Can Europe Make It?

An in-depth interview with MEP and Spain’s former Minister of Justice, Juan Fernando Lopez Aguilar

“We are experiencing a very severe regression with regard to what the European Union promised it would be". Juan Fernando Lopez Aguilar discusses the failures of the European Union. Español.

Luis Martín Juan Fernando Lopez Aguilar
22 October 2015
juan-fernando-lopez-aguilar-2.jpeg

Juan Fernando López Aguilar. Alejandro Ramos / Canarias Ahora. All rights reserved.

Luis Martin: In his appearance before the European Parliament earlier this month French Prime Minister, Francois Hollande, said that the Syrian conflict could end in a "total war". Do you share his view? What is the EU's responsibility in this conflict?

Juan Fernando Lopez Aguilar: Of course I share Hollande’s concern and I have expressed it loudly, as have many others in the European Parliament. The European Union cannot solve the conflict in Syria on its own, however because it cannot resolve the conflict at its origin. Nonetheless, the European Union has a moral responsibility to the region. The creation of the area's artificial boundaries, which were drawn up after the First World War through decolonisation agreements and also the dismantling of the Ottoman Empire, particularly by France and Britain via the famous Sykes-Picot agreement, created a lot of today’s problems. These artificial boundaries erected structures on what was a wide swathe of desert populated by tribal factions; nomads with multiple identities essentially aligned around religious groups, the Shia and the Sunni. The conflict today is essentially an intra-Sunni one.

LM: And yet, there is still no common European geopolitical strategy?

JFLA: The conflict highlights the EU's strategic failure of not living up to what the Treaty of Lisbon promised: a globally relevant power with common foreign and security policies. These common policies are nonexistent. And while the EU is a global power it is unable, however, to establish itself even as a serious promoter of dialogue.

During the "Arab Spring" the EU was forced to examine its own conscience. For too long the EU followed a realpolitik policy-framework in the region; supporting dictators and satraps. It then naively believed that the rebellions against those dictators and satraps would bring about democratic pluralism, which was far from true. The civil war in Syria came as a dose of reality: the conflict, now in its fourth year, has not only seen half a million people killed but has also produced an exodus of about 10 million people from the country, only a few thousand of which are knocking on the doors of the European Union.

Now, the option of backing Bashar al-Assad is again resurfacing, with the thinking running along the same brutal way of American political realism: "he might be a son of a bitch, but he's our son of a bitch". So the situation is certainly tragic, especially for the people who have to suffer. All those millions of displaced people do not knock on the doors of the European Union for entertainment purposes, they do so out of desperation. It is pathetic that, at this point in time, there is not even a strategy on how to promote dialogue of what to do with Bashar al-Assad or what to ask in return for military aid to fight Islamic State. There is not even agreement as to how to interact with Russia, which, under the pretext of fighting terrorists, is directly supporting the annihilation of Bashar al-Assad's rebel enemies. Syria is not the only tragedy in the region, but it currently stands as the most exasperating.

LM: It seems that this is all part of a multi-system failure in Europe, which began to manifest itself at the outbreak of the financial crisis in 2008?

JFLA: Certainly, this is true and it's the barometer of all of our crises, which have added to what we call "the crisis of the Great Recession" and which has endured for years. It is not, however, a crisis of the euro or a crisis of the financial governance of the European Union, rather it is a crisis of the values and founding principles of the European Union itself. A crisis of mutual confidence and, ultimately, a crisis of identity rooted in the union’s shared project. We are experiencing a very severe regression away from what the European Union promised it would be. The most revealing aspect of this is the aggressive and effusive emergence of nationalism and selfish national interests across the EU.

LM: Is this something that is becoming evident in the management of the Syrian refugee crisis by certain member-states?

JFLA: The lack of solidarity amongst Member States is not only a breach of duty or reciprocal ethical behavior. It is also a breach of legally binding and relevant mandates made in Article 80 of the Lisbon Treaty which governs all matters relating to the management of the union's external borders, as well as to the free movement of people. Even though we updated the Schengen accord and asylum package in previous legislature, the breaches are still many.

The Commission tries to dispense criticism and has announced 19 infringement proceedings for breach of asylum legislation currently in force. This is proof that the Member States are not only breaching International humanitarian law, but that they are also in breach of the European norms that unite them as members of a club governed by the rule of law. The situation is therefore very serious and it is not true that it is a general failure of the European institutions. In the European Parliament there is a clear majority, even with a parliamentary arithmetic skewed to the right, which urges the European Commission to do its job and to enforce European law. The institution that currently shuffles and delays throughout the European Union and which has proved to be extremely disappointing to Europeans is the European Council: the body representing the governments of the Member States. The real problem of the European Union lies, essentially, with the governments of its Member States.

