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"A government of national unity could help but it would be sufficient for us to work together"

"It would be ideal not to have to take drastic measures but they must rectify the situation first"

Sunday 8 October 2017

Interview by Antonio Caño, Jorge Rivera and Rafa de Miguel. Mariano Rajoy is aware that the pro-independence challenge in Catalonia constitutes one of the most serious situations in Spanish democracy. Many people are calling for tougher action given the speed with which the Regional Government of Catalonia and the Regional Parliament of Catalonia are moving towards a declaration of independence and the tensions that still prevail in the streets. The President of the Government seems prepared to employ all those instruments that the law has placed in his hands to avoid the unity of Spain being broken up, while calling for confidence in his government and that his right to choose the time and necessary level of response be respected in order for events to unfold with as little harm caused as possible.

Question.- Society is scared. People are scared. Two or three generations of Spaniards facing a situation they never thought they would go through. What message do you want to send out to these people?

President of the Government.- I appreciate their concern very well. We are talking about something that is very important and affects all the people of Spain, We are talking about the unity of our nation. Spain has made a great deal of progress, above all in the last 40 years, and today it is one of the largest economies in the world and one of the places with the most rights, liberties, level of well-being, progress and care for individuals. I want to say to you that we are going to come out of this on top. And also that you have a government that will defend - as is its obligation - national unity and national sovereignty. And it will do so by taking the decisions that it needs to take and at the time it needs to take them. And we will try and do this whilst causing as little harm as possible.

It is also very important at this time - and this should apply to the future - for this pro-Constitution and pro-agreement Catalanism that contributed so much to the economic growth of our country and the improvement in well-being and wealth over the last 40 years to return once again. Alliances with extremists and radicals must be terminated and they should seek this alliance with the parties that represent practically half of Catalonia, those who have been discriminated against and those who haven't even been given the chance to voice their opinion on the important decisions taken in recent times. Rest assured that this battle will be waged and it will be won, because it is a worthy battle, a legal battle and it is what the vast majority of the people of Spain want and what we all feel.

Q.- Is there any risk that Spain might split up?

President of the Government.- Not at all. Spain will not split up and our national unity will be maintained. We will use all the instruments available to us at law to achieve that. It is now down to the government to take a decision and to do so at the right time. We have heard many people's opinions. I believe we know what the people of Spain think. And they should be aware that the government also knows what it must do.

Q.- What will the government do in the event that the Regional Parliament of Catalonia declares independence next week?

President of the Government.- We will stop this independence taking place. That is why I can say to you quite frankly; this is not going to take place. It is clear that we will take any of the decisions available to us at law in light of how events unfold. Let me say something to you loud and clear: until such time as the threat of a declaration of independence goes away from the political panorama it will be very difficult not to see this government taking decisions.

Q.- Does that include Article 155 of the Constitution?

President of the Government.- I do not rule out any instrument provided for at law. What I must do must be done at the right time, which is the most important thing at this juncture. The ideal scenario would be not to have had to employ drastic solutions in the first place, but we would need to see the situation being rectified in order for that to happen.

Q.- You are aware that the suitability of applying Article 155 was discussed prior to reaching the current situation. Why has the government renounced using it before now?

President of the Government.- There are many opinions and I appreciate all of them. However, just look at the position of the most important parties in Parliament. The PSOE [Spanish Socialist Workers' Party] advocates a constitutional reform and yet is not in favour of Article 155. Mr Rivera wants this article to be applied but only so that we call regional elections in Catalonia. Podemos wants to see mediation on the part of someone and for the government to sit down and negotiate under the threat of this blackmail. There are different opinions, and each citizen has his or her own opinion as well. I am the only Spaniard that cannot say what has to be done now, because I will have to take that decision at the right time.

