Arturo Puente, 2 September 2023
Andreu Mas-Colell, economist and former regional minister of Economy, photographed in Barcelona Robert Ramos
The economist and former regional minister in the government of Artur Mas recommends pro-independence supporters to negotiate with the PSOE, while criticising the mistrust generated by non-compliance.
“An economy or a politics where debts are sometimes not paid and, as a result, you have to ask for payment in advance, it’s shit”. With this lapidary phrase, for which he apologises the moment he utters it, Andreu Mas-Colell (Barcelona, 1944) describes the relationship of mistrust that exists between Pedro Sánchez and Carles Puigdemont, two politicians whose paths have now met again by force and who will have to reach an agreement if they want the legislature in Congress to get underway.
Mas-Colell, one of the most prominent and world-renowned Catalan economists, who served as Artur Mas’s Minister of Economy in the government of the great social cuts, believes that Catalan independence is impossible. That is why, he argues, the way out for Catalan sovereignism is to try to find a place in Spain and Europe through a pact. It is fantastic that Junts is negotiating with the PSOE, I hope that now ERC does not become radicalised,” he said, after considering that Oriol Junqueras’ party did “what it had to do” during the last legislature and praising them for their “good work”.
The pro-independence parties hold the key to the investiture in Madrid and must decide what the priorities are in a negotiation. What do you think they should be?
In general, I think that de-judicialisation/amnesty and language-related issues are appropriate. And here I put two accents: the use of Catalan in Congress and some kind of European officialdom, although I am aware that this will have to be worked on. But this is of great symbolic value. As for the rest, paradoxically, although I am an economist, I do not consider the economic aspects to be the most important. The fundamental ones would be regional funding, although I believe that Catalonia should not lead on this issue, and also other issues that are neutral for the rest of the communities, such as the issue of Rodalies or El Prat airport.
He mentioned amnesty among the priorities, but not the referendum, which are usually two demands that are formulated together.
I believe that in a negotiation you have to be demanding, but with a perception that the other side can accept it. Right now, it seems clear to me that the socialist party cannot accept a referendum on self-determination. We all understand that there is a negotiating table and that it will have to culminate in some kind of vote on the agreements at that political table, and that it is possible that this will recover elements of the Statute or that they will go as far as they need to go. And that will be voted on. But that will be at the end of the negotiation process.
You said earlier that you do not believe that Catalonia should lead on the issue of regional funding. Why?
Catalonia’s position on regional funding should be of multilateral interest. It is not productive for Catalonia to take the lead in this debate, because it would not be useful. On the other hand, I believe there are two things in which she can play a role: the first is to support any multilateral initiative that leads to greater benefits for all the regions through a better distribution of income, not between regions, but between the central State and the autonomous regions. If we do not change this, the negotiation on financing is a quagmire and a zero-sum conflict, which will only lead to paralysis, as has happened so far. And the second thing is to support any proposal for debt cancellation.
Regional funding has become a kind of taboo, all the presidents seem to be afraid to negotiate or talk about it. Why?
Because they think that this would send a message that says that we can fix this with money. And no, we can’t fix it with money. I am quite in line with what has sometimes been said about the agreements of the Transition, where the Basques obtained the agreement, which the State could afford because Euskadi is not so big and there was a very tough conflict, while Catalonia obtained the language. But if it demands that we renounce our economic claims and at the same time attacks the language, look what has been generated.
I believe that Catalonia, as long as she is above the Spanish average, must make fiscal transfers. In return, I also ask that the financing system guarantees that the day it is within the average, it does not transfer taxes to other countries.
You say that the issue of Catalonia is not a question of money, but wouldn’t the conflict be solved to a large extent with a fiscal pact?
Not if it is in exchange for renouncing identity. Let’s see, the Catalan issue is one of respect for identity, which is largely contained in the language. And right now, there is an attack. Catalonia has gone from six million inhabitants to eight million in two decades. None of these two million had Catalan as their mother tongue, therefore, if Catalan is to continue to be a feature of social life in Catalonia, schools must generate what I call perfect bilingualism, that is, that Catalans master their two languages in an educated way, not a patois. And not only is this not guaranteed today, but there is a clear attempt to make Catalan a minority language.
The fiscal pact has become a difficult objective in negotiations. What should the pro-independence supporters’ minimum demands be?
Let us understand that the fiscal pact has two interpretations. One is that Catalonia should collect all her taxes and not transfer anything. But I believe that Catalonia, as long as it is above the Spanish average, must make fiscal transfers. In exchange, I also ask that the financing system guarantees that the day she is within the average she does not transfer, something that is not guaranteed now, as is the case with the Valencian Country.
