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Dimecres  23.07.2014  11:55

Autor/s: Liz Castro

Marta Rovira: "It’s our responsibility to explain why we think we'd be better off independent"

In this interview, Esquerra's Secretary General, Marta Rovira, explains her vision for an independent Catalan Republic and how her party hopes to help empower the citizens to achieve that goal


Marta Rovira is the Secretary General of Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (Catalan Republican Left) a party in favor of Catalonia's independence which currently holds 21 seats in the Catalan Parliament, and which many polls say will win the next elections. Rovira has a law degree from Pompeu Fabra University. She joined Esquerra in 2005, became Secretary General of EFA from 2008-2012, and was elected to the Catalan Parliament in 2012. VilaWeb met with Rovira in her office at Esquerra's headquarters in Barcelona this week. 

You've just gotten back from the US. Can you tell us why you went and what you found there?
I received an invitation from the US Department of State to participate in an international visitor program—which began sixty years ago and is designed for people who want to learn more about the United States from a political, economic, and social perspective. Thanks to the US Consul General in Barcelona who proposed my participation and the approval by the Department of State in Washington DC, and with fifteen other young European politicians, we had the great fortune and privilege to get a glimpse of many political, economic and social realities that from here it's impossible to grasp.

What are some of these realities?
That depends a lot on each person's particular European perspective and where you come from. One of the things that I brought back from the US was a very good impression of the investments and resources that are made in the area of protecting civil rights. We were able to meet with non-profit groups, with specialized attorneys, and with community leaders who are dedicated to mediating and dealing with discrimination. It seemed to me that they have a very strong structure there for defending civil rights and the rights of the individual, and I believe that it's something that we could learn from.

We also worked hard to get a panoramic view of the political challenges facing the United States right now. Topics like energy independence, immigration reform, the high cost of university education which places it out of reach of many young people, or healthcare reform.

We were fortunate to see an electoral process first hand: the Colorado primaries. And we could see how easy they make it for people to vote. Once they're registered, it’s easy to deliver their vote: through social media, electronic mail, through a polling station one month before the election as they're strolling through the city of Denver... I bumped into one myself. All of a sudden, I found a voting booth in the middle of the street that they had blocked off for the occasion. They made it so easy to park, vote, and be on your way. They make it really easy, in contrast with our rigidity.

Are people interested in the Catalan sovereignty process in the United States?
I found that people were knowledgeable on the subject, had questions, and some understanding of the situation, and offered many wishes of good luck. My impression from the people I talked to on the street and in meetings was very positive.

Can we hope for help from the United States Government?
It's the US Government that has to decide what it wants to do and at any rate, make that known. We have to have the utmost respect for the way they formulate their opinions, evaluations, decision making, and above all how that is all to be communicated with respect to our sovereignty process. And we can't hope for more than that, from the US or any other government. I believe we have to be very respectful in that sense. I didn't go there with the idea of convincing anyone, but had the opportunity to explain the situation. We talked to a lot of people, ambassadors, consuls, international representatives of businesses, universities, lobbies, unions. It's a part of our job. And the best way to explain our situation is to talk about the process our country is going through simply, naturally, without expecting anything in exchange.

But what I always say is that they have to see that we are capable of winning our independence on our own. Because in the end, it's up to us to work and do what it takes to win. It’s our responsibility to explain why we think we'd be better off with all of our resources, all of our decision making power, and all of our political institutions serving the citizens of our country so that we can make the best decisions according to the needs of those people. That is easily understood all over the world.

Esquerra is a center left party that is supporting a government ruled by a party of the center right. It seems complicated to legislate an autonomous community and try to create a new state at the same time, since once assumes continuity and the other a break. In addition, it seems like one situation would require different allies than the other. How do you manage?

We believe that we are faced with an opportunity that we cannot let escape, that the citizens of Catalonia be the ones to decide what kind of future and what kind of country they want to live in. And indeed, the agreement with Convergència i Unió, puts the power in the hands of the citizens of Catalonia to decide how this new country should be.

