Three weeks after becoming Spanish prime minister in a successful no-confidence motion that brought down the conservative government of Mariano Rajoy, Pedro Sánchez knows what he wants to do – but also what he doesn’t want to do.
In a recent interview with the 46-year-old leader of the Spanish Socialist Party (PSOE), that touched on everything from immigration to Franco, what emerged is that Sánchez’s main goal is to take back the initiative and not let others set the pace for the government.
This is especially evident on the issue of Catalonia, where a breakaway attempt by separatists last year triggered Spain’s biggest political crisis in decades. Sánchez is planning to meet personally with Catalan premier Quim Torra, a hard-line separatist, on July 9, in a move aimed at ending the protracted break in bilateral relations between Madrid and Barcelona.
Sánchez only has 85 deputies in the 350-seat Congress, making it difficult for him to implement his government program. But he still feels that he can make progress on issues such as workplace exploitation, child poverty, or moving the remains of former dictator Francisco Franco out of the controversial Valley of the Fallen monument outside Madrid.
The PM said he will also seek reform on issues where he can count on support from other parties, such as euthanasia and labor laws. Sánchez also wants to raise Spain’s profile within the European Union, where he supports a more ambitious euro reform and greater integration on immigration policy.
The interview took place inside the prime minister’s office in La Moncloa. The room looks practically the same as it did under Rajoy, except that there are more plants around (Pedro Sánchez likes cacti). There is also a faint smell of incense in the air.
Question. How is the government going to react to the Catalan executive’s decision to break all relations with the Spanish king?
Answer. The days when the Spanish government made the problems with Catalonia even worse are over. We have to take this one step at a time and rebuild the trust and loyalty that were broken during these years of conflict between the governments of Catalonia and Spain. That is the message I am going to deliver to Torra when I meet him on July 9. There are many things that can be done. Since 2011 there have been no meetings of the bilateral committee, which could help with things like streamlining infrastructure and investment. And in the midterm, all political forces must address the issue of updating the Constitution.
Q. What if the Catalan premier develops more secessionist legislation?
A. I am hoping that they will not go back to the unilateral path. The crisis in Catalonia is not going to get solved in a year, or in two, or even in five or six years. We’re dealing with a crisis that’s going to require generosity and effort from all sides for the coming decade. It will first require normalized institutional relations, and then agreements. There is a political crisis in Catalonia and the solution must emanate from politics, not from the courts. In exchange for that, I demand a reciprocal will to rebuild trust on the part of the Catalan government.
Q. Will the government order the transfer of Catalan politicians to Catalan prisons before you meet with Torra?
A. I make no connection whatsoever between the outcome of our meeting and an issue that falls strictly within the realm of the judiciary and prison authorities. My view is that, once the investigation phase [of the rebellion probe] is far enough along, prisoners – particularly those in preventive detention – should be close to their families and lawyers. It’s not a matter of tactics. While we were in the opposition we were very critical of the lack of political response to the Catalan crisis. We criticized the fact that the government was hiding behind the judges. But we respect Judge Llarena’s investigation, and when penitentiary authorities feel that there is no risk of hindering that investigative phase, a decision will be made.
Q. Are you also going to transfer ETA prisoners closer to home?
A. That’s a different issue. ETA prisoners were convicted in court. Now that ETA has announced its dissolution, thus admitting its defeat by the rule of law, it is obvious that politics need to adapt to that new reality. But logically we will keep the victims of terrorism in mind.
Q. Immigration is currently the most deeply divisive subject in the European Union, and everything indicates that the EU’s position is going to get tougher. Does Spain share this position?
A. The migration crisis is fundamentally caused by demographics. Between 2018 and 2050, the EU will continue to have a population of around 700 million, but Africa’s will soar to 2.4 billion. And 60% of that population will be under 25; 40% of all children born in 2050 will be born in Africa. This is not the kind of challenge that can be solved in the short term.
In the midterm, a great Marshall Plan will be required to bring democratic, economic and social stability to those countries of origin. And in the short term, the EU must regulate migratory flows. It is demagoguery to claim that you’re going to shut down the border, and it is demagoguery to say you will conduct an “open door” policy. The Socialist government has already dealt with situations like these in the past. In 2004 and 2006, around 90,000 human beings arrived on the shores of the Canary Islands. And we said that we needed a European agreement to deal with this crisis. There can’t be a unilateral response. With the Aquarius, we resorted to solidarity, but a humanitarian crisis is one thing, and immigration policy is another. And immigration policy requires a common response, a European response.
Q. Italy is rejecting other ships again. Will Spain take in more?
A. We will not be insensitive to humanitarian tragedies, but it is evident that Spain alone cannot provide an answer.
Q. The public statements you and Emmanuel Macron have made are right now the most pro-European within the EU. Are Spain and France allies?
A. I had a chance to chat with Macron and we have shared goals on immigration. I am grateful for his assistance with the Aquarius crisis. We also agree on economic and monetary integration. There’s been significant steps on the issue of a euro zone budget, and I would like one of the fundamental pillars to be the creation, once and for all, of a tax on financial transactions, and the completion of the banking union. Having a common guarantee and deposit fund would be a decisive step. And also a single Treasury.
