Borrell returns: His vision for Europe

A conversation between Spanish Foreign Minister Josep Borrell and José Ignacio Torreblanca ahead of the European elections

José Ignacio Torreblanca (JIT) – Is Europe in Crisis?

Josep Borrell Fontelles (JB) – Actually, that’s a bit of a stereotype that’s been used perhaps too often, don’t you think? I am reminded of the ‘permanent crisis’ or at least the successive crises, when we would say we were at a crossroads, we had to decide where we were going and so on. This has probably been the natural state of the process of European construction that only gets going as a result of the response to a crossroads or crisis. But now it could be argued that we’re guilty of the same thing, of saying we’re in a crisis like the ones of before. But perhaps this crisis is a bit different from the others in that it’s a poly-crisis. Namely, it’s a crisis from a multitude of perspectives. There are many factors causing a situation of uncertainty, and also an opportunity to respond to unknowns. The eurozone debt crisis –which certainly was a crisis– has been joined by the migratory crisis, the crisis produced by Brexit… there are many factors of uncertainty.


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JIT – Is Europe so fragile that it could break up?

JB – Honestly, yes. The idea that Europe could disappear as a political project because it is unable to respond to the problems of its citizens began to take shape recently. Until the euro crisis of 2008, the idea of a Europe that could be brought down by its inability to respond to the problems raised by its very construction, or by others from outside it, was not in the collective imagination, but now it is. Indeed, disintegration has already begun to some degree. Brexit is a step backwards by one country at least…and not one of the small or minor ones.

Many European states have internal disintegrative tendencies –Spain is a case in point– and the East-West divide on migration issues has the potential to disintegrate European unity far more than the eurozone crisis because it impacts more substantive issues of an identity-related nature which call the project more into question.

In 1979, I think barely 1 percent of MEPs were what we could call ‘disintegrators’. They were Eurosceptics rather than Europhobes; they thought the project was wrong and it had to be done away with.

Now it’s more than 14 percent and the outlook for the upcoming elections, especially if the bloc that Salvini is trying to cobble together comes to fruition, could take it to over 25 percent. It would be very bad if they won more than the third of votes that can prevent decisions by qualified majority. But yes, no doubt every human project is born, grows, develops and dies.

How long does it take? Well, maybe a few centuries. And this one, which was born and tried to develop in a way that it would go practically unnoticed by citizens, which never sprang from a well of popular support, never clearly stated where it wanted to go and when it did often came up against naysayers – “no, no, we don’t want that” on the French referendum on the Constitution, for example, or a European defence project much earlier – no sooner did it start to make its objectives clear than people began to abandon it –like the United Kingdom– or take up counter-positions, such as those represented by the Eastern bloc countries today. Okay, Italy isn’t the East, but you know what I mean – groups that understand or believe that the European project has so many negative elements that it’s better to do away with it or drastically change its nature.

JIT – Who are the main enemies of Europe: Europhobes, Putin and Trump, or the lack of unity between Europeanists?  

JB – Well that’s like choosing between plague and cholera, isn’t it? You can’t say what you would prefer to die from, but if I had to choose, I would say the most dangerous are the internal ones.

Of the external ones, we already knew that Putin… Putin isn’t the Soviet Union, Putin is the revival of Imperial Russia. It’s not a new Cold War; it’s a classic power base aiming to assert itself in territories it believes belonged to it and which it wants to recover. It’s not an intractable enemy – it may have nuclear arms, but its GDP is the same as Italy’s and it has many intrinsic economic and sociological weaknesses. It is an awkward neighbour.

What’s new is Trump. He’s the first American president to voice hostility towards the European project, to describe us as foes. He says Brexit should be a model for other countries to follow. He applauds Salvini and Orbán; he calls them his friends and says he wishes everyone could be like them. So, wow, that really is a slew of unfriendly positions, to say the least.

He labels exporting German cars as a threat to US national security. That really is something new in Europe’s political history. The US always promoted European integration – firstly because it served as a safety net against the Soviet Union and also because it was in America’s interests to have a partner that was strong enough to warrant consideration as an ally but not strong enough to have its own ideas. But now it’s European integration itself that’s the bogeyman for the US president and that is a global first.

