THREE weeks after Catalans voted in an unofficial referendum on independence, Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy visited Barcelona yesterday to give a pep talk to the regional branch of his Partido Popular.
Rajoy, accompanied by five cabinet ministers and a battery of party heavyweights, addressed the party faithful, then, barely two hours after he arrived, flew back to Madrid without meeting the Catalan president Artur Mas or a single representative of the Catalan government. Speaking at the G20 summit in Brisbane two weeks ago, Rajoy said he would visit Barcelona because “I may not have presented my case to the Catalan people as well as I might have.”
However, anyone who imagined this was the belated beginning of a battle for hearts and minds was misguided, as was any hope that Rajoy might exchange his hardline stance for something more conciliatory during his visit. He did not offer even the slenderest of olive branches.
His message was blunt and twofold: firstly, Catalonia should count itself lucky that Spain pays the region’s debts, and second, that the unity of the Spanish state is not negotiable. “Catalonia’s problem is that for four years it’s been in debt to the government,” he said, adding that the debts had been paid “because it’s our duty to Catalonia and any other Spanish community, precisely because it’s Spanish.”
Rajoy said no one had the right to speak on behalf of the Catalans and asked: “What about all those people who have spent the past 30 years wanting to be a part of Spain?”
It’s not up to Catalonia “to divide society and flout the law and the national interest”, he said. “I’ll listen to anyone who wants to talk to me, but let me make one thing clear: I will not have Spanish unity called into question nor the right of all Spaniards to decide what they want their country to be,” he said to prolonged applause.
He added that “Spain doesn’t make sense without Catalonia nor Catalonia without Spain and this is what the majority of Spaniards here and in the rest of Spain think. We don’t want one group of Catalans denying the right of others to be Spanish nor their right to be Europeans.”
He criticised Mas, who he said was directing all of his government’s energy on the issue of independence while neglecting education and health and “in short, not doing any housework at all”.
Mas’s government has spent “18 months on the road to nowhere”, he said. “Never has a government wasted so much time nor generated so much confusion and instability,” Rajoy claimed, referring to the clamour for independence as “delirium”.
Meanwhile, Mas continues to try to outflank Oriol Junqueras, leader of Esquerra Republicana (ERC) and his principal rival, by calling for a unitary slate for early elections held on a single issue: independence. Junqueras is prevaricating as he hopes to win in a straight race, while Mas has turned it into a question of loyalty and putting political differences aside in the name of Catalan unity.
Rajoy dismissed the concept of a “plebiscite election”.
Joana Ortega, the Catalan vice-president, reproached Rajoy for coming to the city to hold a meeting but not to listen. She described it as “a lack of respect” not to listen to citizens and “to impose a particular version of society”.
Josep Rull of the CDC party said that Rajoy had “renounced his role as president of the Spanish government in Catalonia”.