But the fiscal pact that has been called for is not that, but one that allows Catalonia to have the capacity to collect and decide on the taxes that serve to finance the services provided by the Generalitat. For example, it would be natural for the taxes that are returned to us for Rodalies or for infrastructures to be managed from Catalonia, both strategically and in terms of construction. This is how I understand the fiscal pact.
You mentioned the case of Rodalies. If you were the Councillor for Territory who has to negotiate with the Minister of Transport, what would you ask for?
That she put in the money she is putting in now, but that it be transferred to Catalonia and implemented from Catalonia. This is very much on the border of the formula of management orders. In other words, the only thing missing is strategic planning. I believe that in Rodalies, we have to plan from here, if we want to do it in cooperation with the State, I have no objection. Investments must also be planned from Catalonia. The money is what the State is devoting now, I mean now and not before, but it must be managed here. The ownership of the roads can be done in a consortium, but it must be under the planning authority, which must be the Generalitat.
Do you believe that in the disinvestment in Rodalies over the last two decades there has been an intention to harm Catalonia?
No, no. But if things are planned from a ministry in Madrid by civil servants from Madrid, with a strictly radial vision of infrastructures, that is what ends up happening. There’s no need for ill will, it’s what happens when there’s too much distance.
El Prat airport is another of the issues that have been of great interest to you lately. Why are you convinced that it is necessary to extend a runway?
I am convinced that a runway needs to be extended to 3,500 metres for take-offs, which is what our competitors have. That is what Madrid, Munich, Zurich, Boston… Why are they, our competitors? Because when companies, or congresses and major sporting competitions, look at suitable locations, they look at these connections. And you either have it or you don’t. Therefore, we have to make a proper track.
And you are not convinced about using the other runways in Catalonia to increase the load on Barcelona?
No, no, I’m convinced. For long-haul it has to be Barcelona. It’s not enough to expand Girona, because long-haul also has to be fed with connecting flights. And if we have to move these flights to Girona, what we will be doing is that Barcelona’s main airport is no longer in Barcelona. What I believe is that visitors coming to Barcelona can land in Reus or Girona, but at the same time we need to have intercontinental flights to Barcelona. Which, moreover, is how it was initially planned.
What does this mean?
There is already a 3,500-metre runway at El Prat. It just can’t be used for take-off because of the noise. But it is there.
You also defend the runway in the sea. Is it viable?
It is perfectly viable it is about 1,600 million euros. I don’t think the third terminal is necessary if we boost Reus and Girona. Now, if an agreement were reached to move La Ricarda, I would also be fine with that, eh? The solution at sea is environmentally neutral or favourable. There are tracks in the sea in many places; tracks on pylons, as is our proposal, in fewer, but this is the virtue of the proposal. The pylon technology is well proven in the North Sea, it is not environmentally disruptive. And it is proposed a kilometre and a half from the beach for landscape considerations.
Don’t you think it is necessary to encourage fewer flights to mitigate climate change?
Globally, short flights of less than two hours should certainly be de-emphasised and replaced by trains. But I believe that flying will continue to be necessary in the world for long distances. What we need to do is to work towards less pollution, or zero pollution, but that will take 20 or 25 years. And what we have to think about is that we are in a global competition, not for tourists, but for high competitiveness.
You were the first Catalan Minister of the Economy to stand up the then Minister, Cristóbal Montoro. Do you think it is useful to go to this type of forum, which the Generalitat has not attended for years?
I see it as useful and good and, in fact, I went back. My not going was a protest against a specific incident, which I think at the time was about the distribution of the deficit authorised by Europe when the Government not only kept the additional margin but also wanted to keep the Autonomous Communities’ margin as well. But I skipped one, because I believe that we have to be present there. Now, nothing is negotiated in the Fiscal and Financial Policy Council. Almost nothing is approved because the central government has a majority, and it exercises it. I have seen the Government lose a vote and the minister say, “but it will be done as I have said”.
Do you understand that some pro-independence sectors have criticised ERC for the negotiations it has carried out in the last legislature?
I understand, I understand many things in this life, but I don’t agree with it at all. As in the Basque Country, there is a very strong rivalry between the two pro-independence parties, and this sometimes makes us lose perspective. We have seen curious things, such as the fact that in October 2017 ERC and part of Junts prevented Puigdemont’s idea of going to elections, only to later change roles and do the opposite. One of the good things that seems to be hinted at now is that I think there will be an agreement [with Junts] for [Sánchez’s] investiture. I think it’s fantastic that Junts is negotiating with the PSOE, and I hope that now ERC doesn’t become radicalised towards the other side.