Then there’s China, which we never used to talk about and which has now suddenly appeared as a ‘systemic rival’. That’s Brussels-speak for ‘threat’. But I think the worst are the ones on the inside. There are two categories of these… as you say, the ones that are openly against it and the ones that are dangerous because, like it or not, they have many citizens behind them. Orbán is not dangerous in and of himself – he’s dangerous because he enjoys 60 percent of popular support; Salvini is dangerous because the more he sticks it to Europe, the more votes he gets. And they are clearly propounding a backlash against the European project.

The other type is what I call the ‘Euro-sanctimonious’, those whose appetite for the European project leads them to consider it free of guilt, free of errors and blame, who always think that everything that comes out of Europe is good because it’s European.. You could say the Spanish were a bit that way when we wanted to enter and when we first did.

When I implemented VAT in Spain as Secretary of State for Finance, I said, “It’s a good tax because it’s a European tax. See? Everyone in Europe is paying it”…and Spanish society accepted it wholeheartedly because it had the European quality seal.

But when the financial crisis hit, the Euro-sanctimonious continued to applaud blindly. “The response is good because it comes out of Europe”… Well no, not necessarily so. Europe made a number of serious mistakes in responding to the crisis and its inability to weave a common foreign policy. And yet this has not been challenged by the very defenders of the European Union.

I think you should be pro-European, but you have to take a critical approach towards the Europe we have built because many of the things we’ve done haven’t been done well.

JIT – What is your take on the way Europe has handled the migrant crisis?

JB – Well, I didn’t expect much different to what has happened, because European migration policies have been a talking point for a number of years and no tangible results have come out of it. I started hearing about the common European migration policy back in the Tampere days, at the Tampere summit in Finland in …I’m not sure what year it was…

JIT – 1999, wasn’t it?

JB – Exactly, at the turn of the century, when we started to be in the European Convention, as far back as Tampere people were saying, “We need a common migration policy”. Well, 20 years have gone by and we find ourselves with a government that says, “Chiuda mi porti” and shuts the ports tight. That was perhaps the first crisis I had to administer when I arrived at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs – a neighbouring country and friend suddenly putting us in the position of finding that vessels heading to Italian ports were left plying the Mediterranean like ghost ships with no-one taking them in. Then along comes the Spanish government with President Sánchez’s dramatic announcement saying, “If no one wants the Aquarius then I’ll have it; it can come to Spain,” which was a real wake-up call for dormant European consciences, but unfortunately ended with the Aquarius stuck at port unable to leave citing security reasons.

In any case, the Aquarius issue was a call to action for a Europe that had been sticking its head in the sand, or under the waves, not wanting to see what was going on. And the fact is that what was going on was that a central country, Italy, felt abandoned –and not without reason– by the other countries, including ours, when it had to take in very large waves of migrants, hundreds of thousands of people if we have to put a number on it, far more than the rest of us ever had. And a political leader said, “Enough. It’s over. I’m not letting anyone in,” to the applause of the people.

That moved the flows from the centre to the West, and the people who were trying to reach Italy are now trying to come to Spain – the fact that there’s not more coming is due to the partnership with Morocco, which is much more collaborative than what we could expect from the Libyans.

So, from then until now we have witnessed a series of semi-failures because we haven’t been able to come up with a joint and collective solution. The migrant quotas of the Juncker plan have failed because the countries that were supposed to assume them haven’t done so and are now facing the courts for rebuffing a Community rule. Meanwhile, the Mediterranean countries –who we meet with from time to time in the Mediterranean Club– are also unable to define a common policy. On the contrary, Italy and France are increasingly at loggerheads over it. The Spanish implemented a solidarity policy until we realised that we had enough to do controlling the flow through the Strait without having to go and look for immigrants lost at sea twelve hundred kilometres away. Obviously picking people up twelve hundred kilometres from the port of destination is no kind of solution and we didn’t pretend it was, either.

And now, the solution is … we’re still looking for the solution. But I personally think there is not the slightest political will to achieve it, in the sense that no-one these days wants to reform the Dublin Regulation and accept that it is the country they first reach that will assume responsibility for migrants or asylum seekers.

JIT – Will this issue of the migrant crisis become even more difficult after the next election?

