Independent Catalonia would be a nightmare for Europe – former Spanish FM

The simmering Catalonian crisis in Spain may fire up again – with local elections bringing separatists to power once again. How will Madrid handle it and what can it mean for Europe? We talked to the former foreign minister of Spain, Miguel Angel Moratinos, a member of the International Likhachev Scientific Conference.

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Sophie Shevardnadze: Miguel Angel Moratinos, thank you for being our guest today. It’s a pleasure.

Miguel Angel Moratinos:The pleasure is mine. 

SS: Alright, I want to start with Catalonia. It’s back in the spotlight again. The new Catalan leader Mr. Torra is very pro-independence and he offered dialogue to the Spanish Prime Minister. He wants Madrid to return the autonomy to Catalonia and stop direct rule of the province. What are the chances?

MM: Well, Catalonia is Spain. It will always be Spain. I mean, we have a very advanced autonomic system in Spain. It’s practically a federal state. People aren’t aware of the advancement of the Spanish constitution given to the Catalans and to all citizens of Spain. You mentioned dialogue. Dialogue is ok but within the national order. You have to talk to respect the Spanish constitution, to respect the Spanish law. And then you can offer dialogue. Everybody is in favor of dialogue. But they have to respect the legal system. And the bad news is that at least the new representative that has been appointed as President of Generalitat of the Spanish regional autonomy, is not really supposed to go in the right direction. So we have to see how things evolve and how we can create this dialogue. That’s absolutely necessary. But the Spanish national law should be respected.   

SS: So let’s go point by point. The ruling party say that if they give Catalans their autonomy back, that would mean that they will jump right in the new independence bid...

MM: No, during the Spanish socialist government (I was part of that government) we gave Catalans the new statute. It was very advanced and even recognized the Catalan nation. Unfortunately, the Conservative Party, the one which is now governing Spain, considered that this advanced statute was not constitutional. They made an appeal and the Constitutional Court in Spain rejected the statute that the Socialist government gave to the Catalans. And I think, it’s one of the options…

SS: To give autonomy back?

MM: Yes, because within the Spanish constitution we have means and ways to really understand the need of certain specificity for the Catalans. Nobody denies that. But you have to respect the law.        

SS: So my question is - you said it’s one of the options to give back the autonomy. Do you not fear the same thing the ruling party fears - that the Catalans will push for the referendum one more time?

MM: No, they have the autonomy. Article 155 is only a certain issue because they are not respecting certain elements of the law. But the autonomy is there. We didn’t cut the autonomy of the Catalans. The question is if we can improve the autonomy. That’s what they are asking for. But improving their autonomy is what the Socialist Party and the majority of the Spanish are in favor of. The different thing is to be independent. There will be no Catalan state, that for sure. So the question is how we accommodate their nationalist views, the national attitudes of the Catalans within the much advanced autonomy for the Catalans in accordance with the constitutional order of Spain.  

SS: Ok, improved autonomy, as you put it, - we all understand that if Catalonia gets improved autonomy that is going to cause a chain reaction in other communities in Spain…

MM: Not really. I mean, the Basques are really satisfied. I remember that the Basques wanted to be independent, now they are extremely satisfied with the system they have. They have their fiscal policy. Andalusia and others are satisfied…

SS: So you’ve mentioned the Basques and you said that nothing’s going to happen because the Basques are already happy. And it’s true because they are in charge of their own finances. In the end of the day that’s what the Catalans wanted - it wanted to be in charge of their own finances. So why give more rights to the Basques and not the Catalans?

MM: Because the Catalans in 1975 renounced (and people do not know that)...

SS: But they want it now!

MM: When there was a new constitution they offered the same treatment to the Basques and the Catalans. They said to the Basques: “Ok, you have fiscal policy, you’re autonomous in fiscal affairs, but you take care if you have a deficit in transport, in health or in education - you will have to pay”. The Catalans said: “No, half and half, I want to have a special treatment, but then the central government has to pay my deficit”. So now they are reclaiming, they say: “ We were wrong, we want the same treatment the Basques have”.

