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Catalan crisis

“If the secessionists can’t form government we will propose an alternative:” Inés Arrimadas

Ciudadanos leader in Catalonia defends decision not to launch bid for Catalan premiership at this time

Inés Arrimadas of Ciudadanos in Jerez de la Frontera.
Inés Arrimadas of Ciudadanos in Jerez de la Frontera. EL PAÍS

Inés Arrimadas, 36, is enjoying her last days of rest in her home town of Jerez de la Frontera (Cádiz) in the southern Spanish region of Andalusia. The more than 1,000 kilometers separating her from Barcelona provide the kind of perspective that she needs to resist the pressure coming in from all sides: after her pro-unity Ciudadanos became the most-voted party at the Catalan election of December 21, many voices are demanding that she take the initiative and try to form a government.

Arrimadas defends Ciudadanos’ strategy against the separatist parties – whose combined 70 seats are enough for a parliamentary majority, if they reach such a deal – and asks people to remain calm and trust in her party.

Question. After becoming the most voted party in Catalonia, a historical achievement in itself, why would you give up on taking the initiative?

Answer. In reality, we have already taken the initiative with regard to the first step, which is constituting the parliament’s Mesa (permanent board of officers). I think there is a bit of a misunderstanding here. There are people asking us to make a bid for the premiership when the new parliament hasn’t even been summoned yet. You can’t do that. Plus, at a time like this, the Mesa is going to be a key body, just as it was during the previous political term. The follies that were committed back then were made possible by the fact that the Mesa was at the service of the separatists. We are the most-voted political force and we have already demanded the speaker’s position in the Catalan parliament. We began talks in that direction on December 27.

I understand people want to deal with 35 years of nationalism in five days, but unfortunately that’s not going to happen

Q. But there is a sense of resignation – that you have allowed the separatists to make the first move.

A. That debate was opened up by the Popular Party (PP) and the Socialist Party (PSOE) with the clear aim of concealing their own poor results in Catalonia. What can you expect from a party that secured four seats [as the PP did]? They have to say something about Ciudadanos so people don’t talk about them instead. The PP’s and PSOE’s strategies have been nefarious for constitutionalism (the pro-unity with Spain movement) in Catalonia. The only party with a correct strategy, the only won able to win the elections, was Ciudadanos. So let’s keep calm, because we are doing what needs to be done, when it needs to be done. It’s not clear to me at all that separatists are going to reach a deal, with some of them fleeing from justice, others in Brussels, others in prison....we know what we’re doing.

Q. It’s not just the PP and PSOE though. The Catalan business association Fomento del Trabajo has also asked you to try to put forward a proposal for a government.

A. Fomento del Trabajo needs the uncertainty to pass as soon as possible, and to hear assurances about what’s going to happen next. I wish the number of seats we obtained was more in line with the number of votes that were cast in our favor, because that in itself would have conveyed the message that Fomento wants to hear. But we’re going to handle this in the best possible way. We know what we’re doing. (…) I understand that people want to deal with 35 years of nationalism in five days, but unfortunately that’s not going to happen.

Protestors defend the unity of Spain in Barcelona on October 8.
Protestors defend the unity of Spain in Barcelona on October 8. M. Minocri / ATLAS

Q. 

Q. If you finally do attempt to form a government, will you seek support from Mayor Ada Colau’s party (the unaligned Catalunya en Comú-Podem)?

We would clearly have to talk with “the Commons:” I have never refused to talk to them

A. We would clearly have to talk with “the Commons.” I have never refused to talk to them, I have never vetoed them. Any party that can help stop the madness currently gripping Catalonia – corporate flight, a fractured society, lower investment levels – is clearly welcome. If you ask me whether they’d be welcome to join a government, that would be very complicated. But of course we could hold talks to unblock the situation and at least get them to abstain (at the investiture vote)...So what will the Commons do? They have said through every possible channel that they will vote against me, but we’ll see...we’ll see when there are five days left before a second election has to be called, and if just by abstaining they could facilitate the appointment of a new premier; we’ll see if they keep voting no.

Q. So your strategy will be forcing them to avoid a new election?

A. I don’t think of it so much as a strategy as a reality. It could happen. Reality is what it is. I would have liked a different reality, a different majority of seats. A fair electoral law would have given us the chance to form a government. But because this has not happened, I know what the separatist parties are going to do, I know their weak points – I know them, I know their rhetoric, I know their candidates, I know their party discrepancies...and so I know that the most intelligent strategy for constitutionalists right now is the one we are following.

Q. So you’re waiting for them to fail?

A. They’re the ones who decided to include individuals with extremely serious crimes and accusations on their tickets. They’re the ones to decided to include people who are in prison, to say that Puigdemont is the president, a hologram president that is....it wasn’t us. They have pushed for things that are unthinkable. If they are unable (to form a government) – and chances are high that they will be unable to – we will then be under the obligation to propose an alternative of our own. But not now, which is what Mr Puigdemont would like to see. Mr Puigdemont would like for me to make a bid on January 18th, to watch me fail.

