“Talks must go as far as they can. Spain needs Catalonia; Catalonia needs Spain”

Former PM José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero defends the budget deficit cap his government passed He also downplays the need for a revision of the agreements that cover the Catholic Church

Former Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, who was in power from 2004 until 2011.
Former Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, who was in power from 2004 until 2011.LUIS SEVILLANO (EL PAÍS)

When José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero of the Socialist Party (PSOE) won the general election in 2004, he became Spain's fifth prime minister since the return of democracy, and remains the first - and only - leader to have proposed major changes to the Constitution. In August 2011, less than three months before the PSOE lost power to the Popular Party (PP) in the most recent elections, he pushed through a change to Article 135 of the Spanish Constitution, requiring the government of the day to limit the budget deficit to 0.4 percent of GDP. A few days ahead of the 35th anniversary of the Constitution, Zapatero talked to EL PAÍS about Spain's Magna Carta, and the reforms his Socialist Party would like to see made to it.

Question. Has the time come for constitutional reform?

Answer. The model within the design of the Constitution has many strong points, but also a few inherent problems. Among these strong points are laws that make Spain one of the countries with the highest guarantees of individual rights, as well as being one of the most tolerant, and that guarantees freedom of expression. I would say that the biggest problem is that the Constitution is very rigid. The Constitution was the result of an agreement between those who believed in independence for some regions, those who wanted the regions to simply have greater autonomy, and those who believed in a federal system, which still reflects the views of the Socialist Party. We now have a serious problem between the supporters of independence and autonomy, despite the efforts of the federalists.

We have a problem between supporters of independence and autonomy"

Q. Do you believe that reforms should be made?

A. Any reform would require that the PP change its attitude. The real issue here is reaching broad cross-party agreement. It is as though all the energy we put into reaching an agreement on the Constitution has disappeared. We need to try to find the same energy to reach agreement again. The Constitution said: "You people have reached agreement to put me on my feet, and this has been very costly. Now you have to reach agreement to reform me."

Q. What would you change?

A. We could strengthen women's rights; we need to recognize same-sex marriage... But the real issue is the way the state is structured. For example, one of the things we have talked about a lot is what we call the autonomous regions in the Constitution. To what extent does referring explicitly to Catalonia in the Constitution alongside the other autonomous regions have a certain symbolic value? It does for me. It was one of the reforms I proposed. Secondly, it is also clear that the financing of the regions needs to be addressed in the Constitution. Thirdly, we could improve the way power has been devolved to the regions. And finally, the big question: can we recognize singularities? Can we recognize the right to be different without this meaning different rights?

“Any reform to the Constitution would require that the PP change its attitude.”
“Any reform to the Constitution would require that the PP change its attitude.”L. S.

Q. Does that mean recognizing Catalonia's individuality in the Constitution?

A. I believe it does. And not just Catalonia, but all regions with individuality.

Q. There are many individualities in Spain...

A. In terms of specific laws for the regions, much less so. There is room to recognize individualities. The question is how to get talks going between the Popular Party and Catalonia's CiU. One area that limits reform of the Constitution is the constant round of elections in Spain. The question is whether we can have a debate on reforming the Constitution without it becoming an electoral issue. Because any party that proposes it, as mine did, simply becomes tangled up in politics. I was told by the opposition leader half-an-hour after my investiture speech in 2004, when I proposed cross-party debate on constitutional reform, that he and his party would not support me.

Q. How important is it to change the law regarding the rights of succession of female members of the royal family?

A. This has to be done.

The monarchy has always seemed to me neutral within a democratic society"

Q. The Socialist Party does not address the issue of the monarchy in its proposals to reform the Constitution. Is this support a way of thanking the king for his role in the Transition?

A. The formula of the monarch as head of state has been widely supported. Also, Spain's best years are associated with King Juan Carlos I. I saw during my time as prime minister that the king is inextricably associated with Spain. That is why I suppose you could call me a Monarchist Republican [laughs]. No, I understand the important role that Juan Carlos has played. It may also be my conservative instincts, but my experience as prime minister is that the monarchy has always seemed to me neutral and objective within a democratic society. The king was the person with whom I could share some of my thoughts, thoughts that I didn't share with the Cabinet on occasions.

Q. Did you have a good relationship with the king?

A. Absolutely. We agreed on many things.

Q. Did you tell him about your plans for constitutional reform, and particularly the idea of addressing the succession issue?

A. Of course, we talked about that often.

Q. And was he in favor?

A debate in Congress with the Catalan premier would be very useful"

A. Yes, although the situation changed - let's say that it became less important. Perhaps because we just saw that there weren't going to be any reforms.

Q. In Catalonia right now, there is popular support for independence, and the regional government is pushing for a referendum on the matter. Do you think this is related to the Constitutional Court's 2006 overruling of the measures passed during your administration to give the region greater autonomy, as the regional government there argues? Or is it because of the limitations inherent in those measures?

A. The tipping point in this was the Constitutional Court's ruling, undoubtedly. I have experienced this personally, and I have no doubts that the ruling was fundamental. Although it is also true that a simple ruling by a court cannot explain the deeper problem, which dates back into history.

Q. What I am trying to find out is whether the Constitutional Court's ruling was the problem, or whether the measures passed to establish Catalonia's status within Spain were so obviously unconstitutional that they had to be overruled.