SS: So why won’t you give them that?

MM: Well, this can done. It can be negotiated, they have no problem with that. It has to be in harmony, of course, with the general communities of the Spanish regions. But people say: “We are treated badly because we’re Catalans”. It’s not true. The Catalans chose this way and they made a wrong assessment. They didn’t get what the Basques were at that time ready to take. And now they claiming that they have to have a better treatment. But you know, that is a very nationalistic attitude.

SS: The Catalan leader Torra says directly right now that he wants to bring former Catalan leader Puigdemont back to office. But that is impossible because Puigdemont is being accused of rebellion. Do you think he has enough leverage and pressure on Madrid to bring Puigdemont and those guys back to power? 

MM: Puigdemont is waiting for the German court to decide, and he hope he will be extradited to have a just judgement and we’ll see what the justice will say about him. He escaped, he violated the law.

SS: Let’s say the German court says he’s not guilty. Do you think it’s possible that he actually comes back and becomes part of the government of Torra?

MM: I think, if he comes back to Spain he will be judged. I suppose, he will be arrested and put to justice.

SS: So you said the Spanish model, a unitary state with the federal government is actually perfect. People from the outside, who hear the news, would argue differently…

MM: No, I mean, ask the Basques, ask the Andalusian, ask many experts in international law and people who came to Spain to study the Spanish model. Unless the Catalans have been in this wrong trend, the majority of people consider that we have quite a favorable system for integrating differences and nationalistic views.     

SS: My question was a little different. Everything needs an update. Sometimes constitutions need an update. Do you think it may be revised to be more federal like Germany, Switzerland or the United Kingdom?

MM: Yes, of course. The Socialist Party has offered to open a constitutional reform. There’s a commission in the Parliament and we are going to offer a debate for everybody. And if in the end of the negotiation there is a consensus to a reform I have no problem about the Spanish federal state. But it has to be negotiated, discussed under the Spanish law. And when in the end there’s a consensus  - why not? So there’s no problem about that. But it has to be done in a normal and positive way, in intention to keep what is already working well.

SS: When the referendum happened, the crackdown from Madrid was very tough. They were very clear that they didn’t want anything like that to happen in their country. So now, when you talk about a compromise, maybe giving them more autonomy, do you…

MM: It has been the position of the Socialist Party to try to engage in a normal dialogue with them. What happened at this referendum - there has been a lot of fake news, the fake image that has demonstrated that people who were hard they were not the same... There was a lot of manipulation in what happened on the 1st of October. It is true that there were some attitude of the security forces - you can say, proportionate or disproportionate. But the question is that it was illegal. And I think, it was the main point.

SS: My question was something a bit different. Because Madrid was so tough on this referendum…

MM: Well, not so tough. There was an idea, an impression from some international media that they were tough. They were not so tough. It was a violation of the legal order. They were telling that this referendum was illegal. There was no basis…

SS: Ok, but the crackdown was tough.

MM: As I told you, there were fake images!

SS: So it didn’t happen?

MM: It did happen. But not at the level you are asking me. There was a tough response, but not so tough.

SS: Ok, “tough, but not so tough”... 

MM: … because when you have to respect the law you have to be tough.

SS: I’m not disagreeing with that at all. But you don’t let me finish my question. It’s about something different. Because the crackdown was not so tough, but a little bit tough, do you think, now they can give them something to compromise? Because it seems like they are very firm, like you are very firm about the position of Madrid. Do you feel like if they compromise now they will lose face in front of their voters?

MM: You know, the President and the government have been in close coordination with the leader of the Socialist Party and with other leaders, the leader of the Liberal Party. They say: “Well, he offered dialogue, but within the national constitution”. If they are ready to respect it, I think, the dialogue can be open. We hope that there will be an option that they will accept, that they can engage in this and that line.   

SS: Mr. Moratinos, so I want to talk about EU’s reaction to what was going on. They weren’t favorable to the Catalan bid for independence and they sent signals to discourage it right away, but now you’ve mentioned the German court, the European courts are stalling the process of extradition of Catalan separatist leaders - why?