Q. You once talked about bringing in independents into a future government of Catalonia. Do you believe there is still a part of the pro-independence movement that is recoverable?

I think there are 7.5 million ways to be Catalan

A. What I do believe is that there are individuals, beyond parties or movements. There are independent people who do not carry party cards and who could contribute to a cross-party government in Catalonia with the kind of project that it needs right now. I have talked to a lot of people, and we have done a lot of groundwork in recent years.

Q. Given the election outcome, when do you feel that the PP and PSOE began to go wrong in Catalonia?

A. A great many years ago. By failing to reform Spain, by failing to change election legislation. By cutting deals with the nationalists in exchange for looking the other way, by creating three-party coalitions with the Catalan Republican Left (ERC) in which the Socialists gave them control over the media and even over education! And then we go complain about it. They were thinking more about their parties than about their country. Nationalism does not grow in countries where things are going well: in countries that provide hope and which are proud of their own symbols and successes.

Q. You are especially tough on the Catalan Socialists...

A. The Catalan Socialists have completely taken on the nationalist rhetoric. We saw that during the last campaign, when (party leader Miquel) Iceta said things that did not reflect the majority views of his voters, but rather nationalist logic, such as speaking about Catalonia and Spain as though they were two separate entities, or speaking about privileges and about government pardons. People could not understand why he insisted that he would not negotiate with us, yet he was already preparing a pardon for (jailed ERC leader Oriol) Junqueras. Nobody got that. His voters did not get it.

Q. Has the pro-independence camp learned anything from such a traumatic outcome?

A. When we talk about the pro-independence camp, I really like to draw a distinction between pro-independence parties and leaders on one hand, and the social reality that supports independence on the other.

Nationalism does not grow in countries where things are going well

I think that the real lack of responsibility lies with the leaders of pro-independence parties who knew that everything they were saying was a lie, yet kept right on saying it. During this campaign, Puigdemont, the ERC, everyone has kept on lying. They said that if they won the elections he (Puigdemont) would become the premier, and that they would get people out of prison, and that they would be able to continue with their separatist roadmap, and that they would be accepted by Europe.

Their great promise is a lie. Have they learned? I don’t know whether privately they have learned anything, but certainly the message that we have sent the world at this election is that the top force in Catalonia is an openly constitutional force that clearly defends the unity of Catalonia with the rest of Spain and the rest of Europe. And that is a great step. They had won the rhetoric battle all these years, but now we are beginning to win that battle. But for that, you need a clear communication strategy. You need to be able to defeat them at elections. You need to be able to speak out in an uninhibited manner. You need to be able to go to Europe and Brussels, as we have done, to refute what they have been saying in Europe and Brussels.

Q. It is striking that after this entire crisis, the most talked-about issue is an initiative like Tabarnia (an imaginary state resulting from two provinces seceding from the rest of an independent Catalonia).

A. Let me be very clear about the fact that we are not supporting a breakaway Tabarnia. We are not secessionists, either within Spain or within Catalonia. But as a joke, it really debunks the secessionists’ logic, because suddenly you are seeing secessionists using unionist arguments to fight Tabarnia’s own arguments. The whole thing has underscored the fragility of secessionists’ logic. Tabarnia is a fantastic joke that places secessionists before a mirror. I think that, in time, we will view what is happening in Catalonia with a bit more perspective. At times it may seem like we’re a little frustrated because we didn’t manage a majority of seats and it looks like our efforts have been useless. But that is not the case: we are achieving many things that had been out of reach in recent years. People have marched in large numbers. Do you know what it’s like to get one million constitutionalists out on the streets? That used to be unthinkable. There are now neighborhoods in Catalonia filled with Spanish flags. A total 1,100,000 people voted for Ciudadanos. We won the most seats and we won the most votes. That was unthinkable,too.

Q. What does it mean to you to be Catalan?

Mr Puigdemont would like for me to make a bid [for the premiership] on January 18th, to watch me fail

A. I think there are 7.5 million ways to be Catalan. I don’t think there is a label you have to wear to be a Catalan. There are many ways to feel Catalan, and think that those who don’t support independence are just as Catalan as those who do. I don’t believe in this ideological identity that posits that if you are pro-independence, you are more Catalan.

Q. Do you have ambitions at the national level?

A. Right now I have an enormous political responsibility in Catalonia. I am not considering a jump to national politics right now, because our responsibility lies in Catalonia. I would love to be able to lead the government in Catalonia. Not because I want to be the premier, but because there is a great need for another governing style, to turn the situation around, to return to the fold of the law, to stop more businesses from leaving and get others to start returning. If things stay like this three, even two more years, they’re going to sink Catalonia completely.

People believe that Catalonia is always going to be what it is now, no matter what we do. But it isn’t. If we ruin Catalonia, if we undermine its stability, if we undertake mad actions from government, as they have been doing, we may well regret this dark period in Catalan history for the rest of our lives. And all for nothing, because they are not going to achieve independence.

English version by Susana Urra.

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