Q. Are you trying to join the Paris-Berlin axis, considering that Italy is being left out?
A. That is a choice the Italian government is making. What we want is a pro-European front to reduce europhobia. We want to incorporate other pro-European countries. We want to reinforce that Madrid-Paris-Berlin axis. From a historical perspective, every time that France, Germany and Spain have worked together, things have gone well for the EU. I would also like to see Lisbon join.
Q. What’s going to change in Spanish immigration policy? Are you going to take down the barbed wire, stop sending people back at the border, eliminate the holding centers (CIE)?
A. We are open to improving the CIEs, but not to eliminating them, because it’s obvious that we need them. As for the concertina [barbed] wire, Spain has a stringent policy of immigration control, but human rights can still be respected. We are considering how to replace the concertina wire, which is not to say that Spain is going to open its doors. Migration flows can be contained without having to injure human beings.
Q. When are you going to take Franco’s remains out of the Valley of the Fallen?
A. We want that to happen immediately. I think that a mature and European democracy such as ours cannot have symbols separating Spaniards. This government is going to carry out the mandate given to it by Congress in 2017 to turn the Valley of the Fallen into a place of reconciliation.
Q. Could you give us a date? Before August? Many people question whether it’s going to happen at all.
A. It will be done. If there’s anything I have demonstrated, that’s executive ability.
Q. One of the biggest problems in this country is that young people are worse off than their parents. Yet the government speaks about seniors and pensions, not about young people. What can be done?
A. I have closely followed the public complaints about precarious working conditions and lack of protection for young workers. The government is going to approve a master plan to fight workplace exploitation.
Q. What will this involve?
A. Right now, regional governments under the PSOE administration are working on many programs. In the Balearic Islands for example, where the hotel sector has a very big presence, resources have been directed at workplace inspections to reveal the reality of labor exploitation that many people in our country unfortunately suffer from.
Q. How are you going to guarantee the sustainability of the pensions system?
A. The government encourages, supports and applauds the agreement between unions and employers to steadily increase wages. In order to increase Social Security revenues, it is crucial for wages to grow… We are also going to open a debate about eliminating the cap on the highest contributions to Social Security.
Q. Do you have a parliamentary majority to approve the 2019 budget? You cannot extend the 2018 budget if it comes from the Popular Party (PP).
A. The government’s aim is going to be to approve budgets with a social agenda and in the meantime to work with what it’s got. For example, at the next Cabinet meeting we are going to approve an emergency plan against childhood poverty… We want to guarantee that school cafeterias will remain open during the summer months, offer summer camps, and fight a painful reality that affects no less than 28% of girls and boys in our country… There will be public funding but we are also going to call on big business to lend a hand.
Q. When are you going to repeal Spain’s so-called “gag law”?
A. That is now going through parliament. We hope that Congress, and I believe we have a majority for this, will modify the most perverse elements of this law.
Q. Will euthanasia be allowed in Spain before the end of your term?
A. This is also going to be one of my main commitments. I want this term to end with a euthanasia law in our country and for it to be offered by the public health system as a basic service.
Q. Spain has been warned by the European Commission that it might not meet its deficit objectives. This would mean adjustments.
A. The finance minister is analyzing the current situation of the budget and public revenue.
Q. Now that you are the prime minister, what do you think about everything that has happened? You were kicked out by your party, you won two primaries, lost two elections, and many people did not trust you.
A. The final lesson in politics and in life is that no path is set in stone. The no-confidence motion signaled a change of era in Spanish politics. It was an “enough already” to corruption and a “yes” to democratic renovation. We are at a time of change in political culture. We cannot operate under the parameters that were considered normal two weeks ago. Spanish society will not tolerate it. The feeling of hope that has emerged is very positive. The government has listened to the demands of the street. Take for instance the demands [of the feminist march and strike] of March 8 regarding the role of women in this country’s social, economic and political life. My Cabinet now has the highest number of women of any cabinet in the world.
Q. Should candidates for public office be put through a qualifying test?
A. I don’t aim to have apostles or saints at the head of the government, and I don’t think citizens want that either.
Q. Would Màxim Huerta [who resigned six days after being appointed culture minister over a tax scandal] have passed a qualifying test? What went wrong?
A. Perhaps not being aware of citizens’ perception of things. As soon as he realized the extent of it, he accepted responsibility.
Q. Did you always think you would end up being prime minister?
A. No, not at all. My roadmap did not involve a no-confidence motion. My plan was to prepare first for the municipal elections, and later for the general elections. The PSOE’s success lay in realizing that the Gürtel ruling was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Politics was becoming just a succession of scandals. Now it has returned to its natural place, which is to talk about unemployment, salaries and reform.
Q. What do you think about when you look back?
A. This is a government without any mortgages, which is important. It is also a government that was born out of utterly extraordinary circumstances. Its main objective now is to consolidate this change of era: that is its main task.
Q. Are you just lucky or very persistent?
A. They are not incompatible. I am both.