Elected in June 2019, the Mayor of la Seu d’Urgell, Jordi Fàbrega, told all-andorra.com about the city’s most important plans, including opening a branch of the INEFC Sports and Research University of Catalonia and setting up GPS systems at the airport of Andorra-la Seu d’Urgell by the spring of next year, so that, finally, the airport will be able to serve commercial flights. He also shared his thoughts on the prospects of Catalonia being independent and criticized the Spanish Government for its fear of democracy.
Interview: Irina Rybalchenko
The issue of modernizing the airport of la Seu d’Urgell has been discussed for several years. But it still cannot serve commercial flights. Is this issue being addressed somehow?
The main issue for any airport is passenger safety. Due to the terrain in La Seu (the airport is surrounded by mountains), a GPS system is required here. The Spanish air security authorities tried to resolve this problem without a GPS system, because in Spain, in principle, there is not a single airport using a GPS system.
In the end, it was decided to ask Switzerland for advice and cooperation in the matter as they have airports very similar to ours. And in Switzerland they did not find any other way than using a GPS system.
This September, the Swiss will conduct several tests here and they will show how and under what conditions a GPS system should be installed. If there is no other option it will be installed. This process will take from eight to nine months. Thus, in the spring of 2020, we will be able to carry out commercial flights.
Are there any airlines that have already expressed their interest in air travel?
There are, first of all, charter airlines that transport skiers in winter from England to Andorra. For now, the nearest airport is Lleida – Alguaire Airport. In summer, planes fly from there to Mallorca. I think it would be interesting for these charter airlines to transport tourists here. But, of course, only after we install a GPS system.
Of course, without a GPS, the airport can only operate and serve small private jets.
How popular are air taxi services today?
During 2018, the volume of flights increased but the cost of the services is very high. This service can only be used by passengers with high purchasing power. And our goal is to make flights accessible to the general public.
But who is responsible for this airport – Catalonia or Spain?
The airport is located in Catalonia and the airport services depend on the government of Catalonia. But it is Madrid who is responsible for issuing permits and aviation security issues. And Madrid is responsible for installing the GPS system at the airport.
At the moment, Andorra is planning to build its own airport, which will be able to receive full-fledged passenger aircrafts, rather than small jets, like at la Seu d’Urgell’s airport. Would you say that his project will create a high level of competition for your airport?
I understand perfectly that Andorra wants to receive passengers on its territory. This is logical. And we, of course, respect the corresponding decision of the government of Andorra. After all, this airport will be completely controlled by Andorra and will not depend on the governments of Spain and Catalonia.
La Seu d’Urgell airport is also a great opportunity to accept commercial flights, but outside Andorra, 15 kilometers from the border.
But I think that if the airport in Andorra is built we must make it compatible with la Seu d’Urgell airport so that one project does not supersede the other, but instead, uses it. Commercial flights are one issue. But there are still flying schools, “entertaining flights” for tourists, etc. This is if it will be built that is.
In any case, we need to start accepting commercial flights. And then Andorra will decide whether it needs its own airport, which will entail expenses for research in the field of economics and environmental protection, as well as numerous technical difficulties due to the peculiarities of the country’s topography.
What is the maximum capacity of La Seu d’Urgell’s airport?
We are not talking about an airport, such as, for example, in Girona or Palma. We have tourists who come here every year but for sure they will not be using jets. We cannot predict how many passengers will come here by jets but I doubt that more than three to four flights per day will be necessary.
Andorra is visited by about 8 million tourists a year. The number of vehicles passing through the Spanish border to Andorra is about 3 million.
Now, the airport is used more as a platform for filming. For example, in August, there were American and European sports cars competitions. Are there any other events planned for the near future?
The airport is trying to diversify its activities and not only deliver people from one place to another. There is a restaurant with great views near the airport. We shoot films and ads here and also hold conferences with the participation of companies from Barcelona.
At the same time, there is an air taxi at the airport and there is a company that is engaged in aircraft repair. There is a helicopter company Helitrans, which deals with the logistics of tourists, and also installs power lines and lighting equipment in ski resorts for example.
