Spanish PM: “Catalonia is Europe’s battle”

In this exclusive EL PAÍS interview, Mariano Rajoy stands firm before the separatist challenge, ahead of a session in the regional parliament that could produce an independence declaration

Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy during the interview with EL PAÍS.Video: ALEJANDRO RUESGA / ÁLVARO DE LA RÚA, LUIS ALMODÓVAR

Mariano Rajoy is aware that with the Catalan secessionist challenge, he is facing one of the most serious situations in the history of Spanish democracy. There are many voices that are calling on him to take more forceful action in the face of the speed with which the regional government, the Generalitat, and the regional parliament are heading toward a declaration of independence while tensions in the street are still running high. During an interview with EL PAÍS, the prime minister showed he is prepared to use all of the instruments that the law places in his hands to avoid the breakup of Spain, but he also called for citizens to have faith in his government and respect its right to choose the moment and the correct level of response, with the aim that the outcome cause the least amount of damage possible.

Question. Society is worried. Citizens are scared. Two or three generations of Spaniards are facing a situation that they never thought they would live through. What message would you like to send to all of those people?

Answer. I understand their anxiety very well. We are talking about something that is very important and that affects all of us as Spaniards. We are talking about the unity of our nation. Spain has made a huge amount of progress, above all in the last 40 years, and today it is one of the major economies in the world and one of the places with the highest level of rights, of freedoms, of well-being, of progress and of attention to people. I want to tell them that we are going to move forward. And also that they have a government that is going to defend – as it is its obligation to do – national unity and national sovereignty. And it is going to do so taking all the decisions that it has to take and at the moment that it is necessary to do so. And trying to see that this is sorted out with the lowest amount of damage possible. It will be very important also at the current time to see the return of that Constitutional Catalan spirit that was in favor of negotiations and that contributed to economic growth and the improvement of our well-being and wealth in the last 40 years. That it end its alliances with extremists and radicals and that it seek that alliance with the parties that represent practically the half of Catalonia, those that have been discriminated against and those that have not even been able to have an opinion on the important decisions that have been taken in recent times. Be sure that this battle is going to be fought and is going to be won, because it is a fair battle, it’s a legal battle and it is what the immense majority of Spaniards want and what we all feel.

This battle is going to take place and is going to be won, because it is a fair battle, it’s a legal battle and it is what the immense majority of Spaniards want and what we all feel

Q. Is there a risk that Spain ends up divided?

A. Absolutely not. Spain is not going to divide and national unity will be maintained. To do so we will use all of the instruments that the legislation gives us. It falls to the government to take the decision and to do so at the right time. We have listened to a lot of people. We believe that we know what the Spanish people are thinking. And they should know that the government also knows what it has to do.

Q. What will the government do in the case that next week the Catalan parliament makes a statement in favor of independence?

A. We are going to stop independence from taking place. As such I can say to you with complete candor that it is not going to happen. It is evident that we will take any of the decisions that the law allows according to how events progress. I want to say one thing with complete clarity: while the threat of a declaration of independence does not disappear from the political panorama it is going to be very difficult for the government not to make decisions.

“We have the battle of European values and we also have to win that”

Question. The challenge of independence is also of concern to our neighbors. There is a lot of talk in the European media of an explosive situation in Spain. What message would you like to give Europe?

Answer. I would say that this is their battle. It's Europe's battle. In 2012, we had the battle of the euro in Spain. And we as Europeans won that battle. Now we have the battle of European values and we also have to win that.

Europe began with the European Coal and Steel Community and then there was the Treaty of Rome. The European project’s aim was to overcome the difficulties two world wars had thrown up. It was about having no more wars. It was about creating a space in which principles such as democracy, freedom, the rule of law, and respect for the law could be nurtured; a space for economic and social progress.

In recent years, we have witnessed a challenge from a number of quarters to these European values that for me and, I believe for most Europeans, are the right values. Populism is surfacing everywhere. We’ve seen what happened with Brexit; there are figures such as Le Pen and Mr Farage, and there is the extreme right in Germany that challenges the supremacy of the law and respect for people’s rights. These were seriously damaged in the parliamentary sessions that took place on September 6 and 7. Which is why I say that this is Europe’s battle and that Europe has to win it in the same way it won the battle of the euro. And I encourage Europe to continue with what it’s doing which is defending the unity of its nations, the enforcement of the law and the Constitutions of its member states.

