Photo by Lee Woolcock
It’s a rainy morning, mid-September in Barcelona but Joan Laporta is in good spirits. Having enjoyed one of the most celebrated careers in football, as President of Barça FC from 2003 until 2010, the 48-year-old Catalan lawyer is about to embark on a new phase of his career. As the candidate for the newly formed Solidaritat Catalana in this month’s Generalitat elections, Laporta is making an aggressive bid for Catalunya to become an independent E.U. state. Here, the softly spoken man of steel tells Metropolitan why.
What prompted you to become a fully-fledged politician?
I wanted to promote and defend the rights and freedoms of Catalunya. As the President of Barça, I was able to promote the image of Catalans internationally, but I never thought I would make the step into politics until about a year before my mandate ended. I had been involved in some demonstrations as an individual but, of course, I could not compromise my position as Barça President, so I thought it would be an idea to use the popularity I gained as President and my trajectory as President, and the knowledge and experiences I have had in my life, to promote my country. After a lot of reflection, I decided to go into politics.
Why did you decide to form your own party rather than join one of the existing ‘independence’ parties, like Reagrupament, for example?
With respect to the traditions of political parties and the movements we had at the time, I thought it was more important for the country that we generate something new, something professional, fresh and innovative. I created my own party with the idea of explaining to people the advantages Catalunya would have as an E.U. state. My proposal was to join all the political parties with parliamentary representation—whether independentist or catalanist—and create a coalition, to go into the next elections together, with the mandate of building a new Catalan state in Europe. This was my proposal. It was accepted by individual people, citizens’ movements and political parties without representation but the ones that had representation in Parliament decided not to join. I have to respect that.
Has it created conflict?
I had my suspicions they would not accept it. And the reason they did not accept, I know, is because they are afraid of change and change that is good. Because they practise a kind of corporate politics, I think they refuse to face up to the reality...they think it’s necessary to maintain the status quo in order to develop themselves and the interest of their parties, without considering the interests of the country.
Why should Catalunya be independent from Spain?
Because we are suffering. Our economic deficit is huge by consequence of our relationship with the Spanish state. Every year we are losing out. Ten percent of our budget goes to Spain and it doesn’t come back. This is not sustainable for our economy, so in this sense the only solution is independence, to manage our resources ourselves. We are talking about creating a state in order to administer our money 100 percent. Our goal is to achieve a better life for our citizens. Catalan families have to have the chance to be successful in life. At the moment, we are like a slow train moving.
You have spoken recently about how the Generalitat lacks a business ethic. Why is this important?
Our parliament contains the least amount of businessmen compared to others in Europe. Only 18 percent of our politicians are businessmen and we need more initiatives, more enthusiastic people, people that create, people that work to give services to our country and who don’t think about their own interests or the interests of their political parties. They need to think properly and seriously about the interests of our culture and our citizens. If we extinguished our fiscal deficit, Cataluyna would be the fourth state in Europe. Every year, €22,000 million of our budget goes to Spain in taxes and doesn’t come back. This is a huge amount of money; money we could use to develop social policies, policies to support our companies. We could reduce the tax for companies, reduce the tax for the people, our retired people could increase their pensions, our workers could have better salaries and our companies would have more credibility for their investments. The traditional solutions that we have experienced do nothing for the citizens.
When I talk about Catalans, I’m talking about all those who live and work in our country: businessmen, workers, retired people, young people and immigrants. We started our campaign in August and are really excited and motivated because the movement is growing. We have more activists than some political parties that have been working for longer. I am convinced that we will get seats in parliament and that we are doing the right work.
Barcelona and Catalunya already appear to be rich regions compared to most other towns and cities in Spain. Public services are good, there is excellent infrastructure, jobs and businesses. Isn’t this just a standard case of the distribution of wealth?
In terms of purchasing power, we are actually the twelfth richest area in Spain. We fall behind Ceuta and Melilla. Every year, the average Catalan is poorer and poorer and we have to change this situation. The beast of autonomy means it is impossible to do this constitutionally. The resolution by the State earlier this year against Catalunya’s constitutional core showed us that if you want to progress, the best solution is to be an independent state in the E.U., because if we are independent, that €22,000 million that doesn’t come back now will be ours, and with it, we can work on behalf of the interests of Catalans. The only way we can prosper and create a better future is to have our own state.
I had some experience of the importance of this as President of Barça, when I realised my country is not recognised in the international community. Barça did well to promote our image to the world, but this is not the normal route....we are a culture, we have a language, we have institutions, we have a national conscience and we have the right to be free.
You had a phenomenal career at Barça. What do you see as your legacy there?
When I took over as President, my goal was to build the best Barça in history—and we did it! To me, Barça is one more way to defend and promote the rights and privileges of Catalunya. I wish the new president all the best because I think the institution is at the heart of the Catalan people and it’s very important for our country to have a strong Barça in order to support and develop our culture, you know, because sport is culture.
Who do you most admire?
I like Gandhi very much. I am reading his biography at the moment, and I like the process of Indian independence very much. Pacific [peaceful] resistance is the essence of democracy. I think that the process of liberation for a country is about democracy and peace, but active peace. You have to really believe in your culture and your principles and then start the democratic process.
How do you switch off and relax?
(Laughs) I work as a lawyer! I’ve had my own firm for 23 years. As you can see from my career, I like to develop projects that are close to the people. I don’t know whether I have the vocation to serve people, but at the same time, I believe it is important to have something “epic” going on, because we need the epic to be enthusiastic.
Do you think Catalunya will have its own World Cup team one day?
It’s my dream, of course, and now it is the right moment and the right time because, after decades of political, cultural, and economical crisis, it is the right time to move toward independence. Becoming an [independent] state is the only way we will have the chance to participate in the World Cup.
You know that this process is not against Spain, it is not against anybody. It is in favour of Catalunya. And I think that competition in Spain will be good for the European Union. I think it will be good for Catalans, Spaniards and the European Union. Having our own state will not be bad for anybody—it will be good for everybody.
As a man who was born and bred here, what does Barcelona mean to you?
It is the city that I want to live in. The planning of the city is wonderful...we have the sea, we have the mountains, we have everything and you know, our people are warm and peaceful. There are also plenty of tourists since the Olympic Games. That really put us on the map.
In terms of my favourite places, I like the terrace of the Hotel Majestic very much. I like Rambla Catalunya and Passeig de Gràcia. I like Plaça del Fossar de les Moreres because it commemorates Catalan resistance. I also like the sensation I have in some places: Passeig de St. Joan, for example. I was born there, and whenever I go and visit my mother, I always feel something special; I smell the city here.