When reports suggested that Carles Puigdemont had moved to the Belgian town of Waterloo, satirists were not quick to miss the joke.
A cartoon in Belgium’s main francophone daily, Le Soir, showed the Spanish prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, smiling and waving his nation’s flag as Catalonia’s former president unpacks his boxes outside a suburban house. “It’s only the start,” read Rajoy’s speech bubble. “After this, Saint Helena!”
The town is close to the site of Napoleon’s last stand before banishment to the remote Atlantic island. The Catalan leader arrived last October to avoid jail after his unilateral declaration of independence deepened the region’s political crisis.
More than four months into his self-imposed exile, Puigdemont has now suffered an unmistakable defeat on the political battlefield. He announced on Thursday that he was abandoning his attempt to return to the presidency in place of a jailed colleague.
His arrival in the suburban town was first reported by the Belgian daily L’Echo, which said he had moved into a six-bedroom, €4,400 a month (£3,900 a month) villa. In a surprisingly candid statement, the mayor of Waterloo, Florence Reuter, said police and neighbours had informed local authorities of his arrival at the address, although Puigdemont has never confirmed this.
Since he came to Belgium, Puigdemont has been everywhere and nowhere. His occasional appearances – a night at the opera, a walk in the woods or a haircut – have become mini media events. In the ultimate backhanded compliment, a Puigdemont lookalike featured at the recent Aalst winter carnival.
Philippe Roselle, a 62-year-old Waterloo resident walking his dog, says he is not really surprised the exiled Catalan leader chose to live in the town. “There are other personalities here,” he says, citing an Uzbek oligarch, artists, sports stars and the town’s many foreigners, who make up a fifth of the population of 30,000. “It is a very nice town, the streets are large and well kept.” Waterloo is also a place with a “certain social cohesion”, he says, where people are friendly.
That sentiment is echoed at a local tapas bar, L’Accent Catalan, a 20-minute walk if Puigdemont hankered for a taste of home. Mikaël Fernandez, the owner, says he would be happy to welcome the exiled leader, although he disagrees with the cause. “I am not in favour of independence,” says the dual French-Spanish national whose grandparents fled Francisco Franco’s repression. But he thinks the Spanish government has made serious mistakes and hopes it will show more flexibility.
There is little sign of that for now. Rajoy’s government has called on Catalonia to put forward “a clean candidate” for president, leaving the region’s former leaders in limbo, including Puigdemont’s preferred successor, Jordi Sànchez, an MP in his Together for Catalonia (JxCat) party, currently in prison.
Puigdemont had been trying for weeks to form a government in exile, in parallel with an administration in Barcelona running the region. He convened the three main separatist parties last month in a bland hotel conference room in northern Brussels, a venue owned by a Catalan businessman and labelled Puigdemont’s winter headquarters.
Doubts had mounted about his strategy. Oriol Junqueras, Catalonia’s former vice-president, who has been in prison since November, said Madrid was likely to thwart his former boss’s hopes of becoming president.
Others agreed the game was up. “I don’t think there is any prospect of him being able to govern Catalonia again,” said Dave Sinardet, a professor of political science at the Free University of Brussels, in an interview before Puigdemont stepped aside.
“[The separatists] don’t really agree among each other and they are thinking about a number of creative solutions and they probably realise these might be creative, but they are not workable.”
The professor was among a group of experts who met Puigdemont last November at Ghent opera house. The group discussed Catalan politics after a performance of Le Duc d’Alba, a recently revived opera about the King of Spain’s oppressive rule over 16th-century Flanders. “He struck me as a bit of an operetta nationalist,” says Sinardet, using a typical Dutch epithet to describe a politician who is “a bit ridiculous, not serious”.
Supporters say he has coped well under pressure. “He was very calm,” says the Flemish nationalist MP Lorin Parys, recalling a meeting with Puigdemont last year. “With all the pressure on his shoulders I would have expected him to be more skittish, more nervous.”
Parys, a member of the New Flemish Alliance (NVA) in the Flanders parliament, invited Puigdemont for a home-cooked carbonnade, a hearty beef and ale stew. Puigdemont brought biscuits from his family bakery in Girona.
“Whether he took the right road or did something wrong, it is not for me to judge,” says Parys, stressing the right to self-determination and the threat of three decades in jail.
Puigdemont’s future remains uncertain. If he returns to Spain, he faces possible charges of sedition, rebellion and misuse of public funds. If he remains in Belgium, he risks political irrelevance.
For Sinardet, the writing has been on the wall for weeks: “You can declare yourself independent, but if the world doesn’t recognise that independence you are still nowhere.”
Additional reporting by Sam Jones in Madrid