Some days ago, the former French Prime Minister Valls rightly said that if we let this go ahead, other issues in other parts of the continent will arise. And that’s not acceptable. This is a battle in which European values are at stake. I am convinced that all the European governments will continue to support the Constitution and the enforcement of the law.

Q. Does that include Article 155 of the Constitution?

A. I am not ruling out anything that the law says. What I have to do, is do things at the right time, which is the most important thing right now. The ideal situation would be to not have to take drastic solutions, but for that to happen there would have to be rectifications.

Q. Are you conscious that there has been debate about the appropriateness of using Article 155 before we got to the current situation? Why has your government rejected its use until now?

A. There are a lot of opinions and I understand them all. However, look at the position of the most important parties in parliament. The Socialist Party [PSOE] is arguing for constitutional reform and is not keen on 155. Mr Rivera [Ciudadanos] wants that article to be applied but only so that we call regional elections in Catalonia. Podemos wants there to be a mediation on the part of someone and that the government sit down and negotiate under the threat of this blackmail. There are many different opinions, and then each citizen has their own. I am the only Spaniard who cannot say what has to be done, because I will have to do it when the time comes. I would like for the threat of a declaration of independence to be withdrawn as quickly as possible, because that is going to make things very difficult in the future. If they withdraw it, they will avoid greater problems. More negative things are being caused for everyone as time goes on. The simulation of a referendum was negative for everyone. That’s where we see the economic consequences in the tourism sectors, in the business sectors. The markets are starting to get nervous. The more time that passes without withdrawing the independence declaration, the worse it is for everyone. And we still have time.

Q. There are other instruments in the Constitution apart from 155: the state of exception or even the state of siege. In what measure or in what order do you think that they should be applied?

A. What the prime minister suggests to his Cabinet cannot be made public beforehand, as you will understand. And logically, beforehand I would have to speak with other political forces as events play out.

Q. Can the government tolerate a phased declaration of independence, one that is not immediately effective, as the Catalan parliament could try?

A. Look, no. There is no government in the world that is prepared to accept talking about the unity of its country nor about the threat to the unity of its country. Nothing can be constructed under the threat of blackmail. As such, it is completely irrelevant that they try for the declaration of independence to go into force the next day or for it to be a declaration of independence with a suspensory condition, a settlement, delayed or with any of the multiple forms that are circulating out there. We are going to see if we can be serious and leave things clear: nothing can be constructed if the threat against national unity does not disappear. Not in Spain and not anywhere in the world.

The ideal situation would be to not have to take drastic solutions, but for that to happen there would have to be rectifications

Q. Is there any way of impeding that next step? Even if it is null and void from the start, can the state stop the act itself of a declaration of independence?

A. It depends fundamentally on the regional premier [Carles Puigdemont]. What is up to the government is to proceed with its annulment and that it never enter into force. At the current time the regional premier has called a session in parliament to talk about the political situation in Catalonia, not to talk about a declaration of independence. It is not definite that the issue will be on the order of the session. It isn’t right now.

Q. Has it surprised you that things have got as far as they have today?

A. I never ruled it out, because it was said to me a lot of times.

Q. Your strategy before October 1 was to assure people that there would be no referendum. There was not one that could be described as such, but we have seen more ballot boxes and voting slips than we expected to see. Outside of Spain this has given it a certain emotional validity. It gives the impression that it exceeded the calculations of the government.

A. We had an obligation, and that was to impede the referendum, and everyone knows that a referendum did not take place. Our second big objective was that it was done with the least amount of damage possible. What took place was due to the determination to maintain an appearance of a referendum when they knew it was completely illegal. That is the huge irresponsibility of those who took the decision.

“I have a duty to keep calm and get the final decision right”

Question. Until now, or at least until several weeks ago, you were the prime minister who got Spain out of the economic crisis. Are you worried how you will be remembered following this crisis in Catalonia? Are you worried that now you'll be the prime minister who was in power during a particularly turbulent period – a period in which Spain experienced the biggest clash within its borders in a long time?

