He arrives for the interview with El Nacional on the back of a motorbike and with a tablet under his arm. He has arranged to meet us at the Vil·la Urània civic centre, located in the house where astronomer Josep Comas i Solà once lived, converted into a municipal facility a year ago. Ernest Maragall (Barcelona, 1943) is the oldest of the candidates in the race to be mayor of Barcelona, but at 76 he shows that he can still take the fight to his opponents. Behind him he has long political experience, both on the Barcelona City Council and in Catalan politics, where he has been a minister twice, for both the Catalan Socialists (PSC) and the Republican Left (ERC). After a period in the European Parliament and now, a brief time at the Catalan foreign affairs ministry, Maragall has accepted the challenge of being the ERC candidate in Barcelona and he does so with a clear goal: to be the city's next mayor.
After your long political experience and being at the head of the Catalan foreign ministry, why did you say yes to the ERC candidature for Barcelona?
Because of the situation in Catalonia. With this situation, with our highest representatives in jail, ERC leader Oriol Junqueras called me and put an idea to me. It was very hard to say no. And then, there was the irresistible attraction of Barcelona. Now, however, all that has already disappeared, it's history. I am pleased to have accepted and committed 100% to the project, to the idea, and I could not be more enthusiastic not only about the candidature but also about giving the city of Barcelona the municipal government that it deserves.
Broadly speaking, what do you propose for the city?
It's about putting Barcelona where it should be. There is a very wide scope for city government action and that means: equity, security and liberty. It means good government. Barcelona wants to be not just a great European city, but rather, more than great; it wants to be "city" and it also wants to be what it already is: to maintain its character, keep its own fingerprint and an ability to be a reference point for the world.
And at the moment, isn't it a reference point?
We haven't managed to keep up with global changes and those in our own society. We haven't managed to digest the very serious effects of the economic crisis. We haven't been able to combine some indisputable successes with the proposition that these successes should be collective. Currently, there is growing inequality. We can't accept the consolidation of a division between those Barcelona people who are successful, and a large percentage of residents who are struggling and see themselves on the verge of being driven out of their homes, amidst the difficulty of maintaining equality of opportunities, the degradation of the public space and of basic concepts of social harmony.
We have lost the complicity between city government and the citizens. We have to return the city hall to the city and, from there, return the city to the people
At the moment Barcelona is neither well-managed nor well-equipped in each of these areas: housing, tourism management, law and order, rights and responsibilities, and social coexistence. We have lost the complicity between city government and the citizens and my purpose is to recover it. We have to return the city hall to the city and, from there, return the city to the people.
The ERC list will be a mixture of ERC party members and independents. Why this approach?
The parties, all of them, have to understand that from one's own party organization it is very difficult to represent the plurality and the complexity of a city like Barcelona and a country like Catalonia. At ERC we have said, and Oriol Junqueras was the first to say it, that we must open up and incorporate and be capable of adding other languages, other ideas, capacities, knowledge. What we have to do is append. This is not the typical operation of tacking on a few independent candidates to decorate a list. It's a concept. And we also want a part of them to continue to be active beyond the elections. A bit like Catalonia's Consell de Cent, the ancient Council of One Hundred. The parties are not enough and the public administration isn't either, on its own. We want to have close, critical and demanding voices alongside us in government who help us to have relationships with all sectors.
At the moment, from what we have seen of the campaign, neither the ERC acronyms nor the Maragall surname appear. Why?
It's a way of setting out. A way of saying that this is not an ordinary campaign, not an acronym, not a story of opportunism and not a particular use of a story and a legacy. But here we don't hide anything, and I am the last one who wants to hide that my name is Maragall and that I am the brother of my brother [former mayor Pasqual Maragall] and even less that I am a proud member of the Republican Left and that I do all of this very consciously. Barcelona needs an unmistakably progressive, unmistakably republican government that is unmistakably linked to the country, Catalonia. That is the Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya, the Catalan Republic Left.
I do not want to hide that my name is Maragall, and even less that I am a proud member of the Republican Left
Many of the candidacies that are standing in the elections on 26th May, from Ada Colau to Manuel Valls, claim the legacy of Pasqual Maragall ....