Maintenance of infrastructure requires money and we need to be able to earn it in a variety of ways.
There is a big problem – huge amounts of traffic on the border of Spain and Andorra, which means that it sometimes takes hours to get to Andorra. I posed this question to the Minister of Economy of Andorra, Jordi Gallardo Fernandez, and he said that this issue should be addressed jointly with Spain. What do you think about that?
Of course, customs and the border are under the control of the Spanish government which should solve all the problems that arise.
The problem exists, especially during the high season or at weekends.
I think it could be an additional “reverse lane” – both from Spain and from Andorra. We need to understand how it is technically possible without harming the environment and landscape. And for this, both governments should get together to understand whether this is possible or not. And if it is possible, how to implement it.
Do you consider this issue as a priority? Or is it not so urgent, from your point of view?
I think this is a priority issue. Although, it’s very expensive. It is also important for us to build the Tresponts tunnel in the Coll de Nargó area, which will connect la Seu d’Urgell with Lerida. Thus, there will be another road from Barcelona – an alternative to the one that passes through the Cadi tunnel.
The cost of the project is 35 million euros.
The entire road infrastructure in the Pyrenees is very imperfect. However, in Spain, there are other areas with the same mountains as ours but their roads are in much better shape and people from different valleys can quickly move from one to the other. We should consider improving logistics along the entire Iberian axis which runs from Puigcerdà to Viella.
It’s very difficult for us in la Seu d’Urgell to conduct economic activities with the neighboring valley and with cities such as Pallar, Sobirà or Sort. The roads are bad and the problem is that the Catalan Pyrenees are only 1% of the population of Catalonia. Therefore, the construction of roads here is not a priority for the Spanish government. But it’s not correct. If we want justice in the country, we should get money and subsidies in the same way as other parts of Spain.
New roads will allow us to conduct economic activities with all the Pyrenees, which will make the Pirineus brand more powerful and attractive.
The Andorran Minister Jordi Gallardo also told me about the idea of implementing the railway from Barcelona to Andorra …
Yes, from Barcelona by train you can only get to Puigcerda, and by the high-speed train, Renfe – to Lleida. The idea is to expand the Barcelona-Puigcerda branch and then extend a new one from there to Andorra. But you need to start with the modernization of the existing branch because it remains the same as it was 50-60 years ago. People have to spend four hours on the road and modern trains can cover the same distance in just two hours.
Of course, if it is decided to pull the branch to Andorra, the existing one will be modernized much faster. But I do not know anything about Catalonia’s plans to do so yet and I personally haven’t heard any specific initiatives from Andorra either.
Could you tell us about the most interesting projects in the field of tourism, culture and sports? What is the total budget? What are the most important joint projects with Andorra and other cities in Catalonia?
What we have is a rich cultural and natural heritage, as well as an ideal environment for sports, and all this we should use most of all. Barcelona’s residents also have the opportunity to do sports outside in the nature but there are no secluded places like here.
You can go rafting in the city park del Segre. During the last week of September, from 25 to 29, we will have the world championship in kayaking and canoeing (slalom). This is the third event of this magnitude. The World Cup was held here in 1999 and then in 2009.
On September 14, the seventh edition of the cross-border race will take place, the route of which will cross the border of Spain and Andorra. Every year, the direction changes: this year the race will begin at the Cathedral in la Seu and end in Sant Julia, Andorra, and next year it will be the other way around. This sporting event gathers a lot of people and is a great way to prove how neighboring countries can work together.
In September there will be one of the stages of the cycling race of Vuelta (La Vuelta), which will pass through la Seu and end in Andorra.
Barcelona has run for the Winter Olympics in 2030. And I am sure that Andorra would also be able to join and provide its ski slopes if Barcelona wins.
Oliana is a famous place for climbers, Organya – for paragliding. We offer ecotourism, which is now in fashion, as it does not pollute the environment.
Our special pride is our women’s basketball team, SEDIS. It took pride of place in Europe, becoming a team in the first division. For a city like la Seu with 12,000 inhabitants, this is a very important achievement.
