Mayor of Girona Carles Puigdemont in an exclusive interview with The Oslo Times
The City of Girona is known for its cultural heritage and natural beauty. This Catalan city has been home to the Jewish community since the 12th century and is known for its unique cultural attributes. During a brief visit to Griona, the Editor-in-Chief of the Oslo Times International News Network, Hatef Mokhtar, met with Mayor Carles Puigdemont, for an exclusive interview.
The excerpts below give us an insight into this historic city,its people,history and explores the problems and challenges of this scenic city face:
The city of Girona is located in the north-east of Catalonia and it has a population of 97,000 inhabitants. It is the provincial capital where four different rivers converge. We have a very rich heritage that includes the Historic Quarter, the largest former Jewish Quarter in Europe, a Gothic cathedral with the widest nave in the World and, in terms of gastronomy, Girona is home to the World’s second best restaurant: El Celler de Can Roca. It is a fantastic city to visit, but above all it is a great place to live and enjoy every day. It doesn’t leave anyone indifferent.
Girona has been home to the Jewish population since the 12th century, could you tell us about its Jewish Heritage and culture that is still a part of Girona?
Girona’s former Jewish Quarter was, in cultural terms, one of the most important Jewish communities in the west. Currently, it is the best preserved example in Europe, and has a museum with some unique pieces. It is one of the icons of the city and our country.
Girona over the years has evolved into an epicentre for classical music. Apart from the Simfònica de Cobla i Corda de Catalunya (SCCC) project, what other efforts have been made to promote young musicians and especially classical musicians?
Music, or rather, culture, is the city’s fundamental strategic focus: we have set up a regular year-round programme of high-quality cultural events and activities in order to attract European cultural tourism. In addition to creating powerful brands such as “Girona, City of Festivals”, we have also helped to build platforms that promote young talent, such as the Girona Auditorium Youth Orchestra, an educational project that supports the professionalization of Girona’s young performers, contributes to the creation and enrichment of new audiences and produces at least one annual concert at the Auditorium and a small tour.
As Mayor of a ethnically and culturally rich city, what kind of steps have you taken to preserve the city’s rich heritage as well as improve its economic sector?
Girona has specific urban plans in force to protect its Historic Quarter and the city’s main heritage elements. The city views Culture, Historic and Artistic Heritage and Tourism as the areas with the greatest potential to help generate wealth. Girona is an eminently cultural city and that is why we are promoting our rich heritage and active cultural life in all areas (theatre, music, festivals, cinema, visual arts…) as the main instruments in the fight against the social and economic crisis and as a way to foster the progress and wellbeing of our citizens.
Spain has recently come out of a 6 year recession so how has this helped the job market, and what is the rate of employment in Girona today?
Girona currently has one of the highest employment rates in the country, with thirteen consecutive months of interannual decrease in unemployment. However, we have certainly not yet recovered from the crisis. It is true that in three years we have managed to curb the trend towards the destruction of jobs and buy ourselves some breathing room, but the jobs that have been created are too temporary and precarious. We have been making efforts in several areas, from turning cultural tourism into a new economic asset, to providing training for the unemployed, particularly those over the age of 45, as well as implementing active employment policies in cooperation with the Autonomous Government of Catalonia.
Since the economy in Girona is largely dependent on the service sector, what steps have you taken to diversify the economic sector?
The service sector is certainly a pillar of Girona’s economy and that is why, from the very start of our mandate, we have always sought close collaboration with private companies, particularly in the promotion of tourism within and beyond our borders. We are also greatly helped by having the University of Girona, the Conference Centre and the Scientific and Technological Park, an incubator for start-ups and companies in emerging sectors.
Human rights form the guidelines for all leaders and governing bodies, from the smallest municipalities to the largest institutions. We must respect, teach and highlight human rights, and this cannot just be with words but must also be demonstrated in our actions, especially in the day-to-day life in our cities. Respect for human rights must be instilled in us from the ground up, in schools and in the streets.
Over the past few years the killings of immigrants crossing over into Spain has caught the attention of people across the World, how do you see the fact that no investigations have been carried out into the matter, will justice ever be served?
Immigration is a very serious problem for Spain, and consequently for Europe too, which seems to view the issue with a certain indifference. I believe that there is justice, but it does not work as well as it should. You asked me before about human rights: what is happening on the borders of the continent is a clear attack on these principles. We must be something more than just passive recipients of desperate immigration fromAfrica. We need global measures because this is a global issue that cannot be resolved by summary deportations or closing our borders. What is required is a broad-minded approach and a swift response.
As a member of the Association of journalists of Catalonia and a journalist, how do you see freedom of expression in Spain?
