As with superheroes, a vice president never rests. The Catalan government has taken three weeks of relative vacations, in which official agendas are at minimal levels, and meetings and public events are not organized, but the president and ministers remain permanently and unavoidably connected. Pere Aragonès (Pineda de Mar, 1982) receives us in the heart of the coastal Maresme district, in his native Pineda, where he is recharging batteries in the company of his family and spending time with his baby daughter, Claudia, who was born just as this year's election campaigns got underway. The strong man from the Catalan Republican Left (ERC) in the government wears two hats: that of vice president and economics minister, and that of ERC leader. And in both cases, he put them on out of necessity, due to the imprisonment of Oriol Junqueras, with whom he continues in communication whenever he can. In fact, after this interview, he gets in his car and heads off to Lledoners prison. During the conversation with ElNacional.cat, he defends his party's dedication to the goal of independence, while also explaining the redesigned strategy of the Republicans, which avoids red lines and unilateralism and is focused on efforts to engage the Spanish state in dialogue. According to Aragonès, the priorities in the short term are to pass budgets, repair alliances with the pro-independence CUP and extend the accords to the rest of the left (the Comuns and the PSC). And, last but not least, to fight to be decisive in Madrid.
Did the government need a holiday?
It's always good to take something of a break in August, especially to recover strength in anticipation of what lies ahead, in terms of both Catalonia's own agenda, as well as the Supreme Court's verdict in the independence trial or a possible Spanish general election. It is necessary to stop for a few days in order to recharge for September.
According to the last opinion poll from the CEO public polling agency, 55% of Catalans give their government's management a fail grade...
This is a government which has had, as its first task, reverting Madrid's direct rule over Catalonia under article 155, not only from the legal point of view, but also at a practical level. We are doing this in a precarious parliamentary situation which has prevented us from passing budgets, and this obviously limits our ability to carry forward public policy and the government plan. Therefore, the government's first goal must be to pass its budget for 2020. Despite this, this is the only possible government, because there is no alternative majority to the one which ERC and JxCat (Together for Catalonia) represent. Since it is the only possible government, we need to make the effort in this new political year which is now opening, to strengthen our parliamentary majority, and we will need that to deal with the Supreme Court verdict, which will have a very significant political impact.
The government's first goal must be to pass its budget. We need to make the effort in this new political year now opening to strengthen our parliamentary majority
Your department has just ordered a brake on spending and a cut of 6% in the public sector to meet the budget. The opposition claims you have taken advantage of the August break to announce cuts and criticises you for putting the blame on the authorities in Madrid.
The Spanish government, using the excuse that it is only an acting government and is operating by extending last year's budget, has only been transferring to the Catalan administration the level of resources determined by last year's financing model, so they retain all the extra revenue that is now being generated here. Nor has it resolved the loss of 483 million euros resulting from the change in the income from VAT this year. All the autonomous governments in the Spanish state depend on these revenues to balance their budgets, and we are finding that the Spanish government is continuing to block these transfers. This leads us to an inability to cover our commitments if we don't prioritize, and that's what we have done: we've reinforced basic services in health, education, social security, housing and law and order, we are guaranteeing salaries, return of extra payments and all contracts signed and subsidies granted. To do this, you can't accept any new expenditure commitments except in the above areas. It is a matter of giving priority to our spending on the welfare state, in a situation of insufficient income due to the paralysis of the Spanish government.
Speaking of paralysis, some of the public have the impression that you have focused heavily on the independence process and little on everyday problems. What are the priorities of the Catalan government in the coming months?
This government has to make it possible to combine progress towards the Catalan Republic with day to day governance through an agenda for shared economic prosperity. So that everyone can have equality of opportunities. Reinforcing the government majority is essential because the two paths are parallel, they are fully linked with each other: progress towards the independence of Catalonia and good governance to improve people's living standards.
And what is the government doing to improve people's living standards?