LM: And what is the solution?

JFLA: A Commission that acts as guardian of the treaties and is able to enforce European law. One that is able to stand up, especially, to the grossest violators of European law. Hungary is the paroxysmal case, but it is by no means the only one.

Hungary has been installed for some time in an aggressive nationalist rhetoric and in a disrespectful and defiant attitude against European institutions. Whenever Viktor Orbán, Hungary's Prime Minister, goes to Parliament, it is to show his lack of respect for the European institutions and to put the case that Hungarian sovereignty is incompatible with the European spirit.

Apart from infringement proceedings or substantial fines, Article 7 needs to be enforced when necessary: the suspension of rights of a Member State that does not comply with European law. The situation is as serious as that. And it certainly does not only affect Hungary, nor other countries in Eastern Europe that have recently joined the EU. There are veteran partners as well who are blatantly breaching European law.

LM: In the case of the events in Greece within the context of the euro crisis, Brussels' behavior does not appear to have been exemplary either.

JFLA: I agree, and many of us have expressed our outrage on this point. I wrote an essay entitled "The suicide of Europe" in which I reflect upon the Greek case.

The treatment imposed on Greece was not about rescuing the country, but rather about rescuing its creditors, which were essentially German banks. The treatment was devised to make sure Greece would make payment of the capital and usurious interests it owed, even though it was clear that the treatment was worsening the patient's vital signs. Not only did the treatment fail to ameliorate the situation, it actually decreased the country's possibility of being able to pay back the debt and, in fact, made it unpayable.

LM: The Spanish government took a particularly hard line against Greece, standing beside the core members of the euro area.

The position of the Spanish Government over Greece has been petty and reprehensible. Spain's Popular Party has been petty and reprehensible because it is deplorable that the same government which requested a bailout to save its own country's banks went on to adopt the same arrogant attitudes as Greece's creditors in an attempt to gain the sympathies of those who have imposed the austerity policies that have been a disaster for the European Union. The Spanish government tried to win the favour of Merkel and Schäuble and thus acted slavishly beside those who inflicted pain and despair upon Greece.

JFLA: The Spanish government also has a moral and political responsibility to not ally itself with an austerity policy that has already done so much internal damage to our country. A policy that has exacerbated inequalities and has pushed our prospects of returning to where we were before the crisis of 2007 back by 15 years. What matters is that those who have imposed austerity policies have not done so by account of economic reasoning, but by political interests linked to an ideological hegemony.

By bringing Greece to its knees, by humiliating Greece and the Greek people, they were trying to set an example so that no other country would dare to step out of line. It was to prevent any other people in the member states of the European Union from voting against governments who would conscientiously object to the suicidal policies that have caused so much damage. This is the most abject aspect of what has happened. I have been insisting since the first day that nothing that has happened has been a miscalculation, a well-intentioned mistake, or pain caused by accident. Instead, it all has been a consequence of a policy that has attempted to settle accounts with the European social model.

LM: The impact has been negative on all political parties, but has it been particularly destructive to Social Democracts?

JFLA: Without a doubt, the hardest hit has been Europe's Social Democratic parties. The Thatcher-inspired ideology of the late eighties has now become hegemonic. 

LM: What's the prognosis for Europe's social democracy? Can it still be an ideological reference?

JFLA: Social democracy remains not only an ideological reference, but also the only alternative to what we have. It takes courage and leadership, however, to translate such a benchmark into concrete political decisions and to mark a distinct and differentiated political alternative. The main problem has been that the very prolonged and overwhelming conservative hegemony has thrown a diffuse sense of complicity into social democracy along with the recipes which have caused so much damage to its voters and electoral bases: its natural space composed of workers and the impoverished middle classes. The fact that many social democratic parties have participated in coalition formulas, often from minority positions led by conservative ministers, has been lethal for the differentiation capacity of social democratic alternatives. It is also true that the emergence of populist and anti-system parties that call themselves leftists or socialists in origin have complicated the chances of recovery of social democracy.

By anti-system, or populist, I describe those who, rather than offer a solution or a policy, want to overturn the system, as if that in itself were a solution. It is not. Pretending to dismantle the legal system, clearly breaching that legal system, creating pretend ruptures or unilateral secessions regarding the rules that bind us all, are not alternatives.