We in Esquerra have our own ideas about how this new country should be, and indeed, we have continued to work on that so that the country is marked by republicanism, which means returning power to the citizens to control their democratic institutions. Today’s it’s crucial that citizens feel empowered and can really make the decisions and be involved in the resulting policies. It means that we want to work so that this is a country where social justice is a central value and there is a certain amount of shared responsibility between the people. That is also republicanism: responsible citizens working so that the common good is their principal focus and that the whole system be a circle that comes around and is self-replenishing.

Finally, we want to build a country of equal opportunities, so that everyone who lives here and works here has access to the culture, knowledge, the university world, a quality education. This country’s progress is directly linked to equal opportunities for all citizens.

In short, I think one thing is compatible with the other. That we work with Convergència i Unió so that the citizens of this country have at least the chance of constructing this new country, and can vote, and decide if they want to live in an independent state and then, from that point, we open a constituent process where obviously Esquerra Republicana as a political party will also present its ideas. But it will be the citizens of Catalonia who will decide with a majority how this new country will be built.

In Scotland, the independence movement is managed by a single party which has thus been able to sketch out just what kind of state it wants, for example in its white paper, Scotland’s Future. Is Esquerra working on a draft that describes what it considers is best for Catalonia? If so, will it be published before the referendum is held?

Actually, we've already published a preliminary document about a year ago. We published the First National Conference on the Catalan Republic which we didn't want to be just an internal exercise for Esquerra, but rather that it should include the work of experts and researchers. It was really a great exercise for everyone because it gave us an idea of our limitations and how we can work in the future. And we have to continue to work and expand on it. You can download it and we hope it's a useful document for the country. We have also expanded on the original document through a series of workshops that have taken place on many Saturdays and Wednesdays: for example, a workshop on Public Administration for a New Country, a workshop on the Ministry of Justice in the Future Catalan Republic, Social Security in the Catalan Republic, and so on. It's not Esquerra who moderates them, but rather we go find experts in the field so that they can explain to us how the Catalan Republic might proceed in all of these different areas.

At any rate, while Scotland has only one independence party, it's a party that includes a wide range of people. There's the more social-democratic wing, in which Alex Salmond can be found, and then there are more conservative wings of the party which are in the party precisely because it is the Scottish National Party. So the book is not just a consensus of the SNP but it's a book created by the government, that the government started working on in 2007 through a dialogue called "The National Conversation" that consisted of 8000 events throughout Scotland and which involved the Government Councilors. My understanding is that the product of all of this process of national dialogue is reflected in this book.

The movie Lincoln involves an abolitionist who must bend his principles in order to achieve a wider goal of passing the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution. Do you think such political jockeying will be necessary?

I believe that we can learn from many other constituent processes. We are faced with two major challenges. The first is to figure out how can we help the citizens to feel like they are in the driver's seat in writing the constitution of their country. And we have some good examples, highlighted by political science professors. We also did a workshop on the Constituent Process. And they told us that there was a very relevant case, which is that of Kosovo—setting aside the reasons and the path they took to independence—whose Constituent Process was exemplary because they found a mixed formula between the institutions, or representatives from institutions, the political groups and lobbies, and the citizens directly. I believe we need to head in this direction because it would best represent our own process.

That's the first part. We are where we are because the citizens have decided to come out on the street and express politically what they feel and where they want the country to go. From the street, we have progressed to the mandate at the ballot boxes, which is on the table and being implemented by the political institutions.

But it would be a mistake if we believed that the constituent process should be proposed, or edited by a handful of politicians in some office. Since the process began in the street with the citizens saying what they want, I think that citizen participation has to remain high.

Secondly, during a constituent process, there's generally a part of the debate that goes on behind closed doors to guarantee that everyone involved can freely express their opinion and they don't feel conditioned by the media or spotlights. So we also have to figure out how to hold the discussions, how to publicize them, and how they eventually make their way to the citizens so that they can be the ultimate decision makers.