I would like to see the threat of a declaration of independence withdrawn as soon as possible, because this would make things very difficult to resolve in the future. If this is withdrawn, further complications will be avoided. Increasingly more negative events are unfolding for everyone. This simulated referendum was negative for everyone. We can already see the economic consequences in the tourism and business sectors. The markets are starting to get jittery. The longer it takes to withdraw the declaration of independence the worse it will be for everyone. And they still have time to do this.

Q.- There are other instruments in the Constitution aside from Article 155: a state of emergency or even a state of siege. To what extent and in what order to you believe that they should be applied?

President of the Government.- What the President of the Government is going to propose in the Council of Ministers cannot be announced beforehand, as you will fully appreciate. And logically, I will have to speak first, as events unfold, with other political forces.

Q.- Would the  government accept a staggered declaration of independence, one which didn't take immediate effect, as may be attempted in the Regional Parliament of Catalonia?

President of the Government.- Just look, the answer is no. No government in the world would be prepared to accept talking about the unity of its country or about a threat to the unity of its country. You cannot build anything when blackmailed. Hence, it is absolutely irrelevant whether they seek to invoke a declaration of independence that comes into force on the following day or a declaration of independence with a condition precedent, resolutive or deferred and under any other of the multiple formulas being bandied about. Let's see if we can be serious and leave things clear: you cannot build anything until the threat to national unity has gone away; whether that is in Spain or indeed anywhere else in the world.

Q.- Is there any way to prevent the next step? Although it may be null and void from the outset, can the State avoid the actual act of declaring independence taking place?

President of the Government.- That fundamentally depends on the President of the Regional Government of Catalonia. What depends on the government is to then proceed to its annulment and ensure that it never comes into force. At this time, the President of the Regional Government of Catalonia has called a plenary session to talk about the political situation in Catalonia, but not to talk about a declaration of independence. We cannot guarantee that this issue is not on the agenda for the plenary session, but it isn't for the time being.

Q.- Are you surprised about the point that things have reached at this time?

President of the Government.- I never ruled it out because I was told this on many occasions.

Q.- Your strategy prior to 1 October was to ensure that a referendum was not held. There wasn't one that can be acknowledged as such but we have seen more ballot boxes and ballot papers than we expected to see. This has no public value but outside Spain this has managed to give the process a certain emotional value. It gives us the impression that events have got out of the hands of the government.

President of the Government.- We were under an obligation to prevent the referendum, and everyone knows that no referendum has been held. Our second major objective was to do this while causing as little harm as possible. What happened was down to the stubborn insistence on maintaining the appearance of a referendum when they knew that it was absolutely illegal. Those who took that decision were seriously irresponsible in doing so.

Q.- Could the government have done anything else to avoid us reaching this point?

President of the Government.- That would have been very difficult because as from the year 2010, when the Regional Government of Catalonia approved its Budget, the majority party back then - Convergència i Unió [Convergence and Union] - had 62 seats. It approved two Budgets with the support of the People's Party of Catalonia. They forced through early elections and their number dropped to 50 seats. They then organised another simulated referendum, called early elections again and ended up with 30 seats and the need to ally themselves with the CUP [People's Unity Candidature].

I was made two proposals that I couldn't understand and that I knew would not prosper. The first was to ask for a tax system that was similar to the Basque Agreement. I remember that I spoke about this with the General Secretary of the PSOE, who was radically opposed to this proposal, as we all were. We offered Mr Artur Mas the opportunity to defend his position before the Regional Parliament of Catalonia and he chose not to. They then asked for the infamous referendum, without an option to refuse.

When you hold talks you cannot propose a standard contract to either be signed or not. That is exactly what I have gone through with Mr Puigdemont. There is either a referendum or nothing to talk about. After that, we may have made other mistakes, but the fundamental mistake has been to try and hold a referendum in which our national sovereignty is judged. He was perfectly well aware that this would never be authorised.

Q.- Did the government lack the political initiative to present, as many people called for - including EL PAÍS - a Project for Catalonia aimed at those citizens against independence who were uncomfortable with the current situation?

