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González and Aznar come together to champion the Constitution and urge the Catalan Government to show loyalty

21-09-2018

It took the celebration of the Constitution’s 40th anniversary to bring about the miraculous sight of Felipe González and José María Aznar sharing banter and jokes together on stage – with the odd compliment thrown in for good measure. The two former prime ministers, who between them were in office for 22 of those 40 years, championed the Constitution as "the best thing” that had happened to Spain in its recent history, during a debate organized by EL PAÍS and the radio network SER. While González, who was more predisposed towards its reform, admitted that the consensus that led to the Constitution "lacks a grand, epic narrative", both agreed that the chief problem is the breach of loyalty posed by the Catalan breakaway movement.

The two former prime ministers, fierce adversaries for many years, were unprecedentedly cordial, making wry asides about their tenures at La Moncloa. "He spent more years than I in that house," joked Aznar. "More than in any other house," Gonzalez replied. "You really liked that house. And we never stopped encouraging you to leave but there was just no way on earth,” said the former PP leader, recalling his famous war cry: “Go, Mr. Gonzalez."


The editor-in-chief of EL PAÍS, Soledad Gallego-Díaz, referred to the significance of the event during her introduction: "That González and Aznar have decided to debate here is testament to the validity of the Constitution." The event, which kicks off the special coverage that the newspaper has organised for the celebration of the 40th anniversary of the Constitution, was held at the Architects' Association of Madrid – co-collaborators – with the sponsorship of Toyota Hybrid.

González and Aznar spent much of the debate focused on finding common ground, although there clear areas of divergence. The former Socialist leader is much more in favor of reforming the Constitution and addressing Part VIII – which deals with the territorial organization of the State – in a federal sense, while Aznar is far from convinced. Indeed, the former PP leader believes that the Constitution has already been interpreted flexibly enough over these past four decades with regard to the "recognition of plurality" of the Spanish nation, and has already reached its limit in this respect. "I have no problem with making a grand strategic reflection on the Spanish Constitution. But what I’m saying is that having scrupulously complied with the recognition of plurality, excessively so for some, we have reached its furthest limit. Beyond that, nothing more an be accepted." González said, however, that we must face the problem of the two million people in Catalonia who declare themselves pro-independence. "I am proposing that we face this problem, even if we agree to disagree," Aznar responded. "We have argued seriously many times  – but it has never occurred to us to break the rules of the game."

The two veteran politicians were keen to champion the spirit of the Constitution and the so-called "Regime of 78", an expression that Podemos leaders introduced in recent years in a derogatory sense – and a term used even by González. But above all, they were determined to convey the sense that, despite the enormous political differences between two politicians who have ferociously clashed over the years, they agreed on the importance of maintaining loyalty to the Constitution – which is precisely what they believe Catalan separatists have rejected.

"In Girona, 72.3% of the electorate turned out to vote in the referendum on the Constitution, with 93% casting their vote in favor. We should remember that. In terms of participation and a vote in favor, it was an overwhelming result compared to those we see now," Gonzalez said. "When some people talk about the ‘Regime of 78’ disparagingly, I’d like us to remember that the circumstances of that time were enormously difficult and there was the very real fear of making mistakes and going back to the old ways [in reference to the Civil War]." "I also identify with the ‘Regime of 78’," said Aznar. "If there is anything left for me to do in politics, it is to defend the values ​​of the Transition, the ‘Regime of 78’ and the Constitution, the best thing that has happened to Spain." The former PP leader then paid an unprecedented tribute his historical rival: "That generation, the one of Adolfo Suárez and Felipe González, did things very well, and did so thinking about later generations. Spaniards participated massively and enthusiastically in that entente. To claim that the Constitution was defective in its very origins is a serious error. I continued that story, I defended those pillars because I inherited them. It is an uninterrupted historical trajectory and one that is a major factor of success in the history of Spain."

Both expressed concern about the questioning of the Constitution among the new generations. "It’s true that we have not managed to build a grand, epic narrative around the Spanish Transition, but revolution and war are always going to be much more epic than consensus. But the result is the best 40 years ever for Spain in contemporary times,” Gonzalez said. And they also agreed that while the Constitution could be reformed, the sovereignty of the Spanish people must never be questioned. "Decentralization, which was an enormous political undertaking, must not be confused with centrifugal forces," insisted the former Socialist prime minister. "To avoid that, there is only one active principle and that is to demand loyalty to the Constitution. If someone thinks that a reform of the Constitution is going to usher in a distinct demos in terms of the Spanish people, they are mistaken". "I go along with that," Aznar continued. "You can reform, but you can’t break the rules or have a coup d'etat. Sovereignty cannot be broken up,” he insisted.

Both former leaders even came to similar conclusions on what’s happening within Catalonia. "I'm worried about the internal breakup  of Catalonia, which can’t agree on who should govern," said González. "I’ve said before that Catalonia could break up before Spain ever would," Aznar went on. Even so, both were optimistic, and Gonzalez believed that a deal could be reached even if right now this seems a remote possibility. "It’s said that there are no conditions for consensus right now. But nor were there any back then. It wasn’t easy. The positions were far apart. The true story just not told enough. The Pacts of La Moncloa were not easy either. Santiago Carrillo was much more willing than I to budge," he explained, before insisting that if that generation, one that had emerged from an armed conflict, could agree, it is hard to believe that the current generation leading the country – almost entirely born in democracy – can’t come to some sort of agreement.

In addition to representatives from the PP, PSOE and Ciudadanos, the event was attended by Manuel Polanco, Chairman of PRISA; Javier Monzón, Deputy Chairman of the group; Ignacio Polanco, Honorary Chair of PRISA; Manuel Mirat, CEO of PRISA and Chair of EL PAÍS; Alejandro Martínez Peón, CEO of PRISA Noticias; the former Chief Editors of the newspaper Joaquín Estefanía – currently deputy chief editor and Jesús Ceberio, and the Managing Director ofSER, Daniel Gavela.

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