JB – It looks like it, because migration is set to be the core subject or one of the core subjects of the upcoming elections. It is going to be an ideological, identity and cultural debate all at once. Go to Hungary and talk to Prime Minister Orbán and listen to his reasons and he will tell you that no matter what we say, they want an ethnically pure society and they will build a wall to get it if they have to. In fact, he has a map of Hungary in his office with the border sections where he is already building the wall marked in green. By the way, he says it’s the same as what we have in Ceuta and Melilla. So, you realise you can’t reach an agreement with these countries, they simply don’t want it, they reject immigration outright. They say they don’t need it and either way, flat-out reject it.

So, no, I don’t think it will get better after the next elections because those attitudes will gain strength. Then there are countries that say they are very open and cooperative, like France, but when it comes down to it aren’t really. When it comes to migrants, we’re all passing the buck to our neighbours. And yet we are being completely inconsistent, because having abolished internal borders should have made us more aware that the external borders are common borders. If there’s no border between A and B, A’s external borders are B’s and vice versa, but we have yet to realise the practical consequences.

JIT –  What are the different positions of the EU Member States on Brexit?

JB – We are about to have a European Council meeting where once again we will have to decide whether to accept a no-deal Brexit or give the UK a new deadline. I am convinced they will give new deadlines, because the UK crashing out is a scary prospect.

There are two takes on this: the people who really don’t want the British to leave and are willing to give them every possible extension, wait for them to get sick of the whole thing and decide to stay. And those who accept they are going –even some who may think it’s not a bad idea– but are afraid of the practical implications of no deal because they don’t know how they’re going to manage border flows, the new customs tariffs, the movement of people… all of that is very complicated, it causes fear and they prefer… well, nobody goes to the dentist until they have to, right? And they prefer to put it off to next week. But between one thing and another they’re going to give them a new deadline, I’m sure. Until when? Some will argue until they tire of it and decide to stay. Others will say until we can’t give them any more rope and have to face them crashing out without a deal.

JIT – Where are you on this?

JB – I am of the school who believes that with the UK in the EU we will never have a political union. If what it’s all about is a political union, the UK is not a good member of the club and they’ve never hidden that from us.

From Winston Churchill’s speech in Zurich in 1946 onwards, they’ve never said they wanted to be the United States of Europe. They’ve said we can do it if we want to, but without them.

We kept thinking we could talk them round, but the proof is in the pudding – they don’t want it and they are leaving precisely because they don’t want what they can see is happening. So, having them in the club is not a problem because there are more of us. We aren’t stronger, but we are greater in number, and that is the trend of those who don’t want a political union, either. Personally, because I do want a political union, I don’t care whether the United Kingdom leaves because I know that to date, it has been an obstacle to further integration. But I don’t want a disorderly exit, either.

JIT – Is Europe relevant worldwide? Where are we important and where are we not?

JB – We have been -emphasis on ‘have’- very important regarding climate change, for example. We’ve been leaders, we’ve driven the world towards big multilateral agreements. Kyoto is the paradigm of that. But I say ‘have been’ because we don’t matter so much anymore. Firstly, because our share of gas emissions is so small that whatever we do it won’t make any change to global balances. We can only act by example or proposal. Now the leader in this area is no longer Europe, it is clearly China and the US that count when it boils down to it.

We have also been leaders, there is no question, in peacekeeping missions. Where there was a conflict there were Europeans acting as half monk/half soldier, or half nurse/half soldier, with troops keeping the warring parties in check and providing a great deal of humanitarian aid.

But I believe we are steadily losing influence as Europeans, and that when we have intervened, we have done so as states. There are few policy actions conceived from the European Union as a European action. Let me explain: take Iran. The nuclear agreement with Iran was the work of four countries. Even though the top EU representative was there, it was not, institutionally, a European operation.

There is a problem in Mali, in Sahel, with terrorism. The European Union doesn’t go in; it doesn’t mobilise its battle groups –which, by the way, have never been used– but rather France goes in and a few other countries lend it a hand. We could say the same about monitoring pirates in Somalia and many other examples where the Union … take Venezuela now. Not even in the case of Venezuela has there been a fully common position. We have promoted a contact group that is institutionally European, but with a very limited capacity for action.