As for the cultural sphere, the historical center of our city is a real museum with its squares, buildings and the bishop’s palace. Our gem and our treasure is the only Romanesque cathedral in Catalonia – la Catedral de Santa Maria de la Seu d’Urgell. Our cathedral is a candidate to be a UNESCO World Heritage Site, as well as Casa de la Vall d’Andorra and its 14 Romanesque churches and the French castle in Foix. This is our joint application from three countries – Spain, Andorra and France. If we act as a united front, we will be able to increase the number of visitors to Foix, Andorra, and la Seu, as well as to the Alt Urgell region. This will strengthen us as a brand in terms of cultural heritage.
If everything goes well, our goal can be achieved in 2023 or 2024.
Throughout the summer, the Early Music Festival in the Pyrenees – FEMAP – is also our pearl. Concerts are held at several venues throughout the Pyrenees, including Northern Catalonia and Andorra.
Another important event is a meeting of accordionists, in which the best musicians from Siberia, Canada, and many other countries of the world take part.
At the very beginning of the month, from August 3 to 10, we held theatrical performances with the participation of more than 100 actors. There was a music show with fire, which explained the life of St. Ermengol. On these days, one could see the altar of St. Ermengol too.
We have the Sant Domènec hall, where congresses and seminars are regularly held, including the Meeting of the Entrepreneurs of the Pyrenees, which is the main meeting place for businessmen in our area.
At the end of October this year, we will hold a meeting for the local media.
We are open for cooperation and ready to help to organize congresses on any topic – health, technology, sports…
Several medical congresses were held here: Catalan Congress of Pediatrics, Congress of Gynecologists. There are also several outpatient clinics and primary care centers that are not managed by INSS. They are members of the Catalan EBAS. They also held a conference here last year.
About seven years ago, a congress on family and public medicine was also held.
What kind of city projects could interest foreign investors?
I would say this: Andorra has a problem with the lack of land. At the same time, there is a customs office in Andorra that delays the shipment of goods for a day or two. And we have a lot of land where you can store goods and you do not need to cross the border every time. So, for example, the Andorran company Archimedes, which registered its daughter company here, produces dentures and has storage facilities in the Polygon de la Seu area.
At the international level, our advantage is that we have fiber optic cable in the entire municipality. This means that we have a very high-speed internet connection. You can easily work without leaving your home. We want to promote this service, to attract more businessmen and private entrepreneurs here so that they create their headquarters here. And we want to create something like “co-working spaces” here. Some residents of our city went to work in Barcelona and in London, so, we would like to create ideal conditions so that they can return to work from home in their hometown. And any meeting with clients from Europe or America can be held today via the internet because now the market is global.
What are the biggest companies in the city?
The largest company we have here is the Cadi Cooperative cheese and butter company.
There is also a state hospital. I also mentioned Helitrans, a private helicopter company that operates at La Seu de Urgell’s airport. Finally, Mercadona, the supermarket.
Returning to the question of the most significant events in our city, I would like to mention the fair in San Ermengol, which takes place on the third weekend of October. This is the place where you can taste the local cheeses from the Pyrenees, including ones from Navarra, the Basque country, from Aragon and from all the Catalan Pyrenees, as well as local wines.
Are there any projects in the field of education? In France, in Font Romeu, for example, there is the University of Sports STAPS. Why not create something similar here?
We have a similar project – we want to open a branch of the INEFC Sports Institute (National Institute for Physical Education of Catalonia) here. INEFC is a sports research institute. Now there are two branches – in Barcelona and in Lleida.
The funding for this university directly depends on the Government of Catalonia (Generalitat). The ex-Mayor of la Seu d’Urgell, Albert Batalla, began negotiations which have progressed quite a bit recently. So we hope that this project will become a reality. Between 200 and 300 students will be able to study at the institute for four years. We have everything for this – the river, the mountains… The Institute will allow us to participate in the training of professionals of all kinds related to sports, as well as the development of sports brands.
