In Italy the Piedmont’s Regional Council has passed a resolution demanding the release of the Catalan political prisoners. The motion —which is unlike any other, as it was passed almost unanimously, with only one far-right MP opposing it— also calls for Italy and the EU to get involved in the Catalan issue. Luca Cassiani, a Democratic Party MP from Turin who was in Barcelona on the day of the independence referendum and was shocked by how the Spanish police beat up citizens gathered at polling stations, is the mastermind behind the motion. “It is unbelievable, unheard of. Only authoritarian regimes would resort to that sort of thing”. When he learnt that members of the Catalan government were being charged with rebellion and they were facing over twenty years in jail for holding a referendum, he simply could not believe it. “This trial is not merely an assault on several political leaders and the Catalan people, whose elected government has been indicted, but it is also an assault on every European citizen and European rights”, he explains.
For this reason Cassiani got down to work and tabled the motion in the Parliament of Piedmont as soon as a public statement signed by Italian intellectuals and politicians came out. The statement, which Cassiani endorsed early on, calls for the release of the Catalan political prisoners. Luca Cassiani has also asked other regional councils in Italy to hold a vote on the motion. In our interview we discuss this and its implications in Italy and Europe, as well as how the repression against Catalonia is perceived in Italy.
—You are an MP in the Piedmont’s Regional Council where you have submitted (and got approved) a resolution demanding the release of the political prisoners and urging Italy and the EU to take a stand on the situation in Catalonia. That’s no mean feat …
—First off, nobody should be jailed for having held a referendum. I was in Barcelona on the day of the vote. I have good friends in the city. We saw elderly people and children queuing for hours [at polling stations] in order to vote. They looked thrilled and their demeanour was totally peaceful. How could they send the Guardia Civil against them? It is disgraceful. I have photos and video footage of that day. I was interviewed on Catalan TV and by Italian media, in some cases live. Beating up voters … It is unbelievable, unheard of. Only authoritarian regimes would resort to that sort of thing. I have a keen interest in the matter and that’s why I decided to file the motion that has been passed. It is shocking that democracy should be denied like this in Europe.
—Who voted in favour of the motion, in the Council?
—Everyone did. My own party, the Democratic Party; 5 Stars; on the left, Izquierda Unida’s counterpart, Liberi Uguali; Forza Italia and the Lega Nord. Only one representative opposed it, a far-right MP, originally affiliated with Alleanza Nazionale and other far-right groups, such as Movimento Nazionale per la Sovranità (National Movement for Sovereignty), which would be the equivalent of Vox in your country. During the debate in parliament he argued strongly in favour of a united Spain, but I replied that we were demanding a diplomatic solution and for the Italian and European institutions to intervene in the Catalan conflict, as well as the release of the prisoners, whose only crime was to use democracy. Nobody else joined him in his vote against the motion. Needless to say, you cannot jail people over their opinions and political views. In Europe it is intolerable for an elected official to face up to twenty years in jail for having allowed the people to express themselves democratically. Europe cannot abide by this within its borders. I think it’s pretty basic …
—Your party, the left-wing Democratic Party, has spearheaded the resolution …
—Yes, it has. I am close to Gianni Vernetti, the former senator and Foreign Affairs undersecretary with the Prodi administration. I spoke to him first. We have both signed the public statement by Italians who support the political prisoners. In fact, I would have tabled the motion in the regional parliament earlier on, one or two months ago, but having discussed the matter with Vernetti, we felt that it made more sense to file the motion after the statement had been published, so it would get more coverage. And that’s why we have done it now, in the parliament’s last session, as the chamber will remain virtually inactive until the elections on May 26, when we will hold a regional poll together with the European elections.
—Your resolution urges the Italian government to take a stand …
—Yes. In political terms, the Piedmont’s Regional Council urges the Italian government to take a stand and do whatever it can to ensure that the European institutions focus on Catalonia, get involved and intervene.
—Will the Italian government follow that through?
—We have formally asked them to and, at the very least, the Italian government will need to respond, one way or another. But you mustn’t forget that, unfortunately, the executive branch is sluggish and many days might go by before the request gets to Rome and the government replies to it. What is the situation like in Catalonia?
—We are gearing up for the campaign of the [Spanish] elections and, above all, we are in the middle of the trial of the political prisoners. Are you following it from Italy?
—I am a bit, when I can. But here in Italy, it’s not big news. We still need to raise people’s awareness. If we explained what is going on to the [Italian] people, most of them would understand that this trial is not merely an assault on several political leaders and the Catalan people, whose elected government has been indicted, but it is also an assault on every European citizen and European rights, on the rights of us all. Italy and the European institutions can’t just sit and do nothing about this shameful trial. The Italian people have not understood that Catalans are merely demanding democracy. And they should also understand that Catalonia is a nation that has had its own language and culture for centuries. It is a nation that feels oppressed. And that needs to be understood. That’s also a reason why we have put forward the resolution.
—In Italy people often claim that there is a connection between the independence movement and the far right …
—Indeed. It’s hard to explain that independence support in Catalonia is not a far-right issue, but quite the opposite. In Spain there is a Francoist culture that seeks to keep Spain united by force, I’d say. In contrast, for years the left has been struggling for greater autonomy and federalism. That’s hard to understand in Italy.
—Actually, Italian politics has always been very complex and very peculiar. And now you’ve got Salvini …
—I think voters will tire of Salvini soon enough because Salvini was initially a supporter of Padania’s independence, but nowadays he imitates Vox: he uses immigration to woo voters. Fortunately, I think Salvini’s time will be over in one or two years. Furthermore, 5 Stars have followed in his footsteps and I think they’ll be history soon, too.
—Your resolution also urges other regional parliaments to approve it …
—Yes, it does. But you mustn’t forget that most regional councils in Italy are somewhat inactive at present because of the regional polls slated for May 26. Therefore, the resolution is unlikely to be put to a vote before the elections.
—Will they do so afterwards? After all, the resolution is sponsored by the Democratic Party, which has many seats in all the regional councils.
—I hope so. But that is for each individual council to decide. Or, rather, it depends on how predisposed the MPs are to table the motion [in their regional parliament]. I cannot impose anything on them. Having said that, Catalans in Italy —as well as sympathetic Italians, of which there are many— are doing a great job. In fact, they have put together the public statement by intellectuals, academics, artists and political leaders (including some MPs) which I signed early on together with other lawmakers from my party and the mayor of Naples. And the statement has got huge. Also, I’ve had many people thank me, following the motion passed in Piedmont, as well as invitations to go here and there, plus there’s been some talk on social networks. Something is beginning to move.
—Are you optimistic about Italy’s role on Catalonia?
—To be honest, it’s difficult to be optimistic because, as I said, it is an issue that doesn’t often get media attention and it is not part of the political discussion. In the wake of the motion passed in Piedmont, I did notice an uptick in the level of interest. Let’s hope it’s the start of something bigger. It had better be, because it affects us all. But you should remember that it is very difficult to persuade anyone to take a stand against Spain, politically. It’s not easy at all. Still, what we have achieved is important because Piedmont is not just any European region. I’m sure they did not appreciate the fact that the Council of Piedmont passed this motion almost unanimously. And if other Italian regions followed suit, if the Italian government took a stand, if Europe finally got involved and so on, we would have achieved something. The situation is intolerable and shameful. In other words, leaving independence aside —it is an obviously complex goal—, there has to be a political discussion. If Spain refuses to have one, not at a table, not with a ballot, not in parliament … What is the alternative? This is just not acceptable in Europe.