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— The government representative to the EU in this interview highlights the role that the capitals of the member states might have rather than the EU itself
—International reactions to the process of the independence of Catalonia will come earlier from the capitals of the member states than from the European institutions themselves. This is what the Generalitat government representative before the EU, Amadeu Altafaj, says in this interview, in which he explains that the interest of political parties, parliaments and ambassadors of different European countries in Madrid has grown and that they have been questioning the Catalan authorities about the process to lead Catalonia to the referendum, because ‘referendum or referendum’ is something that has taken root internationally. The Catalan referendum is on the agenda, says Altafaj. And he points to an element of great importance, which is the growing perplexity over how the Spanish government has handled the conflict.
— What impact might Brexit have on the process in Catalonia?
— It is the umpteenth confirmation that the tensions there are between the United Kingdom and Scotland and those that there are between Catalonia and the Spanish state should seek a solution through political dialogue. Brexit is a demonstration that the EU has to face up to very deep geopolitical changes and that it always does so following methods based on political dialogue. No one thought about consulting the court of justice of the European communities to see what had to be done and how article 50 had to be interpreted.
— Might Spain’s clash over Gibraltar make the United Kingdom view the Catalan process more sympathetically?
— I think that the United Kingdom has a lot of problems right now, starting with Brexit. The Catalan case may be another variable, and some, as we have already seen these days, may feel tempted to use the Catalonia variable to answer the Spanish provocations over Gibraltar. In Catalonia we have to be particularly careful not to be traded off, as this was something that already happened centuries ago in our history.
— Might it not be positive?
—The context of Brexit might bring advantages if we deal with it properly, because it puts the Catalan case in a more visible and relevant position. We are once more approaching the context of the autumn of 2014, when the first Scottish referendum was held and when the Catalan consultation moved into its last phase, and we must take advantage of this situation to raise the awareness of the European capitals and the institutions of the EU that it is always better to deal with questions on time and not when a rupture has already occurred.
— We have always seen Scotland as a possible precedent, but now, with the referendum, the precedent might be Catalonia. Could the United Kingdom therefore see us as a problem?
— The Scottish government has already made it clear that it does not exclude the possibility of a unilateral referendum if the opposition of the British Prime Minister is maintained. They have not waited for the Catalan referendum to be held in September. There may be significant interaction but it is important in Catalonia that we should not be seen as a ball bouncing from one rooftop to another; our acts must continue to be foreseeable: the calendars must be maintained, as well as the offers of dialogue that have been made despite reaching the end of the road. But we are not at the end of the road on a European scale.
— And how does Europe view us now?
— We see that there is a sensitivity that is becoming more obvious with the exchanges taking place, above all with the foreign ambassadors in Madrid, and also in contacts we have with the national parliaments. Obviously there has been exponential growth in these contacts and it has even occurred in the European Parliament, which is one of the most difficult terrains. There is more and more interest in getting an idea of what might happen, not only by considering the version of the Spanish government, which has seen to be unreliable, but also that of the Catalan authorities.
— Is there greater sensitivity in Europe now to know what the government will do with the referendum?
— In terms of political agenda setting, the end of last year and the beginning of this have been crucial; the referendum or referendum message has taken root. We have seen it in the reports made by the large media agencies, the leading international weeklies, the international financial institutions, and also the private sector, on whose agenda of decisive events for 2017, most have the Catalan referendum. One very important thing has been achieved, which is the political existence, which has been consolidated, and the almost certainty that there will be a referendum.
— Another thing is to know under what conditions the referendum will be held.
— Yes, but the determination that the people of Catalonia will be consulted under circumstances of considerable environmental tension due to the pressure of the Spanish state has been assumed by a large number of public and private players in the international arena.
— It looks as though Brexit has consolidated the fact that the capitals take more of a lead than the Union itself. Does this favour us? Is it easier to talk with the capitals than Brussels…
— Undoubtedly. But people have not got this perception, they rather hold the EU a little on a pedestal, which might be a good or bad thing. In the end, the EU is still essentially a private group of states, and it is very obvious when there are tensions that the first reflex is intergovernmental. This has been seen in the refugee crisis and we will see it with Brexit when the negotiations get under way.
— With respect to the Catalan question, the Commission might take up a position that is difficult to overturn, and in the capitals the unanimity can be ignored; neither in favour of Catalonia nor against it. There will be discussion.
— Another reason why the Commission would not want to ride these rough waters is that it would be the first to be hurt. A Commission held up against the ropes by austerity, Brexit, the refugee crisis …, the last thing it would want would be to get into a fight in which it would be the first collateral victim.
— So the Catalans would have to wage the battle in the twenty-seven governments …
—In the capitals. We also see it in the reactions we find to our foreign action; the most visible results do not come in the governments, which find it more difficult to take up a position, but rather in the national parliaments and political parties. Almost every week we get news of new support. We have seen Die Linke, but amongst the national parliaments there is the Danish, the Swiss, Ireland and recently Westminster … President Puigdemont has been in the United States and found no trouble meeting the person who presides the subcommittee of European Affairs in Congress … And there are more that have not reached the media because a certain discretion has been asked for.
