He used to talk about talante - "disposition". And unlike the case of his predecessors, the disposition of José Luís Rodríguez Zapatero (Valladolid, 1960) has helped to consolidate the legacy of his period as Spanish prime minister, from 2004 to 2011. Since leaving the job, he hasn't become a fixture on the boards of large companies or been seen sunbathing on luxury yachts. His tangle with the Catalan issue, although intense, did not reach the acuteness that the conflict acquired in subsequent years. It has positioned him as a voice that seeks understanding from the Spanish political point of view.
He does not agree with putting a referendum on the agenda or adding a mediator to the dialogue table, but for months he has been very clear that consideration should be given to pardoning the Catalan political prisoners if they request it. In this interview with ElNacional.cat which took place in June, Zapatero looks back at the 2010 ruling by the Constitutional Court which rejected major parts of the 2006 Catalonia Statute of Autonomy, a key moment in the origins of the independence Procés. "It will help everything" if the issue of the Catalan prisoners and exiles can be handled in a way that is "reasonable", he says. And all that has happened over the ten years since the Constitutional Court's ruling must serve as motivation to press forward with the dialogue table between the governments of Catalonia and Spain.
As prime minister I didn't like the Constititional Court's ruling, after all the process we had gone through with the Statute
Were you surprised by the Constitutional Court ruling?
I didn’t like it, I had my intuitions that it could produce a negative effect. Obviously, it was necessary to abide by it, but as prime minister I didn't like the ruling, after all the process we had gone through of negotiation, agreement and ratification of [Catalonia's 2006 Statute of Autonomy].
How has it influenced what has happened since than?
It has had an influence. There are times in the collective life of a society when a specific event with a certain importance ends up being the reference point, the milestone, the momentum that triggers a whole mobilization. In this case, until it reached its ultimate consequences: what we have came to know as the Procés. We can't draw positive lessons collectively from either the court sentences or the independence process.
When you say you didn’t like it, what did you not like? What did you expect?
I expected that it would be fully respected, because I always understood that the Statute was constitutional in all its aspects and that, therefore, there would be no reason of sufficient importance to cause this situation that eventually occurred, that a Statute which had been approved in a referendum and by both Spanish and Catalan parliaments, was in the end put into question by a court. There were not many [aspects questioned], but some of them were sensitive, identity issues. The effects were very, very negative.
The court ruling failed, both legally and in terms of assessing the effects, to rise to the circumstances which Spain required
Apart from the cuts to 14 articles of the Statute, it was also the interpretation that the Court made - even where it did not cut, it did neutralize much of the progress, which provoked the response...
Yes. Some of the interpretations were not correct, in my opinion. The Statute was constitutionally valid. The debate over the Statute was a visceral debate, in which many political positions, many feelings, were exacerbated. Let us remember [people saying] that it was a Statute that was going to break Spain. A falsehood. And when falsehoods affect such essential issues, the effects are perverse. The truth is that that court ruling, from my point of view, and with respect, failed, both legally and in terms of assessing the effects, to rise to the circumstances which Spain required.
We must open this dialogue table and continue with it for as long as it takes, be creative, explore new paths, find solutions
What was the way out of that ruling?
Neither one thing nor the other: I didn't like the sentence, nor did I like that people said, "It's over, there's nothing left we can do." No. The law of politics is always to start again. We should have sat down, analyzed the sentence, the Statute, the potential, roads, paths, organic laws... And that is what should be done at this time, and could give a new interpretation, a new way, and if applicable, a proposal for a reform of the Constitution, if necessary, at some point - which, in my opinion, neither was nor is essential. However, a part of Catalan society, the pro-independence forces said "We have come all this way, there's nothing left to be gained" and therefore that led to the path of the Procés which is a journey to nowhere, which has been painful. I always try to draw the positive lessons, I hope we all draw the positive lessons from what has happened. We must not rupture, we must open this dialogue table and continue with it for as long as it takes, be creative, explore new paths, find solutions because we know that a break is a disaster for everyone. I think the lesson has been learned. Sometimes, in a democracy, we have to learn these lessons, and also, of course, that the part [of Spain] that has rejected the increase in self-government in Spain, the most reactionary, the most conservative part, has to overcome this situation. Let's trust that the attitude of the PP will be different, although I do not have great expectations in this regard.
You says that the Procés was very visceral but now there are pro-independence leaders in prison and in exile and this makes the possibility of dialogue even more tense, so what alternative do you see? What is the way to overcome this situation?
It is true that this is a factor that affects a possible negotiation, but the dialogue table has committed itself in the presence of this circumstance. Let’s take it as seriously as possible. There are two very important things: one is the procedure that is established, and two, that it is a table open to social participation. It is important that proposals, initiatives, ideas are conveyed to this table from the area of public opinion, from the area of social, political, business organizations, institutions, universities...