Freedom of expression in Spain depends on whether you are in agreement with the apparatus of the State or not. If you are, you have complete freedom; if you are not, this right diminishes according to the degree of discomfort you have caused. Honestly, what the State is doing is a shame. A clear example of this is everything relating to the national process Catalonia is currently undergoing. Here there is a region that feels like a country and is demanding, from its citizens in the street to its leaders, the right to a democratic vote on its own future, and the response from Madrid has consisted of threats, fear, falsified information and insults. What’s more, charges have been brought against our president for having peacefully and democratically held a poll to ask citizens whether they wanted to continue to form part of Spain or not. That is the freedom of expression that we have here.
In 2014 we saw a drastic decline in media freedom, due to numerous attacks on the media. The Charlie Hebdo incident itself left the World shocked, at a time like this how do you think media freedom and freedom of expression can be protected and steps have you taken to protect the right of journalists in Girona?
Press freedom and freedom of expression are highly debatable concepts. We were talking about exactly this subject recently during ‘Rahola Week’, an event in which journalism awards are presented in memory of Carles Rahola, a journalist and politician from Girona who was murdered by the dictator Franco for his staunch defence of freedom of expression and his radically democratic principles. It is true that what happened at Charlie Hebdo shocked the World, but it was an isolated incident. There are certain limits between these two rights that must now start to be discussed calmly but thoroughly, to avoid abuses in one area or the other.
Still on the situation of immigrants, as the mayor of Girona can you tell us a little about the efforts made by your administration to ensure people from different ethnicities living in Girona are entitled to equal rights?
In Girona there are no first or second-class citizens, we are all citizens with the same rights and the same obligations. Catalonia, and particularly Girona, has long been a natural entrance and a destination that has been welcoming immigrants from Spain and all over the World for decades, and we have always been able to achieve excellent integration, particularly through what is a very powerful and internationally recognised tool – language immersion.
Gender equality in Spain has become a challenge according to various women’s rights activists, especially since even in the constitution women are considered second class citizens in the line of succession and when it comes to ruling their country. How do you think the gap in gender equality in Spain can be closed?
Gender equality is not only a Catalan or Spanish problem; for example, in much of Europe there is a dramatic difference between the salary of a man and that of a woman doing the same job. Just the same as with immigration, this is a Europe-wide issue that must be addressed by Europe as a whole by creating directives that force member states to implement practical equality between men and women.
On the same issue, unemployment in Spain has affected young women in particular, according to figures published by the European Commission, 7 out of 10 female 16-19 year olds are jobless and four out of 10 for those of ages 20-24, where do you think the problem lies? Why do you think women find it very difficult to get jobs regardless of the fact that they are equally qualified as their male counterparts?
The rate of youth unemployment is a problem especially in Spain, regardless of gender, but obviously within the inequality we talked about earlier, women are the hardest hit. What should really concern us is that our most talented generation of young people ever are leaving the country not to gain experience, which would be a good thing, but because they have no other choice. This must be one of the priority issues for any government, and it is for Girona City Council and we are very aware of this challenge when drawing up active employment policies for this city.
There has been a massive wave of extremism that has swept across Europe, as hear stories of European youth leaving their homes to join extremist groups in the Middle East, have you heard of such cases in Spain? And, what do you think could be done to prevent youngsters from harbouring radical thoughts?
Spain is no exception among the European countries whose young people have gone off to fight alongside extremist groups, although the numbers are lower here than in other countries such as France and Germany. There is no short-term solution, it is something that must be tackled in the medium to long term. Basically, to prevent this happening we need to apply two maxims: integration and education. Most of the young people from all over the continent that have joined extremist groups were not integrated into the society they live in, they felt marginalised and the education they have received has been very poor. If these factors can be turned around it is highly likely that this situation will not be repeated on the scale that we are experiencing at the moment.
We have heard a lot about the rule change in regards to truckers being made to use the toll highway and we know that trucks used to make up 40 percent of traffic on the national N-II road in the Catalan province of Girona, has this move improved road safety?
Road safety has improved since the Catalan Government banned heavy goods vehicles from using the NII national road, this is an undeniable fact demonstrated by the statistics. However, this shouldn’t have to be the solution, as it would be better to finally finish work to turn this road into a dual carriageway and create a safe route, but these roadworks have been mired in problems for decades due to the apathy of the central government.
When you were appointed as Mayor, you became the first non-Socialist mayor in the last 32 years, what kind of challenges have you faced as Mayor since the day you were appointed?
There have been many challenges, but all of them have been accepted willingly: from modernising the administration, to restructuring, improving efficiency, creating a powerful city brand to turn Girona into a reference in southern Europe, reinforcing our social services, boosting citizen participation, transparency, open data, a smart city strategy, work to construct the high-speed railway… and all of this with the added challenge of doing so in the extremely adverse situation caused by the economic crisis.
When we stood for election, our maxim was that we would “make Girona fashionable”, more open and participative. Just over three years later I believe that these principles have been achieved to a great extent, and can be taken as a summary of the success we have achieved as a city.
Before we sign off, is there anything else that you would like to say to our readers?
Come and visit Girona! You will discover a unique city, with an architectural, cultural and gastronomic heritage that will take your breath away. We look forward to welcoming you with open arms.
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