Basically, we have developed a social and economic agenda that is committed to consolidating the welfare state and recovering all that was lost with the [crisis era] cuts. We have made a clear commitment to education, a continued increase in teacher numbers in public schools and the reinforcement of the public character of the education system are clear examples; in the health area, we have recovered the levels of day to day expenditure that we had before the economic crisis, in fact we are now at historic highs. We are also fighting against inequalities in the workplace and in terms of economic opportunities. And in parallel, we face all the new needs in terms of law and order. We have to strengthen the Fire service and the Mossos d'Esquadra police force. In a time of many social changes and a highly globalized society, law and order policies that guarantee everyone's liberty are also important.
What should we do, what Sánchez wants, an independence movement sitting on its high horse, or the opposite of what we wants, which is to force him into dialogue?
If the budget doesn't get through, is there a risk of cuts?
We can't work with the budgets that were passed two years ago, because the country has changed a lot. If we continue with the 2017 budgets until 2020, the government won't be able to deploy new policies. And we have to deploy new policies to maintain the welfare state. If we don't open up new political initiatives, and this requires new budgets, we will not be able to balance the budget like in 2017, but it'll be worse, as the needs are now greater.
In other words, a failure to pass the budget is synonymous with cuts.
Any adjustments that there may be in the future will be the responsibility of the political forces when we present the 2020 budget. If they decide they can't pass the budget they'll have to assume responsibility. When the Government approves the plan, we'll take it to Parliament.
Up to three opposition groups have shown themselves open to negotiate the budget: the Catalan Socialists (PSC), the Comuns and the CUP. Among these, is there a priority partner?
We'll talk to everyone, as we always have. I am glad that there are three forces who publicly say they are in a position to negotiate the budget. This is very positive: a year ago it was not like that. We will speak with all three as a priority, and also with the other two parties, although I doubt that Cs and PP want to reach agreement on anything because we are poles apart. I would like us to have a budget approved by a large majority.
You said that if there's no budget, elections will have to be called, so what do you think will come first, a Spanish or a Catalan election?
I would prefer that there were no elections in either, because that would mean that the Catalan government had been able to pass a budget in Parliament and that in Spain there was a government with which we could enter into dialogue. Because it's necessary that there's a government in the Spanish state which we are able to face, able to point out discrepancies with, able to open a negotiation with. We need an interlocutor on the other side of the table. And at this moment the interlocutor is only provisional and so this is the perfect excuse for them not to enter into the basic problems that we have to solve. Catalonia exercised its self-determination on the 1st October 2017 - this was not recognized. In fact, it was recognized, and it's being persecuted, but that can't continue. We need a government in Spain with whom, from the starting point of all the political discrepancies we might have, we can sit down with.
If Sánchez is trying to avoid depending on the pro-independence parties, we have to act so that he will depend on us. The goal is to gain this capacity for advocacy in Congress
But Pedro Sánchez doesn't even want your votes, even if they are offered in exchange for nothing...
Precisely what this shows is that Pedro Sánchez's goal is to be voted in as new Spanish prime minister without the pro-independence parties being able to have any influence, because he knows that in the coming months he will have to face important decisions. Not only on the political management of a Supreme Court verdict that doesn't look like it will be one of "not guilty"; he'll also have to confront the management of the diversity that exists in the Spanish state. The general elections in Spain were won by Pedro Sánchez, but in Catalonia they were won by Oriol Junqueras and ERC. And he must be clear about that. He'll try to evade it and to avoid letting ERC have any capacity for influence, he'll try not to depend on the independence movement. So, if he tries not to depend on independence, what must the independence parties do? Act so that he will depend on us. The short-term goal is to gain this capacity for advocacy in Congress, because we can only pressure them, we can only demand things of them, we can only affect them if we are decisive. Therefore, the independence movement must be determined to exert its will to be decisive in the Congress of Deputies.