I believe that Catalonia is a national reality and that in the abstract its ideal situation would be that of an EU country, but I don’t think this is possible.
Do you think that the things ERC negotiated in the last legislature are sufficient for what ERC gave in return?
I think they did what they had to do, and they probably went as far as they could. At that time, it was very difficult to start down the path of de-judicialisation; now it is somewhat easier. And then they set up a negotiating table, which I think is good to have and will be useful one day. But the moment will come because it requires a climate, a climate that we don’t have and that requires time.
In Junts’ shift towards negotiation, is there a danger that some sectors will move towards more radical positions?
An “all or nothing” sentiment will not disappear. The question is what percentage of the population it will represent. And I believe that we are on the way to the majority of the sovereignty movement recognising that politics is necessary. There will be sectors that do not accept this, perhaps the CUP on the one hand and the ANC on the other will remain fundamentalist, or who knows.
During the last legislature, pragmatic positions advised asking for pardons because amnesty was impossible, but suddenly, amnesty has appeared on the board. How to differentiate between pragmatism and what is just selling votes on the cheap?
Perhaps because I am an economist, I don’t like to talk in terms of “selling out”, nor do I like to talk about red lines and all this kind of language. Let’s see, until the right gives me guarantees that it understands the issue of plurinationality and is willing to respect it, I believe that Catalonia has to come to an understanding with the Spanish left. And this means that we have to create relations of trust, of complicity… What anthropologists call exchanges of gifts. To be kind, not to be taken for a ride, but to generate trust and reciprocity. An economy or a politics where debts are sometimes not paid and where, as a result, you have to ask for payment in advance, is shit if you’ll forgive me.
Do you consider yourself to be pro-independence?
I declare myself a sovereigntist, I don’t think you’ll find any manifestation of me as an independentist. I believe that Catalonia is a national reality and that in the abstract its ideal situation would be that of an EU country, but I don’t think this is possible. I believe that the EU does not work like that, there is no precedent and I believe that in Spain we all, Catalans, and non-Catalans, have joined Europe to avoid what each one understands as a catastrophe, which in each country is different.
For Catalonia, the catastrophe is Francoism and for Spain, it is dissolution, and therefore it has been understood that within the EU, Spain is indissoluble, not because the EU guarantees it but because it provides a framework of stability.
There are many people who think that the independence fever served to cover up the budget cuts in social spending that you made. Do you agree that the two things were related?
No, that’s absurd. The cuts were made all over Spain, weren’t they? And how many procés took place in Spain? And the same in Europe. In France there were big cuts, were there many pro-independence movements in France? With or without cuts, there would have been a procés, because it was a consequence of the Constitutional Court’s ruling against the Statute and the Spanish right’s attempt to do in Catalonia what they had done in Valencia and the Balearic Islands.
What do you think when you see that the recipe of austerity, which you applied in 2011, has now been discarded from the European sphere because of the following crises? Do you regret having applied it?
I had to apply it, this recipe. And I have no regrets because at that time I was already criticising this policy that was imposed from Europe. It was a policy imposed by the ECB and Germany, and it was extreme. A financial crisis is a very serious thing and therefore the debt crisis was real, and the euro was in danger. Let’s not minimise that. That said, it was too extreme, and, above all, it was accompanied by a moralism that was totally misplaced. That ended up being a fault for places like Greece or Spain and, fortunately, when the pandemic came, it was recognised that another recipe was needed.
But don’t you think that you, Artur Mas as President, and you as Minister for the Economy, went too far with the cuts, that you went too far with the cuts, that you went too far with the cuts, that you went too far?
No, no, if you want me to say that we went too far, I won’t say it. Because we did what was right and what was necessary. And the intention was to save everything that was essential, and I am prepared to argue that. A lot of the essentials were saved, including the health system, the research system, the universities and so on. But when you are in a situation like this, where you are forced to cut back, the strategy must be to save the essentials so that they can be recovered when the time comes.
Throughout the interview I sensed that you were optimistic about the economic situation. Are you?
Maybe, perhaps because I remember how hard the previous crisis was and I don’t see the same catastrophe. Maybe because I am now in the south and not in the north, because this time it was more Germany’s turn than ours. We shouldn’t believe that too much, let’s not think that we are better than the Germans. What we should see is that sometimes the blows are shared and draw the consequence that the more solidarity we have, the better. So now I feel solidarity with the Germans. Let me make this little joke.