Thursday, December 26, 2013

Junqueras: We're ready to join the government (interview)

Originally published in VilaWeb on December 20, 2013

by Pere Cardús

Oriol Junqueras, historian and college professor, has become in a very short time one of the principal figures in Catalan politics and one of the main players in the process of independence for Catalonia. President of Republican Left of Catalonia [Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya] for just over two years and Leader of the Opposition since the Parliamentary elections of November 25, 2012, in this interview, Junqueras analyzes the privileged situation that it has been his fortune to be in and the enormous possibility of piloting, together with the other pro-independence forces, the process towards the political liberation of Catalonia. The leader of the Republican Left speaks about the agreement reached on the referendum's date and question; the threats against the process, and the need for the people to mobilize; joining the CiU government; the unitary candidacy for the EU elections; and also offers recommendations for Christmas as well as his political and personal wishes for 2014.

You've said that the agreed on question is better than the one that you had proposed. Why?
We had proposed a question like the Scottish one, which is normal and natural in these processes. In a normal process, with a fully democratic state, it would be the best question. But the Spanish state is far from fulfilling the best democratic practices in Western Europe and, before being able to vote yes or no, we have to win the right to vote at all, because the state has made very clear that it will do all it can to keep us from voting. That's why it's so important to rally forces together to defend the referendum. In this process of gathering forces in favor of democracy, it was very important to have the support of people from both ICV and Unió, from the unions, from a good portion of the business community. They all ended up agreeing that the question had to be about independence. And we agreed that it was necessary to use inclusive wording. I think the question works for winning our independence and for gathering forces to be able to hold the referendum in the first place. If we independentists are really 50% of the census, we'll win easily.

Beyond inclusivity, are there other factors that make it a good question?
No. From the point of view of the content, the question that we proposed was better. This question is not better in content, but rather for its inclusivity which, from a democratic point of view, is a positive value. ERC didn't have enough strength to impose its question. We have twenty-one members out of the 135 in parliament. And the CUP has three. That's 24 all together. It came to the point that we had to do insist on what we considered non-negotiable, while giving in on what the others wanted.

Did the proponents of the 'third way' win without earning it?
The makeup of the Parliament was decided on by the citizens of Catalonia a year ago. Completely legitimately, they elected representatives from Iniciativa, Unió, and Convergència. Those representatives have not always been wholly supportive in the same way that ERC has of a question about independence. That's indisputable. The election results were not decided on by Esquerra Republicana, nor by lottery. ERC has the support that it has and it is our obligation to use that strength to guarantee that the citizens of Catalonia can vote on independence. They can't ask us to resolve on our own that which the other parties are not disposed to resolve. If the question did not ask about an independent state, we wouldn't have ratified the agreement.

You're not convinced?
It's a very good question. The best one we could get at the time. It generates a very broad consensus. It allows for an important photograph, a very powerful image. You can see the principal representation of a parliamentary majority there. It's an important photo for the Catalan people, for Spain, and especially for the international community. We have to know how to value each aspect.

But the wording of the question has triggered a certain amount of confusion among commentators and pundits. They say that the result will be hard to interpret.
We independentists wanted a question with exactly two answers about independence. We wanted it because we expected to win it. If we expected to win it, it was because we trusted that we have more than half of the votes to be cast. We believe that because the polls say that half of the electoral census would vote for independence. If that is so, we will also win with this model. If we are not able to get the people to vote, we wouldn't have been able to with the other question either. Now it's time to show that we are as many as it seems that we are. The polls say that 48% prefer independence over any other option. With an open question, with all of the other possibilities, independence has the support of 48% of the people. With 48% of the census, we've got more than enough to win the referendum by counting the votes cast. Those figures mean we'd win with much more than 50%. We have to put all our energy into ensuring that outcome. If we aren't able to, it will be because we independentists aren't as many as we think we are. But that would happen as much with this question as it would with a binary question on independence.

Does winning depend on the independentists?
Yes. It's a very positive question. And also because it secures a commitment to the process from the supposedly federalist or confederalist parties to the degree that the Spanish State will deny any hopes of federalism. The only rational choice that they'll have left will be to vote Yes and Yes. The question we have is an investment. It commits the parties that are favorable to a referendum, to the right to decide, and to democracy, with the certainty that if the state makes it clear to them—like it always has and nothing indicates that that will change—that there are no 'third ways', the only option left to them will be independence. At that point, we will have a solidly reinforced Yes vote and not that which is foreseen in the polls. Joan Herrera (ICV) has said that if the state doesn't budge, ICV will campaign for a Yes/Yes vote. And Mr. Espadeler from Unió has said more or less the same thing. The potential sum of the Yes/Yes vote is much bigger than it would have been if we had just had a simple question. All of the interpretations that occur to me are positive.