Answer. As I said previously, it wasn't me who dismissed constitutionality, violated the law and tried to get rid of the Spanish Constitution and the Catalonian Autonomous Estatut in the space of six hours while drawing up a parallel and temporary constitution in four. That's not my responsibility. It's the responsibility of those who did it. Sometimes, we have a tendency to share out responsibility, but this is not mine. However, I am very concerned about it. It's obvious I'm very concerned because it's of great importance to the Spanish people and, of course, to me. In short, I don't know how I'll be remembered in the history books but what I can tell you is that independence is not going to happen and that, probably, will help me be remembered in a reasonable way.

Q. We imagine you sometimes read the newspapers. And at times you will read EL PAÍS and you will have seen what's said about you, and picked up on the way you're portrayed by the journalists here. Often it's as a prime minister on the defensive, pretty much alone and in power during a difficult political period. Is that how you feel?

A. No. Whether through good luck or bad, I've been in politics for some years and during those years, some difficult situations have cropped up. This one is without a doubt very difficult. But, at this stage in my life, I have to do what I believe in because at the end of the day I have to decide what is best for Spain. And I have to try to be fair. I have to try to be impartial. I have a duty to listen to people and I know what many of them are thinking. But, above all, I have a duty to keep calm. That's the most important thing I can do, even when the situation gets difficult because if I don't keep calm I might take the wrong decision. Everyone else can offer heated opinions. But, in my role, I can't decide in a heated state of mind. In any case, my ultimate duty is to get it right and that is probably the hardest thing of all.

Q. Could the government have done something to avoid us reaching this moment?

A. I was given two suggestions that I could not understand and that I knew were not going to come to pass. One was to request a fiscal system like the Basque agreement. I remember that I spoke to the general secretary of the PSOE about this and he was radically opposed, as we all were. We offered [former regional premier] Artur Mas the chance to go to parliament to defend his position but he didn’t want to. Afterward they called for the famous referendum. Whatever happened. During talks you can’t suggest to your interlocutor an adhesion contract that you either sign or oppose. That is exactly what I went through with Mr Puigdemont. Either there is a referendum or there is nothing to discuss. From there, we may have made other mistakes, but the fundamental error has been to try to hold a referendum in which national sovereignty is called into question. I positively knew that I was not going to authorize it.

Q. Has the government lacked the political initiative to present, as many were calling for – including EL PAÍS – a project for Catalonia aimed at those anti-independence citizens who are still not comfortable with the current situation?

A. We are coming from 40 very positive years for the history of our country, since the approval of the Constitution. Spain is a country of which we can be proud. We have one of the highest levels of GDP in the world, and high per capita income. It’s a country with democracy, with freedom, with human rights and with the separation of powers, and it is integrated in the European Union. The 1978 Constitution was a great pact between Spaniards in which everyone was obliged to cede in terms of their positions. A system was created with the highest level of self-government for the regions in our history. Since then we have done great things, such as entering into Europe. Now we have to continue to build Europe, which is facing very important debates in terms of defense, immigration, with respect to refugees or how to better integrate ourselves. I believe that this is a much more exciting project than a project of division, of separation, and of a return to the past. A project that, as has been seen now, is based on deception.

Q. During the last year, you put the response to the Catalan challenge in the hands of Deputy Prime Minister Soraya Sáenz de Santamaría. There was even talk of an Operation Dialogue. However, it appears you focused more on the juridical response than in presenting an attractive political proposal.

“The Civil Guard and the National Police will remain in Catalonia until things return to normal”

Question. Do you think the Catalan regional police, the Mossos d'Esquadra, acted disloyally to the Spanish government on October 1?

Answer. Allow me to say the following: I believe that the politicians in the Catalan government have seriously compromised the standing of the Mossos d'Esquadra. I absolutely believe this to be the case. Having said that, the question remains: should we trust them or not? All security forces, be they the Mossos d'Esquadra, the National Police or the Civil Guard, are in Catalonia on the orders of the judges. They are not there on the orders of the government. So it is up to the judges to say whether the Mossos acted correctly or not. Forgive me for not entering into this matter but it is not my business.

Q. But put yourself in the shoes of a Spaniard living in Catalonia whose safety depends on the Mossos d'Esquadra. Do you believe they should feel they are in good hands?

A. Look, what I will say is that the Civil Guard and the National Police will remain in Catalonia until things return to normal.

A. It is very difficult to negotiate with someone who doesn’t have more than one objective and is unable to move a single centimeter. We suggested a Conference of Autonomous Regional Premiers and the Catalan premier didn’t want to come. There we spoke about very important issues for Catalans, such as for example the new regional financing model, pensions, civil protection and the Gender Violence Pact. It was one of the most constructive meetings I have attended in recent times. They didn’t want to take part in the work groups. When someone is unable to move they make it impossible for the other side. That’s exactly what is happening now.