Speaking of the US and constituent processes, I think what we want is a Constitution that can be modified, and that the people feel to be their own. In the US, we had a meeting with a special interest group who have organized to modify the Constitution. These are citizens that have gotten together to present an amendment—and they will win. It's an amendment that gives the states the power to decide on whether 'fracking' is acceptable to each given state. And I think this is one of the good points that we need to learn from. What kind of power do citizens have to change the Constitution? In our present situation, it seems impossible to change the Constitution so that it properly serves the interest of the people.

You can't, can you?
No, it's totally impossible. The Constitutional Reform Process is absolutely rigid and can only come out of a super majority in the Spanish Congress.

I recently heard Oriol Junqueras speak in Girona and he complained a bit about how journalists always ask the same questions, and that we look for headlines (that’s my interpretation, not precisely what he said). Do you find it difficult to make the connection directly with people?

It's normal that the news be dominated by headlines and that the headlines and the news feed off of each other. Sometimes it seems like there are interesting proposals on the table, but the political calendar points elsewhere at that moment. There are lots of way to direct the conversation. Lots. Sometimes it's not what the people want to hear. On a given day we might find ourselves with an interview in the media and the questions revolve around that particular topic but that night we can have a discussion in a town or city in Catalonia, with 40, 50, 100, 200 people, and we always try to keep our introductions really brief and let there be lots of questions from the people, since that's what enriches us, mutually. The questions that come from the citizens don't generally revolve around the political event of the day. Maybe there's nothing we can do and maybe we have to follow the political tide of the day and also respond to the questions that come up daily.

What kinds of questions do people ask? 
Yes, because we're in a process that has in part, many uncertainties. I always say that Catalonia has always had citizens who are very politically mature, and now that is particularly true. All of this process has been decided at the polls, time and again, and they've read, and studied, and prepared themselves. They've got lots of questions, and also suggestions. It's a very rich process; the citizens offer proposals, suggestions, and observations. There is a wide variety, from the typical ones that are a reaction to all the fear-mongering, which it's important to answer, like "Will we be able to pay for retirement pensions?" as well as a range of questions that have to do with how this country will be constructed. Or for example, there's a lot of interest in solutions for the country, "How will we construct a National Treasury?" "How will we develop a diplomatic corps?" "How would we build a defense system?" It's good that these kinds of questions come out because we know that in the end we are going to have answer them.

Do these conversations continue on Twitter or in social media? I've seen that you're on Twitter, but not very much. What problems does Twitter pose?
None, Twitter doesn't have any problem. Twitter is a privilege. We have received these kinds of questions through Twitter and Facebook and email—the emails of the members of parliament are all public and therefore any citizen can send us any question and we try to be very responsible about all of that. The other thing is that I like it when the parts of social media that are labeled “Marta Rovira” are actually managed by Marta Rovira and sometimes the activities of the day, the intensity doesn't leave a lot of time to manage them. But I think the direct communication is a privilege.

In 2008 you were voted National Secretary for International Relations by Esquerra’s National Congress. Will Catalonia have a role to play in world conflicts, like for example in Gaza or the Ukraine? What does it have to offer?

Of course, it has a role. We want Catalonia to be a full-fledged state in all areas. So we also want to contribute to international relations governing values, values of solidarity and peace that I believe have characterized Catalonia since day one. Also on the international stage, I think we have a pending debt, to see what Catalonia can export in a natural way. What do we export? That is, what are the values in public diplomacy that define us as Catalonia? I'm sure we'll find recognition in that sense. I think that we are exporters of a lot of knowledge in particular areas, and we also bring international solidarity, peace, and other values that come from, or are characterized by our history, by political figures that we've had that have already made those values known to the world. Pau Casals’ speech to the United Nations always comes to mind. I believe we have great values that help define what Catalonia is and what it could be as a state.