MM: We’re waiting for what the justice of Germany are going to decide. We have to respect that. Whatever decision is going to be taken it will be respected. We have no problem with the European colleagues, with European partners and European countries. They have sent a very strong message: there will be no single recognition. I remember when they declared virtually the independence I wrote an article myself, the title was “South Ossetia 3, Catalan 0”. That means when South Ossetia declared independence there were three countries that recognized South Ossetia. When Catalonia declared independence there were zero states in the world… Nobody recognized Catalonia. And, of course, members of the European Union are not going to recognize Catalonia. Within the European Union there could be some trends, positions of the people, some parties in the parliaments, but there will be no possibility for Catalonia as a national state to integrate in the relations with EU institutions.

SS: You’re absolutely right. The Catalan conflict has implications beyond the Spanish borders - I’m talking about the Western Balkans because Kosovo’s bid to join the EU can’t advance any further because Spain will never recognize it probably fearing of setting an example to Catalonia. Do you see any kind of a scenario where Spain might change its position on Kosovo but keep its position on Catalonia?

MM: You know, I was Foreign Minister of Spain during seven years. I had tremendous pressure from some European countries, from the United States, from some Balkan countries to recognize Kosovo. You cannot imagine how much I had to defend the Spanish position because I knew it was a bad precedent. And I think, the Russian Federation understood that also. Kosovo is the example of how you shouldn’t be abiding by or accepting this kind of recognition. Unilateral declaration of independence is a mistake in international law. I said from the beginning and I think, that will be the position of Spain, that if there is a negotiation between Belgrade and Pristina and they come mutually to a peaceful and agreed settlement, Spain will recognize it like it recognized Bratislava and Prague when the Czech and the Slovak decided to separate themselves peacefully in an agreement. What we cannot do is to accept a unilateral declaration of independence. That is what’s happened in Kosovo and that is the beginning of the nightmare that will be affecting the whole international law.

SS: Let’s talk in general about EU and EU enlargement. French president Macron thinks that EU should not be enlarging any further because it weakens Europe. Now, Montenegro and Serbia hope to become EU members by 2025. What’s your take on this  - should EU be enlarging to the Western Balkans?

MM: No, we are now coming to the hour of truth. We cannot continue with this enlargement process as there’s no clear objective what kind of Europe we’re looking for. We want to have a large area of free trade, space that some countries in central and distant European territories want, or we want to have a strong, integrated supranational Europe that can be a real actor in the new world of the 21st century. And that’s going to happen in the next year. I think, this is the project that President Macron, Mrs. Merkel, Spain and others will try to defend. The old Europe is going to create a new Europe. While we had the enlargement process in 2004, we had ten new members coming from the Baltic, coming from Eastern Europe. And then we started to maintain. And then we have the Balkan perspective. They will be welcome. But if they are welcome they have to fulfil all the principles. You cannot be a member of the European Union, like Hungary or Poland, and go to Brussels to get the money, the resources and then when there are refugees, and you have to show solidarity you say: “No, it’s not my business, it’s not my European Union”. So, sometimes you look to Brussels for money, sometimes you look across the Atlantic to Washington for a strategic alliance. Either you’re European to the full extent…

SS: … or you’re not.

MM: Or you’re not European.

SS: Besides the enlargement there’s a problem of integration of whoever right now is the member. And Macron says, in order to be integrated the way I see this you have to have a more tight union, with a common budget, common finance chief. And then there’s this whole idea of two-speed Europe of some members who want to be fully integrated to catch up faster, those who want to do it slower are welcome, and you can divide Europe in two parts.  Do you think it’s a viable thing right now?

MM: Well, I think we’re going to go down this path.

SS: Two-speed Europe?