Does this mean that in spite of the contempt shown by the PSOE, your abstention is still on the table?
We'll see what the circumstances are in September, we'll see the proposals that are put on the table. We, and now I speak from ERC, we presented ourselves at the elections with an idea of dialogue, negotiation, defence of rights and freedoms, the fight against repression, and saying that we would not set down red lines, but not allow a government with the presence of the extreme right. And that's what we're doing. From there on, it has been clear that Pedro Sánchez is looking for a "no" from the pro-independence parties, because he doesn't want to depend on the votes of the independence movement, and therefore what we shouldn't do in any case, is to abandon the position in which we can be decisive. The way we'll vote in a possible second investiture debate, when it arrives, if it arrives, will be the time to talk about whether we maintain our abstention or if other options will be chosen.
ERC had a great electoral endorsement with more than a million votes. We thus understand that this strategic line has been backed not only by the party faithful but also by the voters
Do you think the new ERC strategy is being understood within the independence movement and among the activists and supporters of the party itself?
ERC approved an electoral programme at its National Council, we had a great electoral endorsement of that, with more than a million votes, 15 deputies and being the leading force in terms of deputies and senators in Catalonia. We thus understand that this line has been backed not only by the party faithful through the National Council but also by the voters. From here, internal debates are always good, it's good that they are there and that they are internal. We understand that the political position that we have defended, despite being a position in a very difficult context, can be understood perfectly, if we look at what Pedro Sánchez wants. Pedro Sánchez wants to place ERC in the "no" zone, so what should we do? Do what Pedro Sánchez wants, which is an independence movement sitting on its high horse and located in the "no", which gives him the excuse to say that we don't want dialogue? Or do the opposite of what he wants, which is to force him to talk, to offer his hand, precisely in order to place the Spanish Socialists, the PSOE, in front of the mirror of dialogue. That is essential, because unlike the PP, which is politically marginal in Catalonia, the Catalan Socialists (PSC) do have a very important position in Catalonia. There are many people in Catalonia who trust the PSC to find directions for the future. And if it is obvious that the party doesn't want to find these, then we have to get the PSOE to stand in front of the mirror so that these voters, who are our neighbours, are also aware of the direction which the Socialist party continues to support, and that there are other left-wing forces like ourselves which do want a political solution for the country, which are prepared to open up a real dialogue, without abandoning our goals.
We would like to see the return of that PSC which backed an agreed consultation. We hope the PSC will leave the 155 block
A few days ago, in an interview with ElNacional.cat, former Catalan president Artur Mas spoke of bringing the PSC out of the "Article 155" block...
It is the PSC itself which has to bring itself out of the 155 block. We didn't put it in there. We're not the ones who have to get it out. Obviously, it is much better to have the PSC which in 2012 backed an agreed independence consultation, than the PSC which voted in October 2017 in favour of article 155. And we would like to see a PSC appear which backs an agreed consultation, accepts a referendum, understands that the political solution must be a democratic solution which must pass through the ballot box. And the ballot box can be called a referendum, a consultation, exercising the right to self-determination, the right to decide .... You can call it what you want, but that is the way out. Therefore, I hope that the PSC will leave the 155 block. I don't know if we are the ones who have to bring them it out, because we didn't put them in there, but it would be desirable that all those who opt for a political solution get together, before the Supreme Court verdict, and so that we can strengthen the government majority in the Catalan parliament so that it clearly includes all those who are aligned with a political solution to the conflict that exists between Catalan society and the Spanish state, and among us all we can find the solution.
There are many constitutionally-viable ways to agree on a consultation or referendum on the independence of Catalonia. But what is needed first is to win the political victory, for the state to accept that indeed, there has to be a referendum
In this strategic reformulation, do you foresee the possibility of returning to 2014 and going to Congress to ask for the powers to call a referendum to be transferred to Catalonia, as Rovira, Turull and Herrera did on behalf of the Parliament of Catalonia?