To me, the Foreign Affairs Council is more a valley of tears than a centre of decision-making because it’s where all the open sores of humanity come. They tell us their sufferings, we express our condolence and concern… but no capacity for action comes out of it and we just move on to the next one.

And this feeling of them trooping in one after the other to set out what’s happening in the heart of Africa, what’s happening in Sahel, what’s happening in Lebanon, in Libya – what’s happening in Venezuela…in each case we settle on a bit of humanitarian aid and express our condemnation and that’s about it… It gives a sense of a Europe with very little capacity to influence world affairs.

JIT – How should Europe deal with the crisis in Venezuela?

JB –  Well, to start with, the European Union has ruled out doing that, having refused to act as a mediator in the conflict. The contact group I proposed last August –and when I proposed it, I did propose it as a mediation group– well, between August and Guaidó declaring himself president in February, we had interminable discussions about minor bureaucratic matters on how to set the group up. And when Guaidó declared himself president and the crisis erupted, we were caught sleeping on the job. So, then we hurriedly decided to make aa group, no longer as a mediator but as a support for Guaidó so that he can elections. So, we are banning ourselves from being mediators. We say we don’t want to talk to Maduro, we only want to support Guaidó. No doubt because when the crisis erupted, nobody thought that two and a half months later we would be in this situation. So now the European Union doesn’t propose mediating, it proposes something more complicated to define, i.e. contact. Contact who? The actors –and who are they? Well, the government and the opposition obviously, and the US, who we have no reason to contact.

The situation could probably evolve until it were inevitable for contacts to be established between the parties, assuming that one party wants to. Maduro says he does; the opposition says it doesn’t; the US says it doesn’t want us to want to; but the European Union doesn’t have the ability, or at least it hasn’t had so far, to say, “Hey, it can’t go on like this, you have to appoint a mediator and let the mediators do their work.” The United Nations hasn’t wanted to get involved either, but I can’t see the situation carrying on like this for long. Someone will have to stick their neck out.

JIT – How do we decontaminate Venezuela from the influence of the United States and Russia?

JB –  Well, under Trump the US still considers everything that happens on the American sub-continent to be strictly part of its remit. Think of Trump welcoming Guaidó’s wife and telling her he would “fix it”. It’s a caricature of the important role the US awards itself in this case.

Russia is not in the same situation regarding Venezuela as it is with Syria, even if only by pure geographical distance. Syria is within reach of its air forces and Venezuela is not. In Syria there was a war, a classic war, a war of positions, with tanks, artillery in which an army could intervene, as its own has done. This is not the situation in Venezuela. At most, it would be a confrontation between parts of the army or an uprising by the civilian population.

That´s why I think the Russian influence in Venezuela is exaggerated. No doubt the hundreds, the couple of hundred Russian troops and technicians who have gone to Venezuela are far less important than the several thousand Cuban advisers.

JIT – Has Spain lost importance in Europe?

JB – We played a very large role at the start. Spain under Felipe González was punching way above its weight in Europe given its GDP and demographic size.

González played a major role and got a great many things off the ground. From European citizenship to structural funds, we had a very important role. This role waned when Europe entered a

…shall we say stationary, phase after the euro and through to when the crisis hit. The crisis saw us lose our prominent role because we became one of the sick countries put under surveillance. We weren’t in a great place.

And then Rajoy came to power and absented himself. He wasn’t interested in the issue, he just did what Merkel said. Zapatero was the same in his last few years, but the fact is we stopped playing a leading role, bringing ideas and proposals. We were subsidiary. Also, because we were under financial surveillance, we were a weak country.

Now things have changed, firstly because we are no longer such a weak country, although we still have a number of structural problems compared to some of the others, but we are no longer in the situation of possibly having Europe suddenly intervene overnight.

Secondly, because this is a much more pro-European government that is much keener to participate in European construction. The UK is on the way out and the gaps are being filled in. Spain could do it, we have a very pro-European society: 78 percent of Spaniards still believe that despite everything, Europe has been good for us. In Italy, the figure is only 48 percent. We remain among the most euro-friendly nations – not Euro-enthusiastic, but Euro-convinced.