— Is the dialogue fluid?
— Above all since last year. With the so uncertain stage of a lack of government in Madrid, a process of concern started and the search for broader sources of information that has brought us to where we are today, in a very fluid dialogue with spokespeople from Europe and beyond.
— Is the Spanish government viewed as a factor of risk for stability in Brussels?
—Yes. It creates perplexity that there has been no taking of political control with Catalonia. They find it difficult to understand that a government with an absolute majority, which should have been able to offer sector commitments and which objectively in 2012 could have taken control of the situation, has not done anything, and this is no longer realistic. Apart from this, they find it difficult to understand how, having all of the tools available and a certain political comfort, the Spanish government has not been capable of dealing with it politically and has resorted to any other means aside from political dialogue: the courts, underhand dealings, the state security forces, the most sensationalist press …. even political bullying in foreign policy with the more vulnerable countries.
— Will the EU come off the wall if the Spanish state intervenes in Catalonia?
— The reactions will come earlier from the capitals of the member states than from the European institutions and earlier from the parliaments and the little parties than the governments. The governments are beginning to develop actions more discreetly, with ever more explicit and insistent questions on the different members of the Spanish government. They ask more and more questions, and ever more direct ones. In private. But the time will come when in the face of a situation that could imply political instability and even financial risks for companies of our European partners, for investments, for citizens in these countries, the pressure will increase and it will all become more visible.
— Which countries view the Catalan process positively?
— We could say, but we do not say it very much, not in an interview. It is true that there are a good number of states in the EU whose history and also the quality of their democracies mean that they now wonder and express perplexity at the fact that this is not being dealt with through politics but rather through justice.
— And some of these countries are victims of this political harassment you were saying…
— The obvious case is that of the Baltic countries. One example is what happened to the former prime minister of Latvia, Drombovskis; the operation that was built up against him with a false police report that ended up in the Interviú weekly, all to exert excessive pressure on him. These countries live under real pressure from Russia, and the protection that NATO offers them has been used by the Spanish state to be more present there and to have another element for leverage to avoid these possible positive pronouncements.
—Margallo talked about the favours that Spain owes. Do you know what favours he was referring to?
—What Margallo said was something we found in our daily work in foreign action, in meetings we had pinned down and which were cancelled twenty-four hours before without any logical explanation, in organised events which were called off … But it is good that our spokespeople should receive confirmation from the person who was head of the Spanish diplomacy. It confirms that he used the whole of the Spanish state’s diplomatic apparatus, the approximately a hundred embassies, to boycott the foreign action of a Spanish autonomous community which, according to the constitution and the Constitutional Court, can have foreign relations and representation abroad. There are questions to be asked of Mr Margallo and his successor, but also the members of Parliament of these countries should ask what commitments were made with Mr Margallo behind the backs of the respective parliaments, and not just in the Baltic countries, but also in countries beyond the EU.
— Have you received any sign of reactions from other countries annoyed at what Margallo said?
— We have. This episode shows why Margallo being changed for Dastis was so important: the change of a politician difficult to control, even for the Moncloa, and a diplomat put in his place. A diplomat follows instructions; he does not do politics in the creative sense of political action. Dastis is a good diplomat, loyal and relatively effective. He guarantees that foreign policy is drawn up in the Moncloa and not in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Having said this, the boat runs awash over affairs like Gibraltar and Brexit, in which the work of some senior positions and MEPs of the PP go beyond this control.
— Despite the raised voices, has Spanish diplomacy been effective? Has it managed to close doors on you?
— In the end it doesn’t close them. Sometimes it even serves as material proof of what we explain in these places. For example, the act of the European Parliament; the fact that there is an email in which the MEPs of the PP are asked by the Spanish PP not to go to an event of their parliament is proof of what the president, Romeva and Junqueras said that day. In other words, it is inconceivable for a democracy of the European Union that a member should be forbidden from going to hear a democratically elected politician of a member state. And this is not only done, but it is set out in writing and distributed. It is true that there are obstacles and that there are ministers who did not go to the conference to avoid having problems, but they sent their assistants and were delighted to receive the texts translated into several languages on the day after the conference. I believe that these actions are counter-productive for those who take them.
— Spanish diplomacy has more ways to act and has senior civil servants in strategic positions in the European institutions.
— The European civil servants, and I can say so because I was one of them for ten years, have to serve the general European interest. Having said that, even in the European Commission there are many civil servants who not only believe, but also exercise the fact that this is a club of states, and some excessively zealous in the case of the Spanish civil servants, not only in the Commission, but also in the European Parliament. There are actions that do not have to be inspired by Madrid but in which some Spanish civil servants, to gain points or because they believe in it, play an active part by dissuading or even frightening political leaders of the European institutions into holding one meeting or another. The fact that president Juncker has not yet met the president of the Catalan government shows how fragile the European Commission is.