I think that we must first start a negotiation with the state and in this negotiation it is clear that there are many constitutionally-viable ways to agree on a consultation or referendum on the independence of Catalonia. And in addition it can be done officially by the state. There are several ways. One is for the Catalan government to hold it and the Spanish government to not oppose it, the other is for there to be a transfer of competencies; there are different paths. But in any case, what is needed first is to win the political victory, for the state to accept that indeed, there has to be a referendum on self-determination in Catalonia.
And how do you do that?
Well, by gaining size, by adding many more people. It is evident that in the face of a constant, permanent and growing independence majority, the state will be unable to oppose it forever, it cannot always be against it. We have to clearly overcome the 50% mark, we have to do it in successive elections, we have to put an end to the mantra that the majority in Catalonia is not pro-independence, we have to be able to make this majority emerge, which is there, and to increase it, to make it much stronger. For that reason, we have to increase our support, and in the second place, we have to strengthen our civil society institutions. Let's remember what happened in October 2017, that there was a great deal of pressure from the state, and not all the institutions of civil society joined in supporting the 1st October and the 3rd October. In this regard, that there are economic institutions that have begun to change their discourse and that have even had changes of leadership, is positive I think. And thirdly, we must internationalize our cause much more. We have made a lot of progress, the 1st October opened our doors to the international agenda. I don't know if the world is looking at us, but I'm sure that it sees us, it knows that there is a conflict in Catalonia. Precisely because of that, we have to be completely in support of dialogue, in order to be able to explain the need for a possible external mediation when the commitment to dialogue fails, if the Spanish government doesn't want to address it. The next key moment will have to be faced with international solidarity.
And also leaving unilateralism behind?
The debate about acting unilaterally or bilaterally is a false debate, when unilateralism is not something decided by you. Unilateralism is not a path that anyone who wants to can take, but rather only those who are able to. The Spanish state acts unilaterally, with the Constitutional Court, with its prosecutors. Why? Because it has a monopoly on the use of legal, legitimate force. Therefore, we can decide to act unilaterally, but if we can't do it in practice, because we don't have the coercive capacity that the state has, then my understanding is that it is a debate which the independence movement should get beyond and in fact has largely overcome already; it is induced from outside, fundamentally.
We have to clearly overcome the 50% mark, we have to do it in successive elections. The next key moment will have to be faced with international solidarity
The Catalan National Assembly (ANC) speaks of the need to persevere with this route...
The ANC talks about getting stronger, and creating these conditions. In this regard, I agree with the ANC. I think we need to be very conscious that the political conflict with Spain is a political conflict with a very solid state. A state that in European eyes, in spite of all the complaints we make, has only been really stained by its preventative prison, and in all other regards is a homologable state. Thus, we are talking about a political battle facing a strong state. That is, we have to get stronger ourselves because at this time the correlation of forces is favourable to the state, and we have to succeed in making it favourable to Catalan independentism, reinforcing ourselves, above all internally.
Is the ANC wrong?
No, I believe that the ANC has its position, the independence movement is diverse, Catalan society is diverse, and since the independence movement is a major movement, it reflects that diversity of Catalan society. There has always been strategic debate in the independence movement. I respect the positioning of the ANC in the same way that opinions which may not coincide can be compared alongside each other and also have to be respected.
We need to change this correlation of forces, we need to be numerical greater and we need to be stronger to face this conflict with the state
And do you think there is an anti-party climate?
I think that what there is, is the nervousness of many people who would like to keep on making progress but see that it's difficult to continue doing so. We want to move forward and we believe that in order to do this, we need to change the correlation of forces with regard to the state, we have to create the conditions for that. The CUP for example also defends that the conditions must be created to exercise the right of self-determination. At ERC, in a way we are saying the same thing. We need to change this correlation of forces, we need to be numerical greater and we need to be stronger to face this conflict with the state and find a democratic solution. It is logical that there are different strategic visions, but I think that's a strength of the independence movement.
