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Editors' Picks Interviews

An Interview with Josep Borrell, Former President of the European Parliament

Josep Borrell is a prominent Catalan political figure who has been involved with both Spanish and European politics as a member of the PSOE (Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party) and the PES (Party of European Socialists). Formerly, Borrell held many cabinet positions in the Spanish government, including that of Minister of Economy and Finance. In 2004 he was elected President of the European Parliament, a position he held until 2009.

He then left politics to assume other positions, most notably that of President of the European University Institute. In 2015 he wrote Accounts and Tales of Independence, a book aiming to deconstruct the Catalan independentist movement from an economic perspective. Borell visited Yale on March 29 to deliver a talk on the situation in Catalonia, organized by the Yale International Relations Association and the Macmillan Center for International and Area Studies. Before the talk, The Politic’s Viktor Dimas met with him to talk about his beliefs on the current situation in Catalonia, Spain, and Europe.

The Politic: In your speech in Barcelona after the referendum last October you expressed your concern that the “silent majority” that did not support the region’s independence was being overlooked. Do you believe this was somehow righted by December’s election?

In the election, the “silent majority” voted. My problem is not with the elections. My problem is with the media and the capacity these people had to express their opinion. The fact is that the independentist movement was absolutely hegemonic in that respect. The independentists had control of all the public media. The government controlled the public media, public TV channels, the public radio. TV3, for example, was a weapon of mass indoctrination. They continuously supported the independence.

The “silent majority” is about half of the population. My main concern is that people talk about the Catalans and Catalonia as if they were homogeneous. That’s the claim of independentists: “We are a single people.”That’s not true. They have 47 percent of the vote. They never had more than that. Even in the height of tension on the matter they had 47 percent. So the social majority was never theirs. They have a parliamentary majority due to the fact that the electoral system gives a bonus to the rural areas, which are overrepresented. So they may have the majority in the parliament, but not really in the society. They cannot declare independence with 47 percent of the people.

How do you feel about the results of the December election, which again secured parliamentary majority for the independentist parties? Do you think the claim for independence is still alive?

The claim for independence is not dead. They went to the streets, they occupied stations, and they have the majority in the parliament. But they are divided amongst themselves. Theoretically they are united, but practically the independentist side is divided. And for the time being they haven’t been able to propose some candidate to be the President of the Generalitat who does not have judicial problems.

So the independentist side is divided. Is that also true for the “unionist” side?

Yes. So are the “unionists.” I don’t like the word “unionist,” though. What I believe you refer to by that is people who don’t want independence. There are also people within them who call themselves “constitutionalists,” who support the constitution. They exist in many countries. France, Germany, and even in the U.S. there are people who defend the constitution. They are also divided. Some of them want an offer to be made to the independentist side. Others believe that nothing other than the established law should be enforced and respected.

As a person who was against independence, do you think that the actions of the central Spanish government strengthened your position in the days of the referendum? Considering, for example, the dispatch of the police or the prosecution of the members of the Catalan government.

First, let’s make the distinction between the different powers. In Spain there is separation of powers. The government can send the police, but it cannot send somebody to jail. This is the job of the judiciary. I believe that it was a mistake of the Spanish central government to try to avoid the vote by using the state police. I told them. This is something that should be done by the Catalan police.

The region has strong autonomy and it has its own police. And it’s up to the  Catalan police to require respect for an order of the constitutional court. If the Catalan police was not going to do so—and it was sure it was not—then the state should not have tried to take its place. It was an impossible mission. People could not have been prevented from going to the polls. And that’s what independentist people wanted. [Independentist politician Oriol] Junqueras, who is in jail today, has said many many times, “We have to provoke the government to put them against the wall, and the stronger their reaction, the better for us.” And he got it. I think this was a mistake. Τhis was a fake referendum and it was enough to say that its results were dismissed. It was a mistake.

To prosecute the people of the Catalan government was not a matter of the Spanish government, but of Spanish justice. The judges decided to arrest these people. Of course, one can discuss the political opportunity presented by that. But the judiciary is not there to create political opportunities, but to examine whether somebody has committed a criminal offense. And I suppose declaring independence from a country must require some sort of judicial involvement.

How do you think it looks that the former president of Catalonia is now in prison, though? How is that affecting the situation in the region?

This is certainly radicalizing the independentist side, the people who voted for Puigdemont. But they are not the majority. Don’t forget that the December election was actually not won by his party, but by another party, the Ciudadanos. That party got the most votes. And it was a party that in Catalonia was born to go against the independence claim. This has to be said, because people tend to forget it. So yes, some people are going to become radicalized. But on the other hand, what would we want the judiciary to do? If tomorrow in the United States the governor of California declared independence, what do you think would happen?

You have advocated for a solution in which the Spanish government gives a greater degree of autonomy to Catalonia. Do you think that this would be possible in today’s Spain, a country that has just struggled with both a financial and a political crisis?

Catalonia is an autonomous region. It has greater autonomy than many other parts of Spain. It is pretty much equivalent to the autonomy of a state of the United States. Of course less than the Basque Country, which is another historically autonomous region of Spain. And this is part of the problem. Why should Catalonia not have the same degree of autonomy as the Basque Country? But in the Basque Country the autonomy has been recognized because they had it before the [adoption of Spain’s] constitution. This is not the case with Catalonia.