By populism I describe those who do not put forward a solution to a problem, but are more into looking for scapegoats. That scapegoat may be an ethnic or religious minority: Muslims, gypsies or Jews, as is the case in a number of countries in the north and east of Europe. They can also be, as in southern Europe, the parties called "traditional". Even politics and politicians, the "ruling caste," are to be pointed to as the causes of all evils. These are simplified answers to problems of extreme complexity. It is a simplicity that in no case solves the complex situation we face. The fact is that when these populists reach, even laterally, posts of representation or responsibilities of power, their practices are indistinguishable from the reviled "caste." They soon get a reality check that reduces them to impotence and damages their electoral prospects.

LMJeremy Corbyn is often called a populist in the UK...

JFLA: No, on the contrary, in UK there is a very marked populism and it is in the far-right. Nigel Farage is a right-wing populist who believes that a return to the sovereignty of a UK as an imperial and colonial power, divorced from a European Union destined to fail, would restore the greatness of the British Empire. It is an anachronism and an absolutely despicable proposal. That is not the solution. Corbyn does not present a populist discourse, quite the opposite. His is a very serious and reasoned denunciation of the failure of austerity.

LM: What is your analysis of the current political landscape in Spain?

JFLA: It is indisputable that we are one of the countries that has suffered impacts of seismic magnitude due to this protracted crisis, this "Great Recession". The collapse of the Spanish economy has been very severe. The past four years of the Popular Party's absolute majority has witnessed the exasperation of the impoverishment of the middle and working classes. The balance is disastrous and it is impossible for such a disaster not to have an impact on the country's political landscape. It has meant the collapse of a government party that previously enjoyed an impressive majority. There were many who bought into the Popular Party’s simplistic propaganda; that their mere ascension to power would work the miracle of Jesus’ multiplication of loaves and fish; that with them in government the financial markets would be appeased. The truth is that under Rajoy Spain's sovereign risk premium reached 600 basis points and the public debt is now 100% of GDP. So now we see how the Popular Party, which came to power with an unprecedented majority and hegemony in most of the country's regions, is collapsing and may end up leaving power through the back door in next December's elections.

It is also true that all the other parties have suffered. The Socialist Party, according to the indicators we have, has not recovered much and other parties have emerged instead. We will have to see as to their actual force after the next elections. It is clear that the new political formulas not seen in almost 40 years of democracy in Spain will have to be tested. More importantly, however, it is clear that the architecture of consensual coexistence in Spain as a result of this profound crisis is pulling on all seams. We need, in my opinion, a reformist and radical surgical political regeneration. This will require a government capable of leading and I hope it will be a socialist government.

LM: What exactly does such a reformist agenda aim to do?

JFLA: The Spanish Socialist Party has already spent long years, at least since its 2011 political conference, pondering a constructive and purposeful alternative. This alternative will include the propulsion of a new model of economic growth with massive investments in education, research, science and technology - all of which were completely abandoned by Rajoy's government). It will also see the restitution of the rights of workers and the derogation of the savage labour reform perpetrated by the Popular Party, which did nothing but impoverish labour and make workers endure slave-like conditions, lowered their wages, and stripped them of their social rights and unemployment benefits.Furthermore, a new model of industrial relations with the reindustrialisation of Spain will be introduced. Above all, however, will be a great operation of political reform. The Socialist Party has led the debate on the reform of the Constitution, in particular with regard to the architecture of coexistence. We will see a federal reform of the regional state. 

LM: Would a federal reform resolve the crisis in Catalonia?

JFLA: Let’s be clear on this: to federate is to unite. In Spain there is a conservative thinking that has prevailed since the 1930’s which sees federation as equivalent to centralised power and segregation. It is the opposite: to federate is to agree on a union. Our 1978 Constitution did not structure the state of the autonomies. It still amazes me that very few people know this: the term "state of autonomies" or "autonomous state" does not appear anywhere in the Constitution. The Constitution does not establish the state of autonomies, it simply established the procedures by which they could be created, without saying how many or with what powers. In our Constitution there is no territorial organisation of the State. It is about time, 40 years later, that we, with maturity, define who we are and what we are: a pluralistic country with various distinguished and unique identities. I have no doubt that Catalonia is one of these identities.

The only party offering a reform in this sense is the Socialist Party. It offers a federalist formula that is able to accommodate our differences. It is completely false that federalism does not accommodate differences. Does anyone think Rhode Island is the same as Texas? Does anyone think that Bavaria is the same as Bremen? Of course not. Likewise, Catalonia is not the same as Melilla in terms of identity and vocation of self-government. This is perfectly compatible with a Spanish nation that is the keeper of the sovereignty of all Spanish people. That, in my opinion, should be put into the Constitution.

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