Everyone has offered their own commentary and analysis about the question, but the date has been largely left out of the debate. How do you defend the date?
ERC's position is that the sooner the better. If we had been able to hold it this week, we think that's better than next week. But, remember: ERC all by its self does not have enough strength to decide the date. We had to arrive at a consensus with the rest of the political parties and the government explained that there was a whole series of technical matters that favored holding it in November. Among the possible dates in the month of November, we insisted that it be the first one, which was the 9th. We defended the earliest possible date that the government offered.

Besides technical reasons, were there political ones?
I can only answer—due to the discretion required by the political agreements—that the government laid out a series of technical considerations that recommended holding the referendum in November. For example, that in August it's very difficult to campaign and thus, not the best moment. There were others. We respected them and we accepted them. We think that the question is much more important than shifting the date forward or backward a week.

And the Scottish issue, was it a factor? Did you keep it in mind?
If we independentists are really convinced that the best solution for our country is independence and providing the best structures and tools possible, if we are really convinced about wanting to make Catalonia a European State, we have to be capable of mobilizing ourselves regardless of what happens in Scotland. We're going to need to mobilize to get a broad victory. I want to confide in the rationality of the majority of the citizens of Catalonia and in their conviction and commitment to the defense of the country. Scotland cannot be an excuse in any case.

I know talking about alternatives is like shooting ourselves in the foot, but it seems so far-fetched that we can actually hold a referendum…
I am convinced that we have to do everything we can in order to make it happen. The more we try and the more obstacles that the State puts in our way, the clearer and more striking will be our moral and political high ground as seen by the international community. If the citizens really want to vote in a referendum and if they establish the popular and political mechanisms around the referendum, we will be able to hold one. The level of mobilization this year was very high. I think we should not hypothesize about any other possibilities. Doing so weakens the best of the possible options, which is the referendum.

Verbal attacks and threats are on the rise from representatives of the state and a portion of the unionists. Do you think those threats can be carried out?
I think that Catalans will determine what happens depending on their level of mobilization. This year, the international community will be carefully watching any mobilization that there may be in Catalonia. If the mobilization is very large, the international community will pressure Spain so that it doesn't dare to do anything that its representatives say that they are tempted to do. Beyond the adverse circumstances—because the Spanish State makes them as adverse as possible—the process depends on our strength, on our will, and on our steadfastness. Things don't happen because you want them to happen, but rather because you want them enough to make the effort and because you want them long enough that that effort produces results. If the people of this country really want to vote and they want to defend their dignity and right to vote, we will find the way to keep the Spanish State from doing that which some of its representatives would like to do.

But you are a historian and you are aware that the tradition of the Spanish State is no guarantee of peace and brotherly love.
We live in a new time which is hard to compare to other moments in history. The international context of a Western European democracy makes the current situation very hard to compare. And it is for that reason that we have the hope of winning. We expect to win because this time the decision will be made by voting and not by the traditional methods that the Spanish State has heretofore used to solve this kind of issue. My experience as a historian serves to hone my intuition and help me understand that these are new enough circumstances and the pressure of Western public opinion, of the media, of the governments and financial markets, will all point to not allowing the Spanish State to do any of that which it has traditionally done to block the democratic will of the people. This is our hope. I am sure that we will succeed. If I wasn't totally sure, I would retire and leave room for someone who was more convinced than I. But I can assure you that there is no one more convinced. Maybe just as convinced, but more than me, I don't think so.

It seems logical to think that a strong government would be key in the coming months. Are you willing to join the government?
We have always said that while there was no agreement on the date and question for the referendum, we would not be willing to join the government, but instead needed to be able to apply pressure from the outside. Now that we have a date and a question, we are willing to participate. We've been consistent on that point. Joining the government depends on whether the president calls us and how we can come to an agreement on how we can contribute to moving the process and the country forward. If we come to the conclusion that we can significantly improve the current parliamentary stability model, which has been very productive, we'll join the government. If the president doesn't call on us, or if he asks us but we come to the conclusion that we can't improve on that which we already do now, then we won't join.

What is the positive side of staying out of the government?
Before the elections last year, we warned that it was very important that ERC be the second parliamentary power because for the first time we would have a president and an opposition leader who were in agreement on fundamental aspects of the country's future. It's important that the president and the opposition leader can go out into the world and explain that the people of Catalonia want to vote and express their opinion about the country's future. This is a very positive and powerful image. And it might be a good idea to maintain that image, but we are convinced that we can also do many positive things from inside the government. We have to analyze the situation with President Mas who is the one who has the responsibility for forming the government, to see if there is anything that we can improve in the current situation by joining the government.