Q. The pro-independence strategy is trying to dislodge Catalonia from the state by force. Is the state present in Catalonia and in control of the situation?

I don’t have to negotiate anything. I have the obligation to call on them to return to the law and normality

A. We have taken two decisions, such as taking control of the public accounts of Catalonia and keeping the public order forces there. These two decisions show that the state has resources to ensure that the law is observed. But it is evident that we have built a state model that stems from the 1978 Constitution, which divides responsibilities between the different institutions. Catalonia manages its health system, education, social services and public order. The state can only intervene in exceptional circumstances, such as those that we are living through now. The problem is that this state model that we have built is based on a capital principal in a democracy, which is the loyalty between institutions, and here that has broken down. But the Constitution itself gives the state the sufficient instruments so that things return to their course. What is happening is that the person who has to take the decision must do so with prudence, and being conscious of the consequences of the decision that is taken.

Q. This week there was an important milestone in this crisis, with the speech made by the king to the Spanish people, in which he called for the restoration of constitutional order. Did you see that as an endorsement for the actions of the government or a warning?

A. I thought the king’s speech was magnificent. He said what the immense majority of Spaniards are thinking. The king thinks, as all of us do, that the law in Catalonia has been broken and it is important for that to not continue into the future. It did not appear to me to be a message aimed at the government. It was a position fixed by the king about an event that is the most important that the Spanish have had in many years in our homeland.

Spanish PM Rajoy.

Q. As we are talking, there are thousands of people out on the streets all over Spain with Spanish flags. Does that expression in the street worry you?

A. This issue affects the deepest feelings of all citizens. We have seen protests called with no well-known figure at the helm, but all of them peaceful and all of them defending common sense, their country, their Constitution, their rights. And all have done so via the peaceful route. People have the right to say I’m Spanish, I’m proud to be so and I’m proud of my Constitution. I think that is right, to be frank.

Q. Are you not afraid that in the face of pro-independence nationalism a Spanish nationalism could emerge?

A. Defending your country never involves a risk. The symbols of your country, your flag, your national anthem, the laws that govern coexistence… it’s something that the whole world has a right to defend. And Spain is a country that in all times has shown a number of displays of moderation, good sense, balance and common sense.

Q. The PSOE has announced its intention to call for the censure of the deputy prime minister for the police actions on October 1. Do you believe that the unity between Pedro Sánchez and Albert Rivera that you have wanted to maintain still exists?

A. In a situation like this one it is not just necessary but essential that the government has the greatest backing possible. On the essential facts, which is what must always be focused on, the Popular Party, the Socialist Party and Ciudadanos agree. The essential thing is the defense of the unity of Spain, the defense of national sovereignty and the defense of the principles and values that are within our Constitution. It is my obligation to maintain unity and we believe in it.

Q. But in the face of the first reaction of the state, the police charges on October 1, that unity appears to have begun to crack on the part of the Socialists. What would happen when more drastic measures are adopted?

A. I must say that there is a quite fluid dialogue with the PSOE and also with Ciudadanos. It’s my obligation to try to see that the unity does not crack and returns.

Q. And will you both accept tougher measures? Have you consulted them already?

A. We are talking.

Q. In those conversations have you spoken on any occasion about a government of national unity?

A. No. I already suggested it after the elections in 2015 and it was not possible. It is not my intention to suggest it again right now. That could help, but the important thing and what would be sufficient is for us all to be together.

We have to continue to build Europe, which is facing very important debates in terms of defense, immigration, with respect to refugees or how to better integrate ourselves

Q. In the interest of that objective, of having the biggest political and parliamentary support possible, a government of national unity would be the instrument that would guarantee this.

A. I have just said that, yes. But it is sufficient for us to be together in these difficult times. It’s my obligation and it would not be sensible to act this way. We are not talking about the income tax rate, we are talking about the unity of Spain.

Q. How did you feel about the statement from the FAES foundation, which has behind it the former PP Prime Minister José María Aznar, that called on you to act or to move aside? Did you see that as an act of disloyalty?