I believe some solution has to be found between zero and one. If we keep looking at Catalonia’s status as a binary problem, independence or not, there is no way there is going to be a solution. The Catalan and the Spanish societies are going to remain split. Which is the situation today. So something has to be done in order to avoid the clash. I do believe that autonomy can be marginally increased.

But if one puts an ultimatum to the central government, “Either you grant us autonomy like the Basque country or we declare independence,” which is what happened in 2012, when Spain was in the verge of being treated by the European Union like Greece, it is not the best way or moment to provoke such changes in the established systems. I think the Catalan leaders thought they could profit from the weak situation of Spain. But, unfortunately for them, they haven’t had the popular support. They may have parliamentary majority to run the country, but nobody gave them a mandate to declare independence. This remains the basic problem.

On the issue of the Spanish financial crisis, which you touched upon, what is your interpretation of the roots of the crisis? Was it more of a Spanish or a European problem?

There is a difference between the Greek and the Spanish crises. In Greece the deficits led to the crisis. Greece had too big a deficit—I don’t know how much, but too big, and that created the crisis. In Spain the crisis created the deficit.

Before the crisis Spain was the best pupil in “Mrs. Merkel’s class,” because, together with Ireland, it was fulfilling all the requirements of the convergence pact. Surpluses, lower debts…But only due to the fact that we had a big housing bubble. When the bubble burst, the deficits came. The income fell down abruptly, and the social expenditures increased automatically. So although they were different, Greece and Spain ended up being the same. And then came the European policies provoking a worse crisis. In Spain, like in other Mediterranean countries and Ireland, European policies deepened the crisis and did not provide a solution.

Is the Spanish financial crisis over? How has Spain changed during these years?

We are still the only country in Europe that has a public deficit above three percent, so I would not say it’s over. The macroeconomic growth is here again. Due to the cuts in salaries the economy became more competitive, and the low interest rates have certainly helped with that. Spain has recovered some growth. We now have the same GDP per capita we had before the crisis. But the social price has been really high. With a lot of people being in a worse position. With weakened public services, for example, the public health system. With bigger inequality, as still many regions have been left behind.

Do you think that this inequality is responsible for the rise of new parties like Podemos and Ciudadanos?

Definitely. The crisis has been responsible for the rise of such parties. And also for claims like the one of Catalonia. People have been told in Catalonia that all the social suffering could have been avoided, simply by declaring independence. The argument for the Catalan independence is pretty much the same of the Brexit side in the UK referendum. “If we go out of the EU we will be better off, because we are either way better than all the others.” The same argument that is heard in Northern Italy and other places that have been going through such crises. The crisis has been pushing new political parties by creating an atmosphere in which the expression of society has not been able to be canalized through traditional parties. They have not been able to represent the people’s political positions.

In your speech in Catalonia, you showed the people a European flag, and you told them that this is the flag you believe in. Would you say that people in Spain feel the same way?

It depends on who you ask. My students at the University, when I was teaching, who belong to the younger generation, had a very different conception of Europe than ours. We have been the most pro-European country for years. But to be honest it was kind of easy to be pro-European before the crisis. Europe was providing social help, economic help, credibility, the end of the Franco dictatorship…It was easy to be pro-Europe. But now, this is not the case. It’s almost like Europe is today an evil step-mother that keeps making requests for hard policies: to increase taxes, decrease wages, more discipline…That’s the image of Europe the younger generation has. Not a very positive experience if you ask me.

On that note, what is the future of Europe?

Nobody knows…Europe has a lot of problems with new members that are contesting the principles upon Europe was found. The Euro crisis is still going on, and still has very bad social consequences. But at the same time, people seem to understand that we should not break down what we have built. Despite everything, the Greeks and the Spanish don’t want to leave the euro. The Italians neither. The political parties that won the Italian elections a few weeks ago are now saying, “No, no, no, we talked about it, but it’s not a good idea.” Of course that was their platform. I think the Europeans need to remain united to survive.

How integrated can Europe become?

What is for sure is we will never be like the United States. Because we have too much history behind us. We have been fighting each other, we have different languages, we are not as homogenous as the former British colonies [in America]. And even they had a civil war. Although we cannot be like the United States, we cannot continue having such difficulty making common decisions. It should not continue being so inefficient.

What are your plans for the near future? Are you planning to be involved with politics again?

I am 71 years old. I have been in office for almost 20 years in the Spanish government and in the European Parliament, and I don’t have the slightest will to do that again. I now want to enjoy life.

Where do you get your news?

I read newspapers. Both print and online. Not Spanish ones. Mostly European and American newspapers. I don’t use social networks. I think they are toxic.

What place would you most like to visit?

If I could go anywhere tomorrow, I would go to Torres del Paine National Park in the south of Chile. And also Stanford, where I studied almost 50 years ago. It was my first contact with the United States, and it was a shock for me coming from Spain that was still under Franco’s dictatorship.

If you weren’t doing your job, what would you be doing?

A life I haven’t lived? I am an engineer, but I think the best thing one can be is a member of the foreign service. That’s what I would do.

Which living person do you most admire?

Admire is a big word. I tend not to use admire. I prefer appreciate. I really appreciate President Obama.

What keeps you up at night?

Worries…about life…what is going to happen in Spain, in Catalonia…I am very sad about what is happening there, and I am really afraid there is still room for the situation to escalate. The confrontation is currently on a level of ideas, but what if it becomes physical?

What is your advice for college students?

For these college students, for people at Yale, it is to take advantage of the extraordinary chances they have. To profit of all these opportunities. It is a privilege to be here, and you should not let your time go unused.