President of the Government.- We have just been through 40 very positive years in the history of our country, as from the approval of the Constitution. Spain is a country that we can be proud of. We have one of the highest levels of GDP in the world and a very significant per capita income. It is a country with democracy, liberty, human rights and the separation of powers, and a member of the European Union. The 1978 Constitution was a great agreement reached between Spaniards in which everyone was forced to give some ground. A system was established with the greatest level of self-governance for our regions in our history. Since then, we have done great things, such as join Europe. We now have to continue building Europe, which is facing some very important debates on defence issue, immigration, refugees and on more and better integration. I believe that this is a much more inspiring project than a divisive project, one of separation and a return to the past. This is a project which, as is being seen at this time, is based on deceit.

Q.- During this last year, you placed the response to the Catalan challenge in the hands of the Vice-President of the Government, Soraya Sáenz de Santamaría. You even spoke about Operation Dialogue. However, it seems that there was a greater focus on the legal response to the offensive than in presenting an attractive political alternative.

President of the Government.- It is very difficult to hold dialogue with people who only have one goal and are incapable of budging an inch. We proposed a Conference of Regional Presidents but the President of the Regional Government of Catalonia chose not to attend. There we spoke about some very important issues for the people of Catalonia, such as the new model of regional financing, pensions, civil protection and the pact on gender-based violence. It was one of the most constructive meetings I have attended in a long time. They chose not to take part in the working meetings. When someone has zero flexibility it is impossible for the other party to manoeuvre. That is exactly what is happening now.

Q.- The pro-independence strategy is trying to remove the State from Catalonia through the force of events. Is the State present in Catalonia and in control of the situation?

President of the Government.- We have taken two decisions, which are to control the public accounts in Catalonia and to take control of enforcing public order there. These two decisions show that the State has resources to ensure the law is upheld. But it is clear that we have built a State model, which derives from the 1978 Constitution, which divides responsibilities among the different institutions. Catalonia manages healthcare, education, social services and public order. The State can only intervene in exceptional circumstances such as those we are witnessing at this time. The problem is that this State model we have created is based on a key principle in a democracy, which is loyalty between different institutions, and that principle has failed here. But our Constitution provides the State with sufficient instruments to ensure that things return to their correct path. What is happening is that the person who has to take decisions must do so prudently and be fully aware of the consequences deriving from those decisions.

Q.- There was an important milestone in this crisis this week with the speech from the King to the Spanish people, in which he called for the constitutional order to be restored. Do you see this as support for the government's actions or as a wake-up call?

President of the Government.- I thought the King's message was wonderful. He said what the vast majority of Spanish people think. The King thinks that the law has been violated in Catalonia, as absolutely all of us do, and that it is necessary for these violations not to continue in the future. I don't believe that this was a message directed at the government. That was a position set by the King regarding an event that is the most important thing the Spanish people have had to face in our country in many years.

Q.- At this very moment, thousands of people are demonstrating throughout Spain with Spanish flags. Are you concerned by this public manifestation?

President of the Government.- My position cannot be the same as that of Spanish citizens in terms of demonstrating. You can appreciate that. This issue affects the most profound feelings of all our people. We have seen that demonstrations have been called without anyone recognisable at the forefront, but they are all peaceful and people are defending common sense there, their country, their Constitution and their rights. And they have all done this peacefully. People are entitled to declare that they are Spanish, and that they are proud of that and proud of their Constitution. That is fine with me, I can say that in all honesty. The right to demonstrate is a right duly acknowledged in the Constitution, and hence, provided that this is done how it is being done and obeying the law, then people have a right to express themselves.

Q.- Do you not fear another form of Spanish nationalism rising up against the pro-independence nationalism?

President of the Government.- Defending your country can never be a risk. The symbols of your country - your flag, your national anthem, the rules that govern us living together - are something that everyone is entitled to defend. And Spain is a country that in recent times has shown many examples of moderation, common sense, balance and good reason. That is not recognised, but it is also appropriate to state this because we are proud of that. And, if not, just look around at what has happened in our neighbouring countries.