We hold no great positions of responsibility. Since people like Solana and Almunia left, we haven’t had any major positions of responsibility, we don’t have people who are benchmarks. We now have Campa working on banking regulation in the financial sphere. But it’s true, Spain is not what it could be, let alone what it was. We could be, it’s not that we don’t want to be. Could we round out the Franco-German partnership? Probably, because the Franco-German partnership is increasingly needed and increasingly insufficient. It is a partnership without offspring; a couple which is still just a couple, not creating a family around it, with no more countries joining the project. And France and Germany disagree on many key points. They still present a united front, but at the end of the day they disagree…I wouldn’t say on almost everything, but on many things.

A third party, a ménage à trois, a third force, could bring added momentum.

JIT – As a Catalan and Spanish Foreign Minister, how do you feel explaining the Catalan independence movement outside Spain?

JB – I wish I didn’t have to. I wish my predecessors, instead of practising a policy of throwing themselves on the ground and saying “Nobody move. Just keep quiet and they’ll get over it. Getting into a conflict will only make it worse”…If only they’d stood up to it a few years ago. But there have been years of absence, of silence, of not countering or replicating the pro-independence theses, and they have taken a strong hold, not amongst governments, but amongst part of public opinion.

Everything on the left of social democracy in Europe has bought into the idea of an oppressed people who want to regain their freedom. We have fashioned a radically different policy by squaring up to them ever since the ambassador in Washington stood up publicly to Torra. Every time there’s been an inauguration there’s been a Spanish diplomat there contradicting them; we’ve mobilised personalities, intellectuals, professors… people who are prepared to swim against the tide. Every time there’s been an event we have tried to send someone, as you well know. But we were late getting started. And for me, it has entailed a certain degree of frustration and sadness – sadness because the independence movement has severely discredited Spain. They have done their level best to blacken the name of Spanish democracy and Spain as a country. And to some extent, in some social sectors, they have, unfortunately, succeeded. Every time someone says to me, “Catalans want independence, why not give it to them?” I say, “Hang on a second. Not Catalans. Some Catalans.” The pro-independence Catalans, who are less than 50%, have got where they are by trotting out the line “el poble català” (“the Catalan people”) over and over, from the opportunistic Mas saying, “the will of a poble”, to current President Torra referencing it daily and speaking every day on behalf of the poble català. They have managed to sanctify the perception that Catalans want independence and an authoritarian and oppressive regime is preventing it.

It will take a vast, huge effort to rid people of this perception which, I say again, is not what governments think but some people in the European intelligentsia and Left do.

JIT – How will you handle going back to the European Parliament after your experience as Foreign Minister?

JB – Oppenheimer said the observer’s viewpoint modifies the observed subject, and it’s true that things don’t look the same from the stance of a Foreign Minister as from that of the chair of the European Parliament’s Committee on Foreign Affairs. I will have a better grip on what national positions are and what a Community position is, but I will be quite keen to overcome the discrepancies and try to replace, for example, the foreign policy rule on unanimity. Because with these rules, the European Union will never have a foreign policy.

Having been a minister and knowing how hard we find it to give up our power of veto – in substance it is a power – I think I will be better able to understand the need to do so. Because I have so often found myself with a hands-on experience of ‘this isn’t getting us anywhere’ that I’m sure I’ll have more arguments to try to change it.

JIT –  You have been Finance and Foreign Minister. Which is more difficult to renounce: currency or foreign policy?

JB – Foreign policy, most likely. In other words, it’s true: a currency and a border are the two basic elements of a State’s existence. But by deciding to make a common currency and remove borders, we took some steps towards losing – well, not losing – towards sharing sovereignty, which has now given us a certain feeling of vertigo. And there’s a lot of reluctance to giving up even more sovereignty. And then, and this is what the British are saying when people argue that we need a common foreign policy and have to give up the rule of unanimity, they always say, “Well look, we only have a few foreign policies. Of those of us here, only those who are big and powerful and well-armed enough to have a foreign policy have one. The others don’t. You want to perfom feed rading on mine” and it’s difficult to get them to agree to make foreign policy decisions when you are trying to forge a common position and make a foreign policy which they think runs counter to their interests. You can see it much more in foreign policy, which borders on defence policies, than in monetary policy.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Head, ECFR Madrid
Senior Policy Fellow

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