ERC is the oldest pro-independence party. If anyone can represent a majority of the independence movement it's ERC
But do you feel that the ERC is being closely examined by a part of the independence movement?
The thing is, the independence movement is us too. In fact we are the pro-independence party that won the most votes if we look at the overall results of the last electoral cycle. Therefore, if anyone can represent the independence movement in general, it is ERC. Not simply on our own, because, luckily, the independence movement is so diverse and so plural that not even ERC, which is the oldest pro-independence party, the political party that has been calling for the independence of Catalonia for the longest time, can represent it overall. I have been a supporter of political independence for 21 years. I joined the youth section of ERC and I feel very proud of that. From the beginning there were some sectors of the independence movement who found it easier to criticize those alongside them than to create an effective strategy of confrontation with the state that we have opposite us. When we created the  Autonomy Statute we heard these criticisms, when we have made progress we've heard them, so it's nothing new to me. What I think is good to look at is where we were when people were criticizing ERC 20 years ago and where we are now. The strategy to try and create a new Statute that demonstrated the limits of the Spanish state allowed this first accumulation of forces, it allowed us to generate a cycle of mobilization from the huge rally in July 2010 against the [Constitutional Court] ruling against the Statute right until the 1st October 2017. And now we have to start a new cycle of accumulation of forces and a new cycle of mobilization.
What about the "155 pieces of silver" [a biting criticism by ERC's Gabriel Rufian that accused president Carles Puigdemont of selling out the movement in October 2017, when it seemed he wouldn't declare independence]. Seen in perspective, do you think it was a mistake? I mean that as a metaphor for what happened in October 2017.
I think that it reflected the climate of those days in which the expectations were very high. During the month of October 2017, we were clearly committed to changing the correlation of forces with the state. And we made a lot of progress but not enough. And to see that, you probably need the perspective of a certain passage of time. More than an error, we have to talk about lessons we've learned. And the lesson is that although we have made a lot of progress, and have gone in a few years from 15% of people in favour of independence to close to 50% in an election, there is still a lot to be done, because the wall that is in front of us is higher than we imagined. ERC is a republican and leftist party. We will be pro-independence until we are independent. What I want to do is stop being a pro-independence party soon because I want to say that we have won the independence of Catalonia.
We'll have independence when we are able to win it
Do you think you'll see it, independence?
Yes, obviously. And sooner than we might think. If it had been up to me we would have had independence when at the age of 14 I went to my first rally, I wanted it at that time. The lesson we have learned is that we need an accumulation of forces, so we'll achieve it when we're able to win it. And to win it I repeat the three axes: expanding social support, strengthening civil society and international support. In fact, this is the programme we approved at our national conference.
Don't you fear that extending the base will end up creating a hole in the middle, by losing support you've had so far?
At ERC we have opted for a strategy that has its risks, to push at the edges of independence support, to expand independence support where it's small, to make it stronger, to make it bigger. And I think that this strategy is giving results and that it is contributing to the sum total of the independence movement. We are the second largest party in L'Hospitalet de Llobregat, in Cornellà, in Sant Adrià del Besòs, in the entire metropolitan beltway of Barcelona. We have reached the mayoralties of Tarragona and Lleida, which until recently were in the hands of the PSC. And this has been done with the discourse of associating the independence of Catalonia not with a project based on the elements of identity, language, flag and national sentiment - although these are also incorporated - but on rights and freedoms, on rights and opportunities for everyone. And that is what has allowed us to go to places where independence support has been a small minority until recently, and today we are second force and can begin to work with the alliances to become the largest party in the next municipal elections.
For the vice president of the Catalan government, what's the sense of Jordi Cuixart's declaration "We'll do it again" at the end of the Supreme Court trial?