Q.- The PSOE has announced its intention to ask the Lower House of Parliament to reprimand the Vice-President of the Government for the police charges on 1 October. Do you believe that at this time the unity that you sought to preserve with Pedro Sánchez and Albert Rivera still exists?

President of the Government.- In a situation like this it is not just necessary, but in fact essential that the government receives all the support it can get. On the essential matters, which are what should always be looked at, the People's Party, the Socialist Party and Ciudadanos are in agreement. What is essential is defending the unity of Spain, defending national sovereignty and defending the principles and valued contained in our Constitution. I am under an obligation to maintain the unity of those of us who believe in that.

Q.- But given the State's strong reaction through police charges on 1 October, this unity appeared to start to fall apart on the part of the socialists. What will happen when other even more drastic measures are taken?

President of the Government.- I should state that there is fairly fluid dialogue with the PSOE and also with Ciudadanos. I am under an obligation to try and ensure that this unity does not break down again but is actually built up again.

Q.- And will they both accept even harsher measures? Have you already asked them?

President of the Government.- We are talking.

Q.- Have you proposed in these talks on any occasion the possibility of a government of national accord?

President of the Government.- No. I proposed that following the elections in 2015 but it was not possible. I don't intend to propose it again at this time. That could be helpful but what is important and what would be sufficient is for us to all work together in the same direction.

Q.- With a view to this goal, of having the greatest possible political and parliamentary support, a government of national accord could be the right instrument to ensure this.

President of the Government.- That's right, as I just said. But it will be enough for us to work together at this difficult time. That is my obligation and it would be senseless not to act in this way. We are not talking about Personal Income Tax brackets, but about the unity of Spain.

Q.- How did you feel about the press statement released by the FAES Foundation, which had the mark of former President of the Government Aznar all over it, which said that you should either act or stand to one side? Do you interpret this as an act of disloyalty?

President of the Government.- Quite honestly, I haven't answered that kind of question for a long time now.

Q.- But this message from  [José María] Aznar is quite striking. Do you feel you have the support of your party?

President of the Government.- Absolutely. In reality I have always felt the support of my party, after the difficulties that everyone knows this government went through. If I had not had the support of my party, things would have unfolded in a different manner.

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

President of the Government.- There are a great many people with good intentions and we must be grateful for that. Allow me to say something about this issue of mediation - we don't need mediators. What we need is for the person who is breaking the law and who has placed himself above the law to rectify that situation. There is also talk about having to negotiate. But you cannot negotiate the unity of Spain. And furthermore, you cannot negotiate with the threat of breaking the unity of Spain. At this time there is one negotiation which is the top priority and that is for Mr Puigdemont to negotiate and reach an agreement with the opposition groups in the Regional Parliament of Catalonia, which represent more than half of the people of Catalonia, and who have thus far been prevented from debating the liquidation of the Constitution and the Statute of Autonomy, and the call for an illegal referendum. And now he is going to prevent them from debating… I don't know about what, let's wait and see.

Q.- Does the government have any channel of communication open at this time with [Carles] Puigdemont or with [Oriol] Junqueras?

President of the Government.- The only thing the government has, and he knows this, is the idea that you cannot discuss breaking the unity of Spain, or of mediating, or being the subject of mediation, or negotiating the threat of breaking the unity of Spain.

Q.- And what can be negotiated?

President of the Government.- Everything can be negotiated within the limits of the law. It is quite another matter as to whether agreements can be reached on not.

Q.- And can negotiations begin now? You say that everything can be negotiated within the limits of the law. When?

President of the Government.- I will not negotiate until such time as they return to the folds of legality. The President of the Government of an advanced and democratic country cannot negotiate with someone who flagrantly flaunts the law. As soon as there is a rectification we will return to a different and normal situation, as we have been in for the last 40 years, during which time many things have been negotiated.