I don't need to. And, therefore, I won't.
Does it bother you?
No, no, the others will see. If they need that, then it's that they don't think much of themselves. Nobody should be able to take refuge in any kind of legacy. The legacy is collective, it's everyone's. To my mind, it's not necessary because I believe that, at most, what we have to learn [from the legacy] is about a way of focusing things, an attitude, certain criteria. Not a particular strategy, policy and specifics, because it is obvious that now it is not only necessary to have renewal, but in many areas to melt things down, to begin from scratch.
What do you mean by that?
I don't say that we have to wipe the slate clean of all that Barcelona is today, because it has many assets, because it is a marvel, and we have to be absolutely proud of it, but it is obvious that there are serious challenges and circumstances which we have to force ourselves to face. We can't continue to tolerate achieving very good international rankings on foreign investment and at the same time accepting that the salaries of our young people make it impossible for them to leave their parents' homes. We mustn't accept that.
If we stand on a unitary list, we'll be giving away votes to Mr. Valls and Mrs. Colau
From the JxCat (Together for Catalonia) party, they continue insisting on a unitary pro-independence list. Why not do that?
Because I respect Barcelona. It would be counterproductive to accept a campaign which put the emphasis on Catalan sovereignty versus the others. Respecting Barcelona means not committing the fraud of denying citizens the right to discuss housing, law and order, tourism, economics, inequality. In this regard, the pro-independence parties do not all have the same vision, fortunately. In addition there is a much more important reason, that separately we will add up to more. If we stand on a unitary list, we will be giving away votes to both sides, to the right and left. It would favour the candidatures of Mr. Valls and Mrs. Colau. We won't do that, we want to win and we also want to win in the name of the republic.
And what does that mean?
We want to append, and we want to work to build real unity in this space. Unity of action, an underlying unity with the PDeCAT in the first place and if we can, with the CUP and other sovereignist forces. We can do that now too. I am prepared to commit myself before the elections as specifically as possible on what that unity of action means, what a unity of strategy towards the Catalan Republic means and what Barcelona's role in that should be.
Are you talking of signing such a document before the elections?
If necessary yes, I have no problem with that. I have already spoken with Quim Forn and Neus Munté [of JxCat]. We must be able to join forces around the ideas of freedom and democracy. This is one powerful service that Barcelona is in a position to do for Catalonia. But this is only possible if ERC is effectively occupying the central position and able to embrace both sides. Every different component is what it is. This is an asset of our country. Let's not destroy that in the name of a uniformity that harms us all.
Excuse me for insisting, but this document, who and what should be included?
If I specify what the elements would be, I would be compromising a possible dialogue on just those issues. If we want this to work out well, what we have to do is sit down, work it out and make it specific. I have some ideas, but I'm willing to listen respectfully to those from Mr. Forn's group, from the CUP or others, and to write them down and specify them in black and white.
You say that you spoke to Quim Forn and Neus Munté ...
We have talked about the concept, about willingness, an attitude and a commitment to doing it.
Are both of them willing?
They both said yes. That is why at times it is difficult for me to understand the type of campaign where you have to maintain the demand for a unitary list at all costs, if it is not from weakness, from a certain need.
I can't really understand this campaign to create a unitary list except as being motivated by weakness
Do you mean they are using the subject of the unitary list to wear themselves down electorally?
They are expressing their own difficulty in setting up a project that can positively contrast with ours.
What they would argue is that the most voted municipal list is the one that ends up with the mayoralty, and that the country cannot afford to lose Barcelona.
Why do we have so little confidence in ourselves? This is unacceptable defeatism. We are in a position to win and come first, but in the final analysis, if that is not the case, what I am offering is that, in any case, we will have the [sovereignist] majority and, therefore, the government of the city. If we are able to add more city councillors and votes, not through a single list but each with their respective projects, and if we are able to augment this republican majority with a significant component, such as what Ada Colau's Commons could provide, in terms of a democratic block, of freedom and democracy.
If we are capable of bringing the Commons into this republican will, we'll have a majority and, therefore, the governance of the city
A front against Manuel Valls?