Social complicity, the dialogue table not being an isolated entity, that they explain what is said every day: these things can substitute the mediator
Should the role of mediator be accepted?
It seems to me that it is not necessary. Everyone knows each other, everyone knows what this is all about and in the end what matters are the actors, the ones in charge, the ones who have to decide. For what is the mediator a substitute? For social complicity, for the table not being an isolated entity, for people to speak, for it to be transparent, for an explanation of what is said every day, for the table to be receptive to proposals from society. If in the end the dialogue table wants to be a table that is respected, then it should have unlimited time, it should be supported by society, with great institutional seriousness, then treat it with the importance that it has after ten years of rupture, of difficult, hard times, and with an uncertain future. Just the fact that it starts, that people sit down, that they listen, that is the beginning of any dialogue table, to listen to the other, you have to treat it with the value that it has. If we don’t admit that value, the table will surely begin and will not come to fruition.
Should the representation be at the highest level? The Spanish PM and the Catalan president?
At some point, yes. Not all the time because it may not make much sense, but there is no doubt that the commitment, participation and responsibility of the highest leaders is key.
I am aware that [the issue of prisoners and exile] is a serious problem, that if it has reasonable progression it will help everything
And should prisoners and exiles play any role?
I am sure that from their respective responsibilities will be marking positions. I am aware that [the issue of prisoners and exile] is a serious problem, that if this problem has reasonable progression it will help everything, but from a political, legal and institutional point of view, I think, it is not an issue that should be seen at the table.
After the marathon-length meetings which you were part of during the negotiation of the Statute - held to negotiate terms such as the definition of a nation - and later, when the agreed funding was later cut back, are you surprised that the pro-independence parties call for a mediator?
That would be more typical of two governments representing two different countries. This is not the case. I think it’s not a good method. The independence movement knows full well that it cannot implement its maximum programme, as almost none of us can in politics or in life. It tried to reach those limits by skipping over many things, which it should not have jumped, and now it has to make an intelligent and forward-looking reading and, of course, the political forces of the state have to have an open, understanding and respectful attitude. This seems fundamental to me. We need to get to know each other better, dedicate a little more time to the serenity of dialogue. Both parties will assume it at some point, there is no other destination than to understand each other and sign an agreement. For better or for worse. We will reach an agreement.
The independence movement also demands that the table include a referendum on self-determination...
Apart from it not being contemplated in the Constitution, which a rational pro-independence activist has to admit... but beyond the legality, I would make some points that I have written down since [Spain's 1986 referendum on membership of NATO]. I don’t believe much in referendums.
Let's see if there are [Spanish] ministers from Catalan parties, from pro-independence parties, nationalist parties... Maybe it's time for this
Because they tend to divide over something artificial. Polls on the independence of Catalonia vary, there have been times when support for independence was at 17%, it exceeded 40% and is now at 38%. It’s very hard to say "I am and I always will be". Second, these referendums with close margins provoke a lot of confrontation, the loser wants revenge, wants a second round, as happened in Scotland, or happened in Quebec. It is true that democracy is the best way to choose governments, but to choose a country, the best thing is an agreement. There is no alternative project that intellectually and politically justifies nothing more and nothing less than a territorial rupture. This is the real debate. I approach this without being visceral, I approach it in a way that is quite cold, quite objective. It is true that Catalonia as well as the Basque Country are major focuses of development, not only economic, but industrial, cultural, European. And fate meant that the power has always been rather Castilian or Andalusian in Spain. And you can see this. This transition that has sometimes been mentioned, let's see if there are [Spanish] ministers from Catalan parties, from pro-independence parties, nationalist parties... Maybe it's time for this, time to get over this and take a new perspective on things. There will come a time when more active participation by today's pro-independence political forces will be needed in a future government process in Spain.
It was, though, the Statute itself which sought a better fit for Catalonia in the Spanish state, and this was reversed with the 2010 ruling...
I think it’s easy to talk using the headlines, but as always in life, the important things are in the nuances and the small print. The flow of powers that the current Statute, which almost no one remembers or sadly stands up for, the flow of increased competences [for Catalonia] that the 2006 Statute has in relation to the [1979 Statute which is replaced] is very clear. There is an increase in powers. But it was not exercised - after the ruling it was left in a drawer because all the energy was already in the Procés. It has now recovered a bit since the dialogue was restarted. Let’s not exaggerate: the Statute was affected in part, but the potential of most of this Statute to increase self-government, bilateralism and reinforce powers is unequivocal. When many of the things are raised again at the dialogue table, they will be discovered, because I am sure that the political leaders of Catalonia have not read the Statute for a long time.