Q.- So, if Mr Puigdemont expressly and publicly renounced the declaration of independence, you would be prepared to speak with him the following day?

President of the Government.- No. First of all, Mr Puigdemont must speak with the Regional Parliament of Catalonia. What is clear is that we would then be in a very different situation. That has not happened yet, and so let's not get ahead of the game. I want to see a return to normality and it is clear that a return to normality would place us in a very different situation.

Q.- So the government isn't imposing any conditions such as indicating that [Carles] Puigdemont and [Oriol] Junqueras are disqualified from any negotiations?

President of the Government.- We are in the position we are in now. Let's set our priorities. The priorities are returning to legality and normality.

Q.- But that is the position that we do find ourselves in, whereby they are considering the possibility of negotiations.

President of the Government.- No, I have already said that there are no negotiations at this time. I have nothing to negotiate. I am under an obligation to ask them to return to legality and normality.

Q.- Could your government consider a constitutional reform as a potential instrument in the not so near future?

President of the Government.- It is not the time to start swapping cards or to announce what might happen in 10 months or not. What Mr Puigdemont has done has its consequences, on those companies that are leaving, on the division created in Catalan society, on tourism, on people's pockets, on the credibility of Catalonia. We can talk about many things in the future. What I can say to you is that I am not going to renounce certain things, such as national sovereignty and national unity. But we can talk. A committee has already been set up in the Lower House of Parliament. But that is all in the future and has nothing to do with the challenge we are facing at this time.

Q.- Do you think that Podemos, and its leader, Pablo Iglesias, are using the crisis in Catalonia with the aim of causing the de-stabilisation of the institutions?

President of the Government.- When Mr Iglesias tabled a vote of no confidence in me I did not manage to get an opinion out of him on national sovereignty, not did I manage to get him to say what he thought about a referendum in Catalonia. Recently, we have seen how he thinks one thing and then another on many occasions. He is not aware of the importance of some things and nor has he adopted a position on the most important thing happening in Spain.

Q.- If business owners in Catalonia had acted strongly earlier, as they are doing now, would this problem have been resolved sooner?

President of the Government.- That is water under the bridge.

Q.- Do you see a risk of getting penned in in Catalonia?

President of the Government.- I am not going to threaten anyone with the evils of hell. The only thing I can say is that when you lie so much, reality ends up hitting home. After saying to everyone that nothing was going to happen here, the problems are now starting.  They still has time to rectify the situation, buy if not, things will just go from bad to worse, because that is the only possible scenario.

Q.- Have you been tempted to call early elections in Spain at any time?

President of the Government.- No. I have always said that a country must aspire to a situation of stability and normality. I have no intention whatsoever of calling early elections. That seems foolish to me. I believe that this would be bad for Spain and would send out a dreadful message to our European partners. Situations of instability cause a great deal of harm. That is what is happening now in Catalonia.

"This is a European battle"

Q.- The pro-independence challenge also concerns our neighbours. In Europe, there were some tremendous words spoken this week in the media, talking about an explosion in Spain. What is your message to Europe?

President of the Government.- What I would say to them is that this is their battle. This is a battle for Europe. In 2012, the battle over the Euro was waged in Spain. And we, the Europeans, won that battle. We are now fighting over the cause of European values and we must also win this. Europe was born out of the European Coal and Steel Treaty and then came the Treaty of Rome. The issue to address through this great European project was to overcome a situation that had given rise to two world wars on our continent. The question was to ensure that no more wars broke out; the goal was to create an area with such principles and values as democracy, liberty, the rule of law and respect for the law. A space for socio-economic progress. Recently, we have seen movements rising up in various places against these European values which, for me and I believe that for most Europeans, are the good ones.