What are the obstacles to creating a candidacy that will bring the Catalan Way to [the European Parliament in] Brussels?
For starters, ICV has said it won't go with CiU; Unió has said it doesn't want to go with ERC; and CiU has said it doesn't want to go with either ICV or the CUP. Esquerra is willing to go with everyone and construct a civic candidacy of independents. The decisions that we've made up to this point allow for such an eventuality. Putting Josep-Maria Terricabras at the top of our electoral list was a way of keeping that option alive. But we can't force ICV to go with CiU, or Unió to go with ERC, or CiU with ICV.

And what alternative do you propose?
If a unitary candidacy is not possible, we at least have to maintain the possibility of a pragmatic agreement among all of the different parties who have made a commitment to the referendum question and date. We will see if it's better to have an agreement with less content and more parliamentary support rather than an agreement with more content but less parliamentary support. All of the groups who are a party to the agreement will have to make that evaluation. We will leave all our options open and we are willing to talk to everyone about everything. We think it's important that the EU members of parliament who want Catalonia to be independent, or at the very least believe in the right to decide, should have broadest support possible.

The Generalitat's budget may make it difficult to come to an agreement much beyond that of last week. ICV and the CUP don't believe that this budget is as "social" as possible.
They can criticize it all they want, but it's obvious. The budget is a catastrophe. However, the money is distributed as well as it possibly can be. And it's a catastrophe not because of us but because of the Spanish State, which decides the budget totals. That is indisputable. We can deny it 1000 times in a row. But it is so obvious that everyone knows it. The one who's paying transfers or who isn't paying transfers is the Spanish government, the one who is deciding that we can't take on more debt is the Spanish government, the one who is deciding if they're going to pay us what they owe us or not, that's the Spanish government too. Unfortunately, the only thing that we can do in this Parliament is figure out how to distribute in the best possible way this catastrophic reality. And we are all in agreement: it's a disaster. And right now, we can't do anything more than lessen its effects as much as we can. You have to recognize that the distribution that we have made is the fairest possible in percentage terms. I repeat: that is a provable truth.

The CUP says we could just not pay the debt.
Lovely. Those are great suggestions. I would like to see how they're implemented. Because if we don't pay the debt, we automatically lose access to the liquidity of the financial markets. Not access to taking on more debt, that has already been eliminated thanks to the Spanish government, but rather the insurance that allows the government to be able to pay for social programs and the salaries of civil servants, and more. All of that is over if we stop paying off the debt. It's not possible to stop paying off the debt to those who guarantee a minimum of liquidity because they will refuse to continue ensuring that liquidity right away. I love it when people bring new ideas to the table. But if those ideas were actually applicable, it'd be even better. We share the spirit of this proposal. But we can't do things that are impossible right now.

ICV has proposed fighting tax evasion in order to reduce budget cuts by 1 billion euros
We completely agree on policies that fight against tax evasion and tax fraud. But Catalonia doesn't have its own tax collection agency, nor does it have tax inspectors. Can we demand that the Government of Catalonia fight tax evasion without the necessary tools and keeping in mind that 95% of the taxes that we paid are collected by the Spanish State? I'd like it if someone would explain to me how we can fight tax fraud on our own. The only one who has the power and the tools for doing so is the Spanish State. And it doesn't do it. That's precisely why we are in favor of independence. And not federalists, independentists! In order to have those tools that would allow us to fight tax evasion. Without these tools that the Spanish Government refuses us, it's impossible to apply these very good suggestions. We would like it if, at the very least, just once someone explained that if the deficit ceiling were at 2% instead of 1%, we wouldn't have to make any more budget cuts this year. The only thing necessary is for our deficit ceiling to be what corresponds to us in terms of the percentage of spending of our public administration with respect to the whole State. Putting the blame on the victim instead of making the guilty responsible, from a methodological point is wrong, but above all, it is profoundly unjust.

Will Oriol Junqueras, the historian, stay in politics for the early days in the life of our new country or will he return to the university?
When we become an independent state, when we have proclaimed our independence and the new republic is celebrating the  first anniversary of its independence, Oriol Junqueras will be a very happy person like so many other people in this country. We'll see what we'll do. Of course it depends on what I want to do, but it also depends on many other factors: my family, the party, the citizens of Catalonia. Right now I don't have the slightest idea. At any rate, I can tell you that I feel perfectly legitimated at this moment. I work as a politician but I am a historian, a university professor. The difference between 'being' and 'working as' is important. I am a historian; I am a university professor, I am a book author... but I am not a politician. I love working as a politician. Maybe I'll become a politician, I don't know. We don't rule it out. My vocation has always been to dedicate myself to history. That doesn't mean that I don't have the vocation to be a politician. If I didn't have a political vocation, I wouldn't do it. But being a professor, a historian, giving conferences, writing books… I was really happy and I lived a lot more peacefully than I do now. Despite that, the hope of what we're doing in this historic moment in Catalonia is so extraordinary, so fulfilling that it makes up for just about everything else.

