeatedly shown its far-reaching determination.
Torra and Sánchez’s teams will start preparing the first meeting between the two presidents immediately. There will be no prerequisites. Not even moving the Catalan prisoners —who should be freed— closer to Catalonia or even to a Catalan prison. They do not wish to be “a bargaining chip for anything”, but it would be a gesture that the public opinion would undoubtedly appreciate while we wait for such gestures to pave the way for a solution to the Catalan crisis.
Torra is an early 20th century intellectual who will have to act as an explorer. His parliamentary majority is unstable; his exiled predecessor aims to be reinstated while under threat of extradition by Germany; Catalan society is split down the middle on the subject of independence, but not when it comes to standing up for a quality democracy; there are exiled leaders and nine political prisoners that must be defended. Facing Torra is Pedro Sánchez, a new prime minister who is keen to score a success on the Catalan issue, but has not disclosed any plans beyond his trite proposal for a pluralistic Spain. So far, the symbols are safe. Now the future must be saved, too.