We have to build a campus and create the infrastructure etc. And we are looking for land and investors. Obviously, this is a very important project for the status of our city, since we are talking not only about teaching but also about researching.
How high is the unemployment rate in the city?
This is a problem. We are working intensively with the Employment Service of Catalonia, with the SOC, to try to find employment for all the unemployed, but it is difficult. In this regard, Andorra’s labor market is very important to us. In 2003-2004, about 2200 residents of la Seu worked in Andorra. Now this number has decreased to about 1200.
We have an agreement with Andorra – when Andorra needs workers, the first place the country looks for them is in Alt Urgell. Many of our residents are qualified specialists.
In our city, we are trying to revitalize the historical center in order to open more stores to create new jobs.
What is the average salary in the local labor market?
The average salary is about 1000 euros.
And how much does it cost to rent an apartment?
The prices rise here if they rise in Andorra. However, our prices are still lower. Renting an average two-room apartment here costs about 450 euros. For 150,000 – 180,000 euros you can buy an apartment of about 80 square meters. This is not cheap when compared with other areas of the Pyrenees (with the exception of Puigcerda), where residents of Barcelona buy apartments.
In conclusion, I would like to ask you about the independence of Catalonia. The ex-Mayor, Albert Batalla, supported the independence of Catalonia. What is your position? What is happening with this process now?
We have a coalition of two Republican parties in our government team: Esquerra Republicana per Catalunya and Junts per la Seu. Both are obvious supporters of the independence of Catalonia. Among 17 advisers to la Seu, 11 stand for independence. That is, most of our residents are convinced that Catalonia would have much more advantages if it could directly manage its resources and be independent.
But achieving independence is very difficult. We were close to this when a referendum was held on October 1st, 2017. This was the moment when the inhabitants of Catalonia clearly indicated that they wanted independence. More than 2 million people went out to vote for independence, despite the fact that there were police officers who prevented them from doing so. However, Spain declared the referendum illegal.
Politicians and leaders of popular organizations were jailed without trial. For civilized countries, this is unheard of! There are those who are in exile and cannot return home, since here in Spain they will end up in jail.
In this process, it became apparent that the Spanish state is a false democracy. This is a state in which there are no social rights, where you cannot express your opinion because otherwise you will be locked up in prison. And from prison it is difficult to oppose the Monarchy.
Catalonia has 16 billion euros a year that it could spend on its territory. But we are deprived of such an opportunity because Madrid controls all the money.
But we want to improve the quality of life of the Catalans. Some of our schools still do not have computers for children and we want to improve the quality of medicine. Yet Spain is building airports and roads that have nothing to do with Catalonia with our money.
We will continue the struggle for the independence of Catalonia. We must open our eyes and say that we are not in the Middle Ages. We do not live in the era of feudalism. People expressed their opinion, they want independence.
Is there a need to hold a new referendum, which Spain could recognize as legal?
The referendum has already been held. But following its results, it is difficult to declare independence for the international community to recognize it. Perhaps we need to hold a referendum with guarantees; a referendum open to all, a referendum in which all parties would pledge to accept its results and act accordingly.
If the majority votes against it, everything will remain as it is. But if the majority votes in favor, then this decision must be respected. We ask only for the opportunity to listen to people and understand what they really want.
The parties that support the independence of Catalonia today are the Junts per Catalunya, Esquerra Republicana and la UC. When voting, we are talking about 47-48% of the vote. We do not reach 50%. But there are also independent parliamentarians who can help us gain the missing 2%.
The only way to find out is to hold a referendum so that the question is clear: “Does Catalonia want independence?” “Yes” or “no”.
But Spain is a state that is afraid of democracy. We were forced to hold a referendum secretly as if we were living in a time of dictatorship.
Once again: Catalonia for Spain is a very important source of money. Spain behaved the same with all its colonies. In South America, Spain did the same. Spain is like an arrogant host who does what he wants and treats others as if they are his property.
But I do not understand one thing – how Europe allows it! Europe which is known for its policy of protecting human rights…