MM: I’d say, there will be a two-speed Europe. On the 60th anniversary of the Rome Treaty last year there was a paragraph that says “we could advance at different rhythm, member states can go further and other member states can stay behind”. The world situation today cannot allow to have this kind of minimal common denominator. I mean, you cannot have a clear position of Europe on the Middle East, and you have four countries that go and break the common position of Europe, going to assist the opening of the US Embassy in Jerusalem just like that because they consider that they have their own national positions. If you have your own national position you’re not part of a strong and united Europe. Countries that want to go this line are much welcome. Countries that prefer to maintain this global attitude but have no serious commitment towards the European affairs and the European policy, should decide by themselves. Everybody is welcome, but everybody has to be obliged to respect the European treaties.  

SS: So before that happens, before there’s actual two-speed Europe what we have right now is one-speed Europe and a very large eurosceptic movement. And you know it’s there. These are people who have exactly the opposing views of yours. They actually go to the parties (a lot of European countries see the rise of these parties) that reject some or all things in EU right now. These people are being ignored. If you don’t want to be European you don’t have to be European. Do you think this continued ignoring of this part of the electorate can blow up?

MM: No, they are not being ignored. In the last election in the whole Europe there have been those who contested the majority of the public opinion. Look what happened in France. Mrs. Le Pen lost election due to the European engagement of Mr. Macron. The debate was about Europe. And now Mrs. Le Pen’s party is trying to say: “No, we will not quit Euro”. Before that they said: “Yes, we’ll quit Euro, we’ll defeat all the EU institutions”. Even Lega Nord in Italy was eurosceptic, they had 17%, now they got… They are populists…

SS: I’m talking about people who vote for them, their electorate…

MM: People are transferring to parties. Lega Nord and 5 Stars say: “We are eurosceptic”. But then, when they come close to power they say: “No, we want to be part of European institutions”.

SS: Politicians are saying that, not people…

MM: The Greek Syriza party that was also eurosceptic, when they came to power they said: “Let’s have…”

SS: I don’t disagree with that, but you’re talking about politicians who maneuver to stay in power, I’m talking about the electorate…

MM: Politicians that represent people!  

SS: They don’t really represent people! They come up with popular ideas, people like them and then they change their ideas. But the discontent with the EU from some part of the electorate is still there regardless what they do when they are closer to power.

MM: There’s now this continuous propaganda about euroscepticism, about the European decline, European pessimism. I’m not at all in this line because this is not true, because there’s a new generation, what they call Erasmus generation - they are asking for more Europe. The point is that the leadership of Europe today hasn’t been able to give good news to the people, they haven’t been able to understand… They haven’t been even implementing the treaties, they haven’t been exerting the capacities of the European Union… So, the new generation is more European. I know that from my family, my daughters and my son. People that are critical about the EU institutions today. One thing you are critical about the institutions and the leadership, the other thing is being eurosceptic. People cannot renounce what has been achieved in Europe. So this message that they are trying to convey everywhere that Europe is dead, Europeans are in decline etc. is wrong…

SS: I’m not trying to convey anything…

MM: No, not you. What people who are talking about euroscepticism…

SS: I mean, Marine Le Pen almost became a president. I’m not conveying anything…

MM: I’m telling you that there is this current saying that there’s a strong position against European… And when the people realize that the final decision has to be taken they say: “Let’s be European”. And the proof is that everybody wants to get into the club. If we were so bad, nobody would knock at our door. Britain is leaving, maybe it’s a good news for us to make integration process easier, more advanced, more courageous, because Britain was always trying to delay certain decisions. Well, I’ll tell you, I’m not so sure that Britain will leave EU in the end. This is an open question. There’s a lot of discussions internally in the UK because they understood that this decision doesn’t fit correctly the economic, political and security aspects of their future.

SS: Thank you so much for this interview. I wish we had more time to ask you more questions. But hopefully we’ll get to this one more time, and then I can ask you more questions about the Middle East, about Brexit and everything that I couldn’t ask you today.   

MM: I’ll be a pleasure.

SS: Mr. Moratinos, thank you very much. Good luck with everything. And we thank St. Petersburg Radisson Royal for allowing us to host this interview.

MM: Thank you.