A. Frankly, for some time now I do not respond to such questions.

Q. But the message of Aznar is striking. Do you feel you have the backing of your party?

A. Absolutely. In reality, I have always felt supported by my party, after the difficulties that this government went through and that everyone knows about. If I had not had the support of my party, history would have played out a different way.

Q. You have on the table a notable list of candidates to mediate in this situation.

A. The goodwill of the people is well known and they should be appreciated for it. I would like to say something about mediation: we don’t need mediators. What we need is for those who are breaking the law and those who have put themselves above the law to rectify their position. There is also talk about how we need to negotiate. But the unity of Spain is not up for negotiation. And what’s more there can be no negotiations with the threat of breaking the unity of Spain. Right now there is a negotiation that is the priority, and it is that Mr Puigdemont negotiates and comes to an agreement with the opposition groups in the Catalan parliament, which represent more than half of Catalans, and who have been stopped from even debating the liquidation of the Constitution and the [Catalan] Estatut, or the calling of an illegal referendum.

Spanish PM Rajoy.

Q. Does the government have any communication channel open with Puigdemont or [deputy premier Oriol] Junqueras?

A. The only thing the government has, and knows, is the idea that the unity of Spain cannot be discussed, nor mediated nor be the object of mediation, nor negotiate with the threat of breaking up the unity of Spain.

Q. And what can be negotiated?

A. Within the law anything. Another thing is whether agreements are reached.

Q. And can negotiations begin now? You say that within the law anything can be negotiated. When?

A. While there is no return to the law, I of course will not be negotiating. The prime minister of an advanced and democratic country cannot negotiate with those who ignore the laws. When there is a rectification we will be in a different and normal situation. As we have been during the 40 years in which a lot of things have been negotiated.

Q. So if Mr Puigdemont expressly and publicly renounces the declaration of independence, would you be willing to talk to him the next day?

A. No. Mr Puigdemont has a first priority, which is to talk to the Catalan parliament. What is clear is that we are in a very different situation. This has not happened, and as such we should not get ahead of ourselves. I want the return to normality and it is clear that the return to normality would put us in a different situation.

Q. The government is not imposing conditions then such as stating that Puigdemont or Junqueras could not now take part in negotiations?

A. We are in the situation we find ourselves in right now. We need to set priorities. The priorities are the return to the law and normality.

Q. But this is the situation in which we find ourselves, in which they are considering the possibility of a negotiation.

A. No, I already said to you that there is no negotiation. I don’t have to negotiate anything. I have the obligation to call on them to return to the law and normality.

Q. In the not so immediate future, might your government consider a Constitutional reform?

A. This is not the time to change the blueprint or to say what might happen in 10 months. What Mr Puigdemont has done has consequences, such as companies packing up and leaving and the division that has been created in Catalan society: it will affect tourism, people’s pockets and the Catalonian debt.

There are many things that can be discussed in the future but what I will say now is that there are things I am not going to renounce, such as national sovereignty and national unity. But we can talk and discuss. There is already a commission in Congress for that purpose. But that is something for the future and it has nothing to do with the challenges we are facing now.

Q. Do you think Podemos and its leader Pablo Iglesias is using the Catalonian crisis to try to destabilize Spanish institutions? 

A. When Mr. Iglesias proposed a vote of no confidence, I wasn’t able to get his opinion on national sovereignty, nor could I get him to say what he thought of the Catalan referendum. Recently we have seen how he thinks one thing and then he thinks the opposite. He is not aware of the gravity of some issues nor does he have a role in matters of importance in Spain.

Q. If Catalonian companies had acted earlier, would this problem already have been resolved? 

A. That’s water under the bridge.

Q. Do you see the risk of a ‘corralito’ – economic measures to stop a bank run – in Catalonia?

A. I’m not about to threaten anyone with damnation. The only thing I would say is that you can lie all you like but the truth will emerge in the end. After telling everyone that nothing bad was going to happen, they’re now facing problems. They still have time to get back in the right path and if they don’t, things will only get worse because there’s no alternative.

Q. Have you been at all tempted to bring the Spanish elections forward?

A. No. I’ve always maintained that a country should aspire to stability and normality. I have no intention of bringing the elections forward. That would be madness. I believe it would be bad for Spain and it would send out a message of pessimism to our European colleagues. Situations that create instability cause a lot of damage. That’s what’s happening right now in Catalonia.

English version by Simon Hunter and Heather Galloway.

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