But the ruling made it clear that all these advances that the Statute represented and which were not finally cut must be read taking into account what the Constitutional Court subsequently wrote...
This is not exactly the case, because the Statute sets down criteria which also mark the direction for the Constitutional Court. I say this without any passion, I was the prime minister and I spoke out against the ruling. What happened, happened, and from then on, no one remembered the Statute or the good aspects it had and maintained, despite the ruling. That's politics as we know. We will need to sit down again and look at the specifics, and, and of course, if they can be restored through ordinary laws, for example.
But even points that were agreed upon in their day have not become effective such as Additional Provision 3a.
One year it was, it has been.
Precisely this is a discussion that I think is appropriate. In addition, we made an effort on the subject of infrastructure, the airport, suburban rail... This is a discussion that was worthwhile.
Sanchez has also given enough signals that he is ready for dialogue, willing to make reforms that are in the line with the improvement of self-government and financing
You spoke of the PP but within the PSOE, there were also voices very reluctant to any concession to the independence movement. Former Spanish deputy PM Alfonso Guerra himself boasted that he had given the Statute a clean-out. How can negotiation be proposed when there are these voices within the PSOE itself?
Just as Alfonso Guerra's positions did not mark the negotiation of the Statute, today the leadership of the party led by Pedro Sanchez has also given enough signals to show that it is ready for a dialogue, that it is of course willing to make reforms that are in the line with the improvement of self-government, financing and - something fundamental - which is the participation of Catalonia in a lot of state and European decisions. Artur Mas stood up in Congress when the Statute was presented there and said "This is our last attempt". These are very serious issues. They require us, especially our political representatives, not to be the ones who radicalize our positions. That we do not raise this Utopian prospect, because it is not true, it does not exist. A good democracy is one where there are no heroes or martyrs. That culture should stamp itself on the dialogue that is before us. That pro-independence policies were above all in defence of the interests of Catalonia. I ask them for intelligence. It’s not bad to have a certain a amount of restraint. It is good in a democracy to show restraint and go to the underlying issues. The issue of funding is a fundamental issue, one which is almost always pending in this country, and it needs to be gone into thoroughly. [As well,] the issue of the participation of the Autonomous Communities in decisions in Europe.
A huge retrospective bias has been put on that phrase. I've walked down the street in Barcelona and suddenly someone has quoted it back to me "I will support the Statute..."
There is a phrase that you used at a meeting in Barcelona: "I will support the Statute that emerges from the Parliament of Catalonia." You've heard it repeated back many times, was it a mistake?
The question makes me feel something that is almost excitement. It allows me to explain what the process of constructing realities is like, and how history is written. And I start from this base: I was at the helm of the history of this, and I am very suspicious of the history. Because I’ve experienced so many things that I know what they were really like and I know how they are presented, how they’re going to be written about, that I approach history with great relativism. From this perspective, it seems to me that when this phrase is quoted, retrospective bias and distortion are added. Because I uttered the phrase in 2003 in the context of the Catalan election campaign. The debate was not what Statute we would have, it was whether the candidate to be Spanish prime minister would support a new Statute. The exact phrase I say, "I will support the Statute passed by the Parliament of Catalonia." Obviously, it couldn’t be otherwise. Then that phrase was interpreted as if I had said I would "support the whole Statute". No. I could never say I would approve parts that might be unconstitutional. This phrase was a great headline, but was never interpreted that way at the time. It was 2003. In 2004 I had a spectacular election result in Catalonia, we passed the Statute in 2006, and in 2008 I improved my result. And this sentence I said starts to be quotes years later. Do you see how something is wrong here? I have walked down the street in Barcelona and suddenly someone has quoted to me "I will support..." It’s a huge retrospective bias. How can one take a moment from the past and bring it into the future to give it a distorted political interpretation. Years later when things go wrong someone thinks of digging up that phrase. And they do so as a reference point on the failure of the Statute. How to sharpen the feeling of demoralization.
When I said that line in 2003, I couldn't have guessed that the opposition, the exacerbation and the radicalism revolving around a process of debate on the Statute were as intense as they were.
Were you aware of the storm that you were getting into?
The context has a huge influence. In that 2004-8 legislature I made a range of proposals: Catalonia, dealing with the end of ETA violence, and then a range of very advanced and reformist laws, as well as standing up to the US, withdrawing troops from Iraq. It is true that all this was a project that was very ambitious, very reformist, advanced, bold. It happened that the ETA issue in the end reached its proposed objective, and in Catalonia we were close, if it hadn't been for the Constitutional Court. When I said that sentence in 2003, I couldn't have guessed that the opposition, the exacerbation and the radicalism in the face of a process of debate on the Statute were as intense as they were.