Well, that we won't give up the exercise of our rights and freedoms and that therefore the response to the verdict must be to culminate this process. The court verdict itself will not change the correlation of forces, it won't allow us to suddenly add all the people that we are still lacking, to incorporate them into the independence proposal. But it will put a spotlight on the fact that the Spanish state in terms of rights and freedoms has many limitations. Therefore, in addition to the democratic argument for independence, there will be further reasons added in terms of civil and political rights which can only be protected by a Catalan Republic.
And in ERC, do you believe that we need to be ready to play the card of calling elections...
We have all the cards on the table, we don't have to keep any of them hidden. Depending on the context, there are actors who want to participate in the response, choose an option and do so in a shared way, because it only makes sense to do so all together with all the actors, in particular with our partners in the Catalan government, JxCat (Together for Catalonia).
All options are on the table, from elections through to a government of concentration. We have to have them all on the table, we mustn't keep any of them hidden
It doesn't seem that JxCat is very willing to call elections and this is exclusively in the hands of president Torra...
In any case, after the verdict, we favour having all proposals on the table and not ruling any out beforehand, because we don't know what the political context will be, whether a Catalan election could coincide or not with a Spanish election. We don't know what Spanish government we will have opposite us. We'll see what response there could be in the Catalan parliament to the possibility of strengthening the Catalan government, if there are parties willing to take this step or not. Therefore, all options are on the table, from elections - which, evidently, are legally in the hands of the president to initiate - through to measures to strengthen the parliamentary majority, from parliamentary agreements to a government of concentration. Conceptually we have to have it all on the table, we mustn't keep any of them hidden.
A government of concentration with the Comuns and the CUP?
We have the experience of the municipal government of Lleida. In Lleida we managed to end 40 years of Socialist mayoralties, which in recent years were achieved with the support of Cs and the PP. An alternative majority led by ERC has been created involving the Comuns and JxCat. The CUP didn't win any seats on the council, but if it had done, I'm convinced that it would have joined. This is a 3rd October government. These are the majorities that I think we should be able to build, they're the type I like.
According to the Comuns, you haven't been knocking on their door.
The Comuns already know that they are a preferred partner for all the necessary accords that this government has to make. They were for the 2019 budget, now with the 2020 budget, and with all the other measures that this government wants to carry forward, also with the response to the court verdict, they are one of the main groups we are looking at.
The Comuns already know that they are a preferred partner for all the necessary accords that this government has to make
What would the vice president of the government say to an independence supporter who's fed up?
That we have to persevere and we need to persevere, because the goal we want to achieve, the independence of Catalonia is worth it, it is worth enough to carry on accumulating forces. We have made a lot of progress, and, to give a mountaineering metaphor, perhaps we see now that the mountain is higher, but we also see how far we've come. This country has done extraordinary things. We carried out the 1st October referendum when everyone said that it would be impossible, we've brought millions of people onto the street repeatedly, with an impeccable argument from a democratic point of view. Here there really has been a "revolution of smiles" that has shown the Spanish state as lacking, and it has taken place civilly, peacefully, massively and democratically. And that is what has allowed us to get where we are. We haven't yet got to the end of the trail, but we must persevere to complete the journey because it means that we will then have the tools to make this country better.
And what would you say to a non-independence supporter, sick of hearing about independence and who feels that the government does not govern for her or him?
That what we need is to be able to manage all our resources. Managing the resources ourselves, from proximity, that's how countries work better, and Catalonia is no exception. Thus, if Catalonia can manage its resources and make decisions based on its own reality, it can make better decisions. At the Parliament of Catalonia we constantly have discussions about the situation of the self-employed, for example, or about the conditions of our country's workers, about taxation or energy, about the need to broaden the welfare state, on pensions... In none of these aspects do we have our own decision-making capacity. To have it, we need the independence of Catalonia. The independence of Catalonia is not a change of flag, it is not a change of the country on our identity card, it is a change in order to have more opportunities for everyone.