Mr. Valls has no chance of running the city. Apart from that, it is already too much that Mr. Valls continues trying to give us lessons on anything. On behalf of whom? We can't allow this unacceptable attitude of arrogance.
At the moment there is a fourth pro-independence list, that of Jordi Graupera, which emerged from the primary elections that he himself promoted, with the support of the ANC. This list aimed for unity. But now, is it creating more division?
It is obvious that, in quantitative terms, this is the case. This apparent initial willingness, which was more instrumental than anything else, this premise of creating a unitary list, has now just turned into a risk of greater division. But he has every right to remain present and to receive the attention and support that citizens want to give him. If he were to win representation, we would also have to reach an agreement regarding [joint] republican action.
On that same line, is the PSC excluded from any pact?
It is not that it is excluded, it is that it has excluded itself. And I exclude them too. Unless they change their position radically. We now have the independence trial before us, and I don't see any sign of self-correction or change of their basic position. They are still today very much located in what we could call the 155 block. They are the ones that are located outside the framework of democracy and freedom that I was describing earlier. Therefore, I exclude any possibility of a pact with the PSC at the moment.
The PSC has excluded itself. And I exclude them too. They have situated themselves outside the framework of democracy and freedom
Colau discards JxCat, you discard the PSC... how can this work out?
Let us win, which is what we will do, and we will be able to articulate it. Now, it is also obvious that there are distances and contradictions with what Mrs. Colau is saying today. Right now, the arguments for not making a pact with Mrs. Colau have significantly increased. She is behaving with an obvious electoral fever that is leading her to take decisions that seem incompatible and contrary to the general interest of this city. For that reason, we won't go down that path.
The [Diagonal] tramway case is a good example. In this case, we have gone from saying "yes" as a photo, as general approval, to a conditional "yes" as long as they meet the requirements that still have to be met, however much she sells the idea that they are already resolved. It isn't resolved, it is well defined as a governmental process. To this we can add elements such as the municipal dentist, which is a clear example of a mixture of populism and demagogy and little social efficiency. It is an initiative aimed at sending an electoral message to a part of the citizens. And we can also talk about what is happening with the taxis and VTC vehicles.
In the taxis and VTCs issue, there have been mistakes on both sides, by the Catalan government as well
Let's talk about that, then. How is Colau involved?
Errors have been made by all sides, also by the Catalan government. But on the part of Mrs. Ada Colau and the Barcelona Metropolitan Area authority there is a very obvious historical responsibility. The first responsibility is to have let it get this far. It's just not conceivable that the explosion of a secondary market for taxi licences has been allowed to happen without any control, without any limitation and without any public benefit. It is absurd. And now Mrs. Colau has got behind this measure of whether it is 15 minutes or whether it is more. It's not just that this is not the solution. It is that this is the worst solution. Now we have a whole sector that is closing.
What should be done?
Barcelona cannot afford to not regulate this in depth, and it must do so with an explicit will to maintain a public service with an appropriate number of licences and to avoid continuing to produce this unacceptable speculation in licences and an absence of regulation of the other side. The VTCs must have a role, and they must complement the offer with flexibility and diversity to meet a growing and complex demand. This means regulating the VTCs, preventing oligopolies in this sector, avoiding the concentration of power, as well as avoiding in the management of taxi licences. It is also necessary to regulate working conditions and prevent abuses, and the exploitation regimes that we sometimes see. There are many things to do but none of them are being done.
Mrs. Colau carries a high responsibility by negligence and avoidance of electoral risks. She doesn't want to confront a sector? Of course, I don't want to do that either, but we have to face it and offer a dignified future to the taxi sector, ambitious and secure, and at the same time we must be able to guarantee the mobility needs of the people of Barcelona.
Does Colau hide when faced with problems?
Yes, as is the case with the taxis. The CAP Raval, the public health centre, is another example of poor city management and irresponsibility. We are working on that and will do so discreetly. In the municipal government, they are acting with a falseness and disinformation that is unacceptable.
Colau is behaving with obvious electoral fever. Taking decisions that are incompatible and contrary to the public interest
Do you feel closer to the Colau or the JxCat project?