A. I have to show the maximum respect for the courts' rulings. I will limit myself to saying that a sentence with certain shades of gray, something different, would have avoided triggering the anger that is now palpable in CataloniA. And there is a deeper problem: it is important to do something about the Constitutional Court's ability to modify a series of measures approved in a referendum.

Q. Would this mean introducing the right of appeal against decisions that are unconstitutional?

A. There are any number of solutions. But there is clearly a problem if the courts can overrule something that the people vote for.

Q. Do you regret having said that you would approve Catalonia's Statute if it was approved by the regional parliament there?

A. That was a decade ago! After that I won two elections. It is strange, because I have explained what I meant, time and time again.

Q. How did you explain it?

I had no doubts about same-sex marriage, nor about abortion rights"

A. At that time the debate was about whether we were going to support a new Catalan Statute or not. It wasn't about what might or might not be in the Statute. We could have made this clearer, granted. But the meaning was there. Later on, the regional premier, Pascual Maragall, wanted to change the Statute, and the Socialist Party had to take a stand. Since then, people have taken what I said out of context, as though I were saying that I would support whatever the regional government decided, and I have to accept that the way I said it at the time could have led to that interpretation.

Q. How far are you prepared to go in talks with the Catalan regional government?

A. Talks must always be carried as far as they can go. Spain needs Catalonia, and Catalonia needs Spain.

Q. Would you maintain Article 155, which allows for a region to be suspended, or to be eliminated? Do you think that you would ever have applied this law under any circumstance?

A. This is not a law that has been particularly well developed. I don't like that article, and I would never think of applying it. Democracy comes from democracy. The key is debating ideas. When the Basque regional leader [Juan José] Ibarretxe began talking about a process that would lead to independence more than a decade ago, there were people who wanted to invoke the article. I think it would lead nowhere. In relation to Catalonia, I think that we need to have a debate in Congress. I think that is essential. The debate is taking place instead in Catalonia, and Congress is simply debating on the sidelines. I don't know how this could be achieved, but I think that a debate in Congress with Catalan premier Artur Mas would be very useful.

Q. Are you calling for a debate in Congress on the situation in Catalonia, as happened with the Ibarretxe plan, but without waiting for the regional government there to actually outline its plans?

A. The day that Ibarretxe appeared before Congress to debate his plan was an important day for Spanish democracy. I continue to believe that bearing in mind the importance of the problems in Catalonia and bearing in mind the different positions within the Catalan parliament, it would be very positive to have a debate in Congress, including the government and the leaders of all the main parties.

Q. Spain is a secular state that gives the Catholic Church many privileges. Should the Constitution end those privileges?

A. The state, the structure of Spain, and the Church have always been at the source of the divisions that have separated Spaniards. They are three subjects over which we managed to reach agreement in the Constitution. To make any changes to them would require a broad consensus.

Q. When you were prime minister did you ever think of revising the agreements with the Vatican?

A. No. Because it didn't seem to be a priority in terms of laws that would directly benefit the electorate. I had no doubts about same-sex marriage, nor about extending abortion rights, nor in introducing civic education to the curriculum: all these directly affected people's lives, their freedoms, and their liberties. But I was always conscious of what the Constitution said about working with the Catholic Church. There was a public falling out with the Church over the laws we passed extending freedoms to the whole population, but I always respected what the Constitution says about cooperating with the Church.

Q. And if there was consensus, would you change the law regarding the privileges of the Church?

A. If there was widespread agreement in society, yes. But if I was given the chance to put together a list of reforms to the Constitution, the Church wouldn't be on it.

Q. So therefore you wouldn't support your party's proposal to revise the agreements with the Vatican...

A. Yes, yes, I am always in agreement with my party's proposals. That has nothing to do with the Constitution or the Catholic Church. The Constitution says that there has to be some kind of cooperation, but it doesn't necessarily have to be in the current form.

"It was either reform Article 135, or Brussels was going to take over"

Question. You were the first prime minister to suggest, back in 2004, reform of the Constitution, a suggestion that came to nothing. Although, in 2011, following an agreement with the PP, you pushed through the biggest change to the Constitution so far: Article 135, which introduced a cap on future deficits. This was carried out very quickly, after three decades during which the Constitution was regarded as sacrosanct. Part of your support base saw this as the Socialist Party turning its back on its principles. Do you now regret the move?

Answer. That reform was very useful. The Constitution played an important role in guaranteeing financial stability. I am aware that the subject of the budget deficit has been widely discussed, with many differing opinions. But I also remember that it was part of my electoral program in 2004, and I applied it when I could throughout my first term, even though we had a surplus - and this is something that has been used in northern Europe, where people enjoy the highest political and legal standards. I defend the principle of budget stability, even though many on the left do not. I think that the Socialist Party's proposals to create a fund to guarantee the welfare state complements the idea of budget stability.

Q. Would you say that the amendment to the Constitution was the government's way of preventing an EU-IMF takeover of the government?

A. Initially it was a precautionary measure, one that would hopefully avoid me having to take others that would have been more drastic. This was at a particularly sensitive time, when we were coming to the end of our mandate. The way things were looking, we were facing the danger that we would go into the election campaign like Greece or Italy, whose governments had effectively been appointed by Brussels. So we had to do something to appear credible to the international money markets.

Q. And was this your decision, or was it imposed from outside?

A. It was completely our own decision. There was no outside interference.

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