Do you see yourself as the president or prime minister in the near future? The polls forecast a very good showing.
Polls are totally insignificant. Even if a thousand polls said we would win the elections, it doesn't mean that we've won them. Polls aren't worth very much and we don't pay attention to them. Our goal is not to form part of the government, or to preside over the government, at this particular moment. Right now it's to help and to do as much as we can so that Catalonia can become an independent state and that the new republic has all of the tools it needs in order to have an economically prosperous and socially just system. That is our current objective. Being in the government is a purely incidental question because the objective right now is the freedom of the country, the well being of the citizens, social justice…

The objective of any party is also to form a government in order to apply its programs.
As long as the current government, which is the result of the will of the citizens expressed democratically at the polls just over a year ago, is doing all that is possible to move in the direction that I talked about, our historic responsibility is not to substitute the government, but rather to help it. If we tried to take advantage of not helping it while the government was doing all it can, we would be scoundrels. If the government stopped doing all it could in order to fulfill the will of the people expressed in the last elections to take the country toward independence, then our obligation would be to take its place. We would also be scoundrels in that case if we didn't do so. We are not in any rush to be in the government or to not be there. If the moment comes to hold elections, of course we will do our best to win them. And if the citizens put their trust in us, we will take on that responsibility efficiently, all that responsibility, all that hope and all the anxiety that is inherent in that responsibility.

How do you, a man of faith, recommend that we take advantage of the upcoming Christmas gatherings?
Before becoming a candidate for the European Parliament, I wanted to make a kind of declaration that over the years could be reviewed by everyone. It was made up of three consecutive articles. It was meant to be a homage to a trilogy written by the clergyman Carles Cardó in the 20's during Primo de Rivera's dictatorship, a very difficult moment in the history of Catalonia. I replied to the titles of those three articles that were called "What's important", "What's not important" and "The most important thing of all" If anyone wants to take advantage of the Christmas holidays to read these articles, either the original ones by Cardó or the homage that I tried to make, I recommend that they do so. I believe that they explain the principles that I think have to guide the commitment of a citizen and of a politician. The reflection is interesting because it tries to say that we shouldn't worry if we have loudspeakers or not; we shouldn't worry if our voice reaches very far or not, we should worry about being right, and conscious that it is hard to know who is, about making an effort to reflect in the most precise way the cause of justice and liberty; and to try to explain it in the clearest way possible. The seeds of the trees that will grow the largest are those that germinate in darkness and in the solitude of the catacombes, says clergyman Cardó. Independentism is a bit like that. There have been no loudspeakers. It has lived on the margins of a political and media majority and financial power… but it has survived and it's the seed of another splendid tree. I'm talking about the tree of liberty, of justice. The tree that gives hope to the citizens of Catalonia.

Another recommendation for the Christmas celebration would be to re-read Manuel de Pedrolo, who is not only an author of extraordinary novels and short stories, but also of very important political essays. In his "Chronicles of an Occupation", there are passages that today are quite apropos and pleasurable to read. Pedrolo writes that an organism, no matter how ill, never loses hope of recovery as long as some of its vital organs are still alive. Catalonia, an ailing organism that some people have tried as hard as they could to let die altogether, has survived because some of its vital organisms have held onto that glimmer of hope. That glimmer of hope, according to Pedrolo, came from the independentists. And he wrote that in an era in which independentism was completely out of vogue. And Pedrolo was totally right. Rereading it now, after 35 or 40 years, seems revelatory to me because it makes it clear how all those people were steadfast in maintaining their commitment to the people and to freedom in times that were much more adverse than we have today. Those people established the foundations on which we now have hope of building a shining future for our country. To celebrate Christmas, I recommend reading Cardó and Pedrolo with the awarenss that they represent points of view from two ends of a very wide spectrum that is a summary of the reality of our country.

Can you tell us two of your wishes for the new year that is about to begin: one political and one personal?
The political wish is for the country's freedom. That has always been the number one wish. From a human or personal point of view, the health of all those whom I love. And all of those whom I don't love as well, obviously. And who knows if perhaps an addition to the family, which is always an extraordinary experience. It would be great if that happened.

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