The significance of the presence of Carles Puigdemont in Brussels goes beyond the fact that it is the seat of power for a confederated institution which has proved to be toothless in face of political crisis in one of its constituent member states. Brussels is the capital of a country with one of the more peculiar structures in the EU. What is Belgium? Like Spain it is a kingdom. Like Spain it has its cultural and linguistic differences and tensions. Unlike Spain these are even more influential and divisive. The Flemings and the Walloons are essentially separate peoples. Their political affiliations and the pressures for separatism, especially in Flanders, have created a country that in a sense is a country in name alone. It is a form of federal state but one with an appearance of the confederated state - the centre is basically subordinate to the constituent parts, which is the theory under which the European Union operates: theory if not always practice.
Carles Puigdemont was interviewed by the French-speaking Le Soir. This in itself was symbolic. French has far more in common with Catalan than Dutch does. In Belgium, as in Spain, there is a linguistic choice to be made. The language speaks volumes, and it shouts on behalf of one form of political structure or another. In Catalan, however, this isn't as sharply defined as it is with the Flemings. Carles Puigdemont knows this, even if he might not admit it. Mariano Rajoy most certainly knows this. The silent majority will come forth and let their voice be heard four days before Christmas. So he hopes.
Puigdemont revealed to Le Soir that he is not averse to "another relationship with Spain". This would be an "alternative to independence". Back in Barcelona, there would have been the sound of ardent supporters of independence muttering dark comments about a Puigdemont vacillation or climb-down. To others, it might just have sounded like a rare dose of reality creeping into the unreal monster of ill-defined confusion that Puigdemont has helped to create.
But what was he talking about? The independence declaration has some comparisons with Brexit. A total lack of preparedness followed by a search for something meaningful, the need to extract a solution from the havoc caused by the ignorance of consequences. Brexit, replete with its absurd posturing and with its path littered with the jibes, aspirations and ambitions of chancers such as Johnson, stumbles daily more deeply into an intellectual abyss of the unknowing. The extraction of solutions is hindered by mutual exclusivity. Likewise, Catalonia. Until, for both problems, someone ventures the possibility of a third-way solution. Ventures it but can't define it.
A solution of sorts is federalism. But what is federalism? It operates in numerous states, yet even in that most federal of nations, the United States, it has never truly been defined. The Balearics president has made many a reference to a federal model for Spain, but what does she take this to mean? What does Pedro Sánchez, the national leader of PSOE, take it to mean? He is also an advocate, but one never learns what this would look like, what this would be.
The point is that Spain already bears many of the hallmarks of the federal state. At its most basic level it means the sharing of power between the state and its components. Crucially, however, there is the money angle. Can the Catalonia crisis be styled as the result of a disagreement over tax-raising powers? Some will argue that it can be and that had Madrid been more amenable and granted Catalonia a Basque-type arrangement, the independence movement would have been nipped in the bud.
But this is too simplistic. Puigdemont has highlighted the fact that in 2010 the Constitutional Court invalidated certain articles in the Catalonia statute of autonomy. At that time, there were a mere fourteen members of the Catalan parliament who were fervent supporters of independence. Yet he too is being simplistic. What then happened was that Artur Mas, needing to prop up his presidency and under assault for austerity measures, took a risk with an election. This signalled the sea change, as also did the emergence of the alternative parties. Independence took on new life, with Mas committing himself to it because he had no other choice but to, if he wanted to stay in power.
Now that Catalonia and Spain are where they are, the genie can't be put back. There has to be a viable solution. Politicians cannot be allowed to wallow in prison; this is an obscenity. But what possible accord or alternative is attainable? Rajoy is speaking about Constitutional reform to return powers to the state. He has fired a broadside against his own foreign affairs minister, Alfonso Dastis, who has intimated that a different type of reform - one that potentially recognises independence if the vote on 21 December were to hint at this - could be possible.
An alternative, but what sort? Rajoy seems ever less inclined to consider a more sharply defined federal regime or even a confederation which would enfeeble the central government. Carles, what are you talking about?