Spanish PM: “I will repeat it ad nauseam, I will not call early elections”

Mariano Rajoy discusses politics in an extensive interview with the Leading European Newspaper Alliance

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy recently talked to journalists from media organizations representing LENA, the Leading European Newspaper Alliance, of which EL PAÍS is a member. Although the formal reason for meeting the press was to discuss European issues on the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome, which established the European Economic Community, the questions also covered the national agenda. The following are highlights from that meeting.

Spanish PM Mariano Rajoy at his desk.
Spanish PM Mariano Rajoy at his desk.Samuel Sánchez (EL PAÍS)

The interview took place on Wednesday, March 22, three-and-a-half hours before the terrorist attack on Westminster Bridge, in London. Rajoy, who had mentioned terrorism during the interview, made an additional statement following the attack to call on European citizens for “perseverance and a solid determination to defend the values of our civilization.”

The leader of a country that has dealt with decades of terrorism from ETA first, then from Islamists, underscored the importance of adapting legislation to the new forms of violence and radicalization, and for governments and parliaments across Europe to support law enforcement agencies.

I knew this was going to be hard

Rajoy, on his minority government

“And third, and this is the most important thing of all – and I speak out of personal experience fighting terrorism as interior minister – we need to increase cooperation among intelligence services.” said Rajoy. “We [in Spain] have benefited greatly from French cooperation, for which I will never tire of expressing gratitude. There is no doubt that if we were able to increase cooperation among member states, it would be easier to fight terrorism. This is one of our great challenges of the future, and one of the issues that the European Union must emphasize. [...] Let’s focus on the real issues: immigration, terrorism, growth, jobs, and let’s take a clear stand in favor of EU integration. The message that needs to come out of Rome is something like ‘Together forever’.”

While Rajoy defended greater cooperation and integration throughout the interview, the union is now facing the unprecedented challenge of dealing with a breakaway member. Brexit is of particular interest to Spain due to the issue of Gibraltar, where a majority of people voted against leaving the EU, and because of the large number of British citizens who live in Spain and are now uncertain about their own future.

“There is no good Brexit,” said Rajoy. “Brexit was not good news, neither for Britain nor for the rest of Europe. At this point, we need to do things properly, which means achieving the best possible relationship during Britain’s exit and in the future. […] Regarding Gibraltar, it will leave the EU when Britain goes – not because it is part of Britain, but because Britain sets its foreign policy. And that means it’s leaving. Starting from there, all relations between the EU and Britain, and those affecting Gibraltar, will require the opinion and the favorable vote of Spain.”

Mariano Rajoy at La Moncloa palace, the seat of government.
Mariano Rajoy at La Moncloa palace, the seat of government.Samuel Sánchez (EL PAÍS)

Although Rajoy demands a voice for Spain in this key decision, observers note that right now the country is not playing a leading role in European strategy policy despite its size and recent economic successes. In July 2015, Spain was dealt a blow with the re-election of Jeroen Dijsselbloem to preside the Eurogroup, the name given to meetings of euro-zone finance ministers. Luis de Guindos, the Spanish economy minister, had been a leading candidate for the post.

Shortly before the interview with Rajoy, the Dutch Eurogroup chief had attracted a furious reaction from southern EU members following public remarks about states that spend their money “on liquor and women” and then ask for bailout funds. Asked if he would like to see a Spanish-speaking Eurogroup chief, Rajoy said that “the Spanish economy minister is really one of the most important and able personalities in the Eurogroup.” The position is up for grabs again in January 2018.

The Spanish PM also argued that Spain’s recent economic successes deserve a corresponding role within the European hallways of power.

“We want to play the role that befits us,” he said. “Spain is a big contributor to the EU. We had five years of negative growth, we lost three-and-a-half million jobs and €70 billion in lost taxes. I arrived in government in late 2011, and I can tell you that the years 2012 and 2013 were a nightmare. In 2014 we began to grow and create jobs; we grew 1.4%. And in 2017, if there is political stability, we will grow 2.5% and create more than 400,000 jobs. There was a meeting of the European Council in June 2012 in which Mr Mario Monti [then the prime minister of Italy] and I had a bitter debate until the early hours of the morning, and after that there was more talk about economic growth and less about austerity.”

Spain always did well for itself when it looked beyond its own borders

Rajoy also posited that current immigration policies adopted by Europe are the same ones that Spain had in place years ago to deal with its own waves of migrants from Africa, and that the EU funds for youth unemployment were an initiative put forward by Spain.

As for Spain and Europe’s relationship with the rest of the world, the leader of the Spanish conservatives would not issue a personal opinion on US President Donald Trump, stressing instead that “I want there to be a good relationship with the United States. We have almost always had one: we share values, principles, a sense of democracy, freedom and respect for others with the American people... but that doesn’t mean that we cannot disagree on some subjects.”

“I am worried about trade,” he admitted. “Spain always did well for itself when it looked beyond its own borders. We signed a free-trade agreement with Canada. I think the treaty with Japan is going well, and at the last European Council, Portugal and ourselves asked to revitalize the agreement with Mercosur. And it is very important to update the EU’s agreement with Mexico – President Peña Nieto personally asked me for this.”

Spain recently expressed support for Mexico in the context of the latter’s deteriorating relationship with the new US administration. But some critics say that this support has not been as strong as it should be, and that Spain could be acting as a bridge between the US and Latin American governments.

Mariano Rajoy during the interview with LENA reporters.
Mariano Rajoy during the interview with LENA reporters.Samuel Sánchez (EL PAÍS)

“I will not be a mediator nor a bridge,” said Rajoy. “What I will say is that Spain is part of two communities: the European one and the Ibero-American one. We are ready to help whoever needs our support, and we defend that it would be in the best interest of both communities to have more and better relationships with one another.”

Improved relationships are likely something that Rajoy would like to see within his own parliament, where he now heads a minority government following 10 months of political deadlock and two national elections in Spain. The effects of his weakened position are already palpable: a congressional majority recently stonewalled a government attempt at liberalizing the dockers sector, which Rajoy says sends out the negative message that Spain will not abide by European rules on this point. And the government also faces an uphill struggle to get its budget approved.

But Rajoy insists that early elections are not an option.

“I knew this was going to be hard,” he said. “At the investiture debate I said I was aware that I had to act with the greatest responsibility, trying to reach agreements and create dialogue, and that everyone should do the same. Some important decisions have been made that I am satisfied with, especially economic ones. We’ve lost some votes, that’s normal. […] But I do not want to call early elections and I will do everything in my power to prevent them. There was already enough nonsense in 2016. I will repeat it ad nauseam: I will not call early elections.”

English version by Susana Urra.

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