Populism is on the rise everywhere. We have seen what happened with 'Brexit'; people have emerged on the scene such as [Marine] Le Pen, such as [Nigel] Farage, such as the German far right, and similar things are happening in other countries. Here we have seen the rise of national populism, which goes against European values, against the rule of law, against the supremacy of law, against respect for the rights of individuals. All of this was seriously harmed at the sessions of the Regional Parliament of Catalonia on 6 and 7 September. That is why I say that this is a battle for Europe and that Europe must win this battle as it also won the battle over the Euro. Hence, I would encourage Europe to continue with what it is doing, defending the unity of nations, ensuring that the law is upheld, defending the Constitutions of countries. A few days ago the former French Prime Minister, [Manuel] Valls, said and rightly so, that if we allow this to continue then others things will also happen in other places on the continent. And that is unacceptable. Hence, this is a cause in which European values are at play. I am convinced that all European governments will continue to back the Constitution and compliance with the law.

"The Guardia Civil and the police will remain in Catalonia until the situation returns to normality"

Q.- Do you believe that the Mossos d'Esquadra acted disloyally towards the government on 1 October?

President of the Government.- If you will allow me, I will say the following. I believe that the political authorities of the Regional Government of Catalonia have caused great harm to the prestige of the Mossos d'Esquadra. I believe that in all honesty. Aside from that, do we trust them or not? All authorities that exercise a security role - Mossos d'Esquadra, the National Police and the Guardia Civil - were in Catalonia on the orders of the judiciary. Those orders were not given by the government. And hence, it will be the judges who have to decide on whether the actions by the Mossos d'Esquadra were correct or not. Please allow me not to go into detail on this matter because it does not correspond to me to analyse that today.

Q.- But place yourself in the position of a Spanish citizen who lives in Catalonia where the police who protect him or her are the Mossos d'Esquadra, who hold all the powers on the issue of security. Do you believe that they can feel calm at this time and that their security is in good hands?

President of the Government.- Look, what I can say to you is that the Guardia Civil and the National Police will remain in Catalonia until such time as the situation returns to normality.

"I am under an obligation to remain calm and get the final decision right"

Q.- Until today, or at least until a few weeks ago, you were the President of the Government who brought Spain out of the economic crisis. Are you concerned how you will go down in history after the crisis in Catalonia? Are you concerned that instead of this you will go down as the President of the Government who governed during the worst period of turmoil, at a time in which Spain suffered the worst social upheaval in many years?

President of the Government.- As I said before, it is not me who has broken the law, who has violated legality and who sought to wipe out a Constitution, the Spanish Constitution, in a mere six hours, as well as a Statute of Autonomy, the Statute of Autonomy of Catalonia, and who created a parallel legality and a Transience Act in four hours. That is not my responsibility, that is the responsibility of those who did everything that I have just mentioned. Sometimes we have a certain tendency to share responsibility, but that was not my responsibility. But yes, I am very concerned by this issue. It is clear that this concerns me a great deal because this is a key issue for the Spanish people and, of course, that is the most important thing for me. In short, I don't know how I will go down in history, but what I can assure you is that there will be no independence and that will probably help me to at least receive a reasonable write-up in the history books.

Q.- I imagine you read the papers from time to time. And sometimes you will read our paper, and you will have seen the things that are said about you, about how we, the journalists, portray you. The image of you is often of a President of the Government on his back foot, standing alone and at a very tough time politically. Is that how you feel?

President of the Government.- No. I don't know whether fortunately or unfortunately, but I have been in politics for some years now and have gone through quite a few tough situations. This is undoubtedly the most difficult of all of them. But, at this time in my life, I have to do what I believe, because in the end I have to take the decision as to what is best for Spain. And I have to try and be fair, I have to try and be unbiased, I am under an obligation to listen to the people and I know what many people think. But, above all, I am under an obligation to remain calm. That is my top priority, albeit at a difficult time, because if I do not remain calm I may make the wrong decision. Anyone else can give an opinion in the heat of the moment. But, if you are in my situation, what you cannot do is take a decision in the heat of the moment. Furthermore, I have an ultimate obligation, which is to get things rights, and that is probably the most difficult decision of all.

NOTE: Interview published with the authorisation of "El País".

Non official translation