Catalonia’s bid for independence has been the most serious problem Mariano Rajoy has faced since becoming Spain’s prime minister in 2011. Madrid assumed direct control of the region after Catalonia’s declaration of independence last month and will hold new Catalan elections on December 21. A breakup of the euro zone’s fourth-largest economy, although now less likely, could have far-reaching consequences for the EU.
Speaking with Handelsblatt from the Moncloa Palace in Madrid, the 62-year-old explains his response to the Catalan crisis, the country’s biggest political upset in 40 years and the region’s drive for independence.
Handelsblatt: Where do you get that certainty from? What if the separatists regain a majority in parliament?
Spain’s Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy: I’m sure the separatists are losing ground. The people of Catalonia have seen that the separatists cannot live up to their promises. They promised that Europe would support them, but no country has done so. They promised that separating from Spain would have no economic consequences, but already more than 2,000 companies have left Catalonia. I am convinced that the Catalans will draw conclusions from this in the elections.
But according to recent polls, the separatists are at the same level as the last election. They could become a majority in parliament again.
Surveys in turbulent times are not very reliable. A few months before the elections in Germany, the CDU and the SPD were on-par with each other and we all know that the election ended differently.
Do you have a plan B if they win a majority again?
No. The only plan we have is to make sure that the future Catalan government complies with the law.
Currently, eight former cabinet members are in custody. Your critics and hundreds of thousands of protesters in Barcelona call them “political prisoners.” Are you not worried that the arrests serve as motivation for the separatists?
There are no political prisoners in Spain. No one is imprisoned for their ideas, only for behavior that violates the law. We are a democracy with a constitution that was passed 40 years ago. I strongly reject this accusation. Do not forget that hundreds of thousands of demonstrators have recently taken to the streets in Barcelona for the unity of Spain.
Why did you start new elections so early?
Because Article 155 is something out of the ordinary and I do not want such an extreme situation to last long. We wanted to show the Catalans that it is not our job to take power and suppress the autonomy of the region. It’s about returning to reason.
Would it not have been better to seek a political compromise – perhaps through concessions on fiscal equalization – than to escalate the situation?
Of course an agreement is always better than extraordinary decisions, but both parties have to want that. The government of Catalonia only had one goal – the independence referendum. We could not allow that.
But the deposed Catalan prime minister, Carles Puigdemont, announced in early 2016 – when he took office – that the Catalans would declare independence within 18 months. Why did you let him continue on for so long?
I did not let him go on. I took all the Catalan laws for independence to the Constitutional Court. It always proved we were right [and] I have secured broad political support from other parties in Spain to respond to the crisis.
So far you have only tried to solve the Catalan problem with the judicial system. Is it not your job to offer political solutions?
Of course it is, but that was not possible with Mr. Puigdemont. We had no choice but to apply Article 155. Many accuse me of not seeking a political solution, but I’ve been in politics for a long time and you can believe me: There was no alternative.
“Many accuse me of not seeking a political solution, but I've been in politics for a long time, and you can believe me: There was no alternative.”
You always argue citing legal frameworks, emphasizing you abide by the law. But under this principle, the United States, unlawfully founded under British law, would still be a British colony…
The US has a different history. Catalonia was never independent. Spain is the oldest country in Europe and achieved unity five centuries ago within its present borders. The laws are the rules of us living together; the alternative is the law of the strongest.
The decisive day is the election on December 21. Will you intervene in the election campaign?
As president of my party, I will campaign and explain our policy. My goal is to bring peace to the country and to stabilize Catalonia economically. More than 2,000 companies have left Catalonia, investors have withdrawn and tourism is also feeling the consequences of the Catalan crisis. Therefore, it is necessary to end this negative period and return to the serenity and legal certainty that is so important to maintain economic growth.
What will you offer the Catalans in the election campaign? Constitutional reform?
No, the focus will be on dialogue and respect for the law. We need peace in the region again.
Everyone agrees that the Spanish constitution needs to be reformed, but nobody says how. Where do you see a need for reform?
First, we have to talk about what we want to reform. Our constitution was created 40 years ago, after 40 years of dictatorship. The agreement was very difficult at that time because there were people who were previously members of the Franco government and others who came from exile. But everyone agreed on this constitution. One of its cornerstones is that Spain should be a highly decentralized state. The autonomy of our 17 regions is greater than that of the German federal states.
What reforms are you considering?
I am not refusing to talk about reforms. I welcome all the steps that will help to solve the problems – as long as the reforms do not jeopardize the unity of Spain. And I would like to remind you that a possible reform needs the approval of a large majority of Spaniards.
But it is clear that Spain needs a new system of fiscal equalization between regions…
That’s right, and that’s what we’re working on. Indeed, this year a working group was set up with representatives from all regions to draft a new model and the Catalan representatives did not want to attend. We will form a parliament committee on this subject in the coming days and work out a new financing model. I hope the next Catalan government will actively participate.
Why do you deny the Catalans the financial autonomy that the Basque Country and Navarre have enjoyed for decades?
Their special rights are historically founded and already existed in the Franco era. Those rights are guaranteed in the current constitution, which we adopted in 1978. All other Spanish regions have the same system. It is based on the solidarity principle: Madrid is one of the regions that pays the most in financial equalization, the Balearic Islands or Andalusia pay less. If we want to treat all citizens equally, the regions must show solidarity. This is the same principle as for individuals: Who earns more, pays more taxes.
How important was the support of the European Union in the Catalonia conflict?
It was fundamental. Catalan independence was not only directed against Spain, but against the whole of Europe, because it fundamentally violates European values, such as the rule of law or the rights of minorities. European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker recently said quite rightly that Europe consists of 27 states and not 98. And it is no coincidence that all activities that support the independence of Catalonia across social networks have gone through the same channels as other clearly anti-European movements, like Brexit or right-wing populism.
You mean fake news? Do you have any information that Russia is behind it?
The European Commission is currently working on the topic, and rightly so. There were many false profiles among Spanish Twitter accounts [discussing] Catalonia. More than 50 percent were registered in Russia and 30 percent in Venezuela. Only 3 percent of all accounts were real.
Do we generally need more solidarity between the euro states?
All countries, including Germany, will benefit if there are compensation mechanisms that ensure that prosperity – the gross domestic product per capita – converges within Europe. Everyone benefits when there are compensation mechanisms for economies in different business cycles. Of course, countries that want to participate in this new phase of monetary union must meet certain conditions, just as the fulfillment of the Maastricht criteria was a prerequisite for participating in the monetary union.
Some people believe Chancellor Angela Merkel is the last defender of Western values in the world with American President Donald Trump – a role she rejects. What do you think about that?
I have a very high opinion of Chancellor Merkel, but I think Europeans should fight together for Western values.
In the fight against the refugee crisis, when more than a million refugees came to Germany in 2015, you left Merkel pretty much alone. How many refugees did Spain receive?
You see, six million foreigners live in Spain. This is something that many do not know, but in relation to the total population, we are the country with the highest proportion of foreigners in Europe. It is true that Europe has experienced a very severe crisis with the refugees, but we are also in the process of overcoming it through everyone’s cooperation. And in the negotiations with Turkey, Merkel has had the support of the whole of Europe – especially mine.
Mr. Prime Minister, thank you for the interview.
Sandra Louven is Handelsblatt’s Madrid correspondent, covering Spain, Portugal and North Africa. Jens Münchrath is based in Düsseldorf and is Co-Head of Foreign Affairs. To contact the authors: firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com