Between 2008 and 2012, you were Secretary General of the European Free Alliance, the EU-wide party that is comprised of several political parties that represent stateless nations, like the SNP, the Welsh Plaid Cymru, the Flemish VU, etc. Does Esquerra have a good relationship with the SNP? How do you see the fact that the SNP has distanced itself somewhat from the Catalan process?

I think there is a long working history. In Europe for example, EFA is still a party that lobbies for its interests so that, in addition to leftist, progressive policies, the right to self-determination be recognized. Therefore we share a group in the European area. And I think there was a lot of work done when Esquerra was in charge of Foreign Relations in the earlier legislature and there was a good relationship with the Scottish government. It's true that well, I wouldn't call it distance, but that the Scottish Process has to take precedence for the Scots over any other relationship.

We've got to put ourselves in their shoes. They've carried out a picture-perfect process and will be able to hold a legal, binding referendum. It wasn't in their interest to attract Catalonia's or particularly Spain's attention. You can just imagine the machinations that were going on by Spain in the UK because they didn't want Catalonia to be inspired by this process of pacts and negotiation to have a Catalan referendum. We have made every effort to respect the position of the SNP. We went to their party presentation in 2012 and were able to learn in detail how the negotiations had gone and how they had managed to get the referendum, and so on.

Do you think they will win?
I think their process is unquestionable. It's the Scottish process. And it's hard to compare with other processes. The Scottish Process happened in the opposite direction from the Catalan one. The Catalan process was decided by the people in the streets and then at the ballot boxes and then the institutions and politicians have had to put themselves at the service of the democratic mandate. And that's great, because it's the social, majority power that is pushing the process forward.

The Scottish Process is precisely the opposite. The Scottish government of 2007 came to power more for questions of political cycles rather than for being a pro-independence government that was bent on working for independence. And they have worked from this point forward to gain the support of the majority. We'll see if they manage to win the referendum, but their growth has been spectacular through a process of reflection that has been very calm, mature, and above all, through being able to negotiate having the referendum at all. That's the most important thing. Our attempts at negotiation have been totally frustrated.

They've worked the other way around, no? They've worked from the government. Once the government has the Referendum Law, it puts it up to the voters. It goes from being a pro-independence government in the minority to being a pro-independence government in the majority and feels completely legitimized to work for independence, and it wins the right to hold a referendum.

What can we learn from them?
Lots. The whole process of consensus, the "National Conversation" is something that could be exported to any other country in the world in order to construct just about any policy with citizen participation. Look, we have to discuss Scotland's future, we have to discuss Catalonia's future. Let's do it together. Let's have a mature process of reflection, with a website, documentation, where everyone can participate. I think it's a very good way to define any public policy. It’s particularly good for deciding the future of the country, but really for any public policy.

Will the result affect Catalonia?
Of course it will have an impact. They've won already. Because they can vote. They can hold a legally binding referendum.

I think it's interesting that many leaders of Esquerra have very young children. How do you think that affects the policies you pursue?
Very positively. I'll try to explain with an anecdote the other way around. The last few years have gone by very quickly and sometimes you ask yourself, what are you doing here as General Secretary of Esquerra Republicana, at the side of Oriol Junqueras who is president, as a member of Parliament? And when you ask yourself all these questions and you look for an answer, you find it deep inside. During the last elections I tried to explain an anecdote that means a lot to me. When I finished my law degree, on graduation day, I found an envelope from my parents with a poem inside that they had written, that expressed that my graduation was the best present for them in the world, that is, to have daughters that had been able to study. Because before they had never had the chance to go to university, for various reasons.

So why does one dedicate themselves to politics? It's probably because you want certain things to happen in your country, that everyone have equal opportunities, that everyone have access to knowledge, that everyone have a chance to progress, to make decisions on their own. It's a life lesson, and having kids probably gives you one more reason to get up every morning and make it so that they find a better country than the one that you found. This the life lesson that you carry inside from your parents and your grandparents, who are survivors and who worked hard so that future generations could live better. And that's why a lot of us are in politics, and because many of us believe that independence is the best thing that can happen so that future generations have in their own hands the best tools to do the best by their own children.