We can dispute the Colau project based on its management. We have our discrepancies, and yet still agree on many things. It is obvious that there are things in common. We are both unmistakably in the progressive camp, we both have objectives of equality, the dignity of citizens and many philosophical points in common. But here too, the discrepancies begin. Sometimes it seems that Mrs. Colau takes refuge in ideology and with action that is very shallow in terms of this ideology. In the case of JxCat it is different. What project are we talking about? It [JxCat] is a force under construction and must decide what it is and who it is. But in general terms, the centre-right expresses itself in one way and the centre-left in another. We will now have the opportunity to compare and debate these matters.
The Commons say that there is a better relationship with ERC now that you are there than when Alfred Bosch was.
I don't like that. There is a kind of opportunism when that is said that I can't accept at all. There is an obvious electoral calculation by Colau in this. I ask Colau to explain her project and defend it. We will do the same with ours. We will compare similarities and differences, and there will be plenty of those.
Differences, for example?
I have not heard Mrs. Colau say that the housing problem in the city will only be solved if it's tackled from the perspective of the metropolitan area. It's scandalous that this has not been said from a progressive perspective. Or the issue of law and order, which is also an issue of the Guardia Urbana and how it is managed, but there is also a metropolitan and broader dimension, law and order, greater justice, more social policies, etc. I have not heard Mrs. Colau express herself in these terms. Among other issues.
If we talk about the management of tourism and the new urban planning that the city needs, I haven't heard any interesting or in-depth proposals of what it means to "create city". Barcelona has to return to creating city, and I have not seen any proposals in this area. The maximum expression of its city creation is the tramway on the Diagonal. Well, no. This is a piece, essentially I would say a minor piece, of an overall metropolitan mobility concept and that requires a change in the philosophy of public transport. Nor is there an energy transition policy, which Barcelona needs and which we will put on the table.
At the moment we are further away from agreement with Mrs. Colau than we were three months ago
I asked you if the relationship with Ada Colau had improved because the Diagonal tram project did not seem possible some time ago.
We have simply started governing. Elections have not yet been held, but we are exerting influence and trying to make it clear that, from the point of view of knowledge of the city's needs, we are ready and we are preparing to govern. The best way to demonstrate that we are prepared to govern is to be able to assume responsibilities in the specific decisions that affect the general interest.
These talks with Barcelona en Comú on the tram are a prelude to what could happen. Have you spoken about possible post-election alliances?
No, it's still in a very preliminary phase, not only in terms of time. We are, rather, in a period of weighing things up. We are verifying the distances between us more than nothing else. The possibility of verifying areas where we coincide could come later, under our leadership, I hope. Any gesticulation to show that "this is already tied up" would not only be an error, which could damage agreement, but it also would widen distances. At the moment we are further away from agreement with Mrs. Colau than we were three months ago. We are in this period of comparing and she is trying, successfully or not, to demonstrate a proximity that right now is clearly nonexistent
Forn should be able to campaign. I propose to go to the jail to discuss and debate. If it cannot be in the middle of Plaça Catalunya, let it be at Lledoners or Soto del Real
Finally, Joaquim Forn will be a candidate for the elections, from prison. What do you think should be done so that you have equal opportunities?
His rights should be respected. He should be able to leave to campaign, to take part in debates. Even if it's in the middle of the trial, the justice system should recognize and respect this right. But if he can't come to Democracy, let Democracy come to him. Therefore, I propose to go to the jail to discuss and debate. Now that would be, to some degree, respecting his rights as a candidate.
But could that be done?
Why not? There is no problem other than a strictly technological one that would prevent this from happening, nothing other than a table, a microphone, a camera.
But this would have to be authorized by a judge, right?
The judge should have maximum respect for basic, civil and political rights. If we can, we should have a debate in the middle of Plaça Catalunya, but if not, at Lledoners or Soto del Real. The same goes so that Oriol Junqueras can campaign in the European elections. I will propose it and I will organise for it to take place, I don't know if I will be successful, obviously. With the non-justice that we are interacting with every day, it doesn't allow one to be very optimistic.
Finally, what would be the first measure that you would take as mayor?
There are too many things (laughs). I would try to make it explicit, rather than just showing an attitude, that we are returning Barcelona to the city and that from there on, the city will go back to the people.