By Joan Faus
BARCELONA (Reuters) -The pardons of jailed Catalan separatist leaders do not guarantee their party's automatic support for the Spanish government's 2022 budget, Oriol Junqueras, the most prominent of the freed politicians, said on Monday.
Junqueras told Reuters there was no quid pro quo associated with the pardons since his leftist separatist party Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya had not requested them.
Esquerra's support is crucial for Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez budget plan next autumn. However, Junqueras said it would not back it as result of the pardons but only if it brings benefits to Catalonia.
"When Esquerra Republicana opts to vote in a favour of a measure or against, it is not to favour or harm another political party, but it is always to protect the common good" (of Catalonia), Junqueras said in his first interview with foreign media since leaving prison on Wednesday.
Sanchez has defended the pardons as a way to foster dialogue and concord between the region and the rest of the country.
But right-wing opposition leaders, such as Pablo Casado, from the conservative People's Party, have accused him of seeking to shore up his parliamentary alliance with Esquerra, which handed him key votes to be sworn in last year and to later approve budget in late 2020.
Junqueras said his political convictions had grown stronger in jail and that he could not be thankful for his pardon because his imprisonment was "unfair".
He was not scared to go back behind bars should the pardons be reversed, he said.
With a sentence of 13 years, Junqueras, 52, was serving the longest term in jail among the nine pardoned leaders.
As Catalonia's former deputy head of government he was convicted for sedition and misuse of public funds after an unauthorised referendum on a breakaway in 2017 that led to a short-lived declaration of independence and Spain's worst political crisis in decades.
"If we would have been afraid to go to jail, we would have not assumed that (possibility), we would have avoided it," he said.
Esquerra's chairman said he was open to participating in the talks hosted by the central government with regional authorities in a bid to end the conflict.
Sanchez, who opposes independence and any referendum on the issue, told SER radio station earlier on Monday that "the dialogue will be between governments" adding there is no room for Junqueras, who like his fellow pardoned is still banned from holding public office.
Sanchez is due to meet on Tuesday with Catalonia's head of government Pere Aragones, who is from Esquerra. Aragones is expected to insist for a agreed referendum on independence and an amnesty for the more than 3,000 separatists with open legal investigations.
(Reporting by Joan Faus, editing by Inti Landauro and Angus MacSwan)