Financial Tmes

September 2, 2014 3:37 pm

Madrid takes aim at Pujol over tax evasion

By Tobias Buck in Madrid

Former President of Catalonia Jordi Pujol©AFP

Former president of Catalonia Jordi Pujol

The Spanish government has launched a blistering attack on Jordi Pujol, the former Catalan president at the centre of a tax evasion scandal, in comments that sought to link the ex-leader’s alleged misdeeds to the broader Catalan campaign for independencefrom Spain.

Mr Pujol, for decades the dominant figure in Catalan politics, shocked his supporters in July when he revealed that he had kept undisclosed funds outside Spain for the past 34 years. To the fury of former allies, the 84-year-old has since refused to provide any more details, including how much money he kept outside the country and where.

The scandal has weakened the Catalan leadership at a critical moment in the independence campaign – with just over two months to go until a planned referendum on the region’s political future.

Cristobal Montóro, Spain’s budget minister, told a parliamentary hearing on Tuesday that Madrid would press for a hard line against Mr Pujol. “If someone like Mr Pujol thinks he can apologise in public and wipe the slate clean then he is very mistaken,” he said.

“The ministry of fiscal affairs will go to the very end to punish tax fraud, and that of course also applies to the case of the Pujol family,” he added.

But Mr Montóro also left no doubt that Madrid will try to extract political capital from the scandal – repeatedly linking Mr Pujol to the Catalan struggle for independence from Spain. “Pujol has now become a champion of independence,” the minister said, adding: “They [separatists] challenge the state and at the same time they enrich themselves at its expense.”

Catalan activists insist that the Pujol affair will have little impact on the broader campaign, pointing out that the former president left active politics years ago and that he is only a recent convert to the cause of independence.

But the scandal has emerged as a significant distraction at a time when Catalan leaders were hoping to broadcast a message of resilience and optimism. It has also shaken Catalonia’s ruling Convergéncia Democrática party (CDC), which was founded by Mr Pujol and is now led by Artur Mas, the Catalan president. As regional leader, Mr Mas has played a key role in the independence campaign, and has argued vigorously for the region’s right to decide its own future.

The Pujol scandal has now forced both Mr Mas and the party in general to break with their former leader. The CDC joined its rivals in the Catalan parliament on Tuesday in a vote calling on Mr Pujol to appear before the regional legislature and explain his case.