Obama: “We have to reject the ‘us versus them’ mentality of some cynical politicians”

Ahead of his visit to Spain, the US president responds to questions from EL PAÍS

Marc Bassets

The trip will be shorter than was expected, but in the end the president of the United States of America, Barack Obama, will return to Spain, a country he visited in the 1980s when he was a young backpacker in search of his identity. Obama will be coming to Spanish shores when his eight-year presidency is reaching its end, and during a difficult week for the United States, after the shooting deaths of two black men and the subsequent killings of five police officers. He is also arriving in a country that has been locked in political stalemate for months now.

US President Barack Obama.
US President Barack Obama.R.Sachs (Bloomberg)
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After short visit, US president vows to return to Spain someday

In response to written questions from EL PAÍS, Obama calls on the next Spanish government, whichever parties it is made up by, to maintain its commitment to Europe. The president also focuses on the need for Spain and its European partners to become stronger and to ramp up defense spending.

While he celebrates the fact that the Spanish economy has returned to growth, and sends out a message of hope, he argues that austerity policies, applied in Spain and across Europe, have contributed to social discontent in many European countries.

The vote in favor of the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union in June reflects, for Obama, the fact that for many Europeans feel that globalization has left them in a position of disadvantage.

The Democratic politician, who is watching Republican candidate Donald Trump put his legacy in danger, also reflects on the answer that governments should provide in the face of the forces of populism. And he celebrates that one of the major achievements of his time in the White House, the reestablishment of relations with Cuba, has removed an obstacle to improving relations with Latin America, which are now stronger than ever.

Question. Mr President, your visit to Spain comes two weeks after the general elections, with an interim government, and amid great uncertainty in Europe. What do you expect from the future Spanish government?

I’ve never forgotten the hospitality of the Spanish people and the wonderful culture, and I’ve always wanted to return

Answer. First, I want to say how much I’ve been looking forward to visiting Spain, an indispensable European partner, even as the horrific shootings in the United States require that I cut my time here short. I had a chance to travel through the country in my twenties when I was backpacking across Europe. I’ve never forgotten the hospitality of the Spanish people and the wonderful culture, and I’ve always wanted to return. Michelle was deeply touched by the reception Spaniards extended to her on her recent visit. We were honored to host Their Majesties King Felipe VI and Queen Letizia at the White House last fall, and I’m very grateful for the invitation to come to Spain.

While the Brexit vote has indeed created some uncertainty, it’s also important to remember what will not change – America’s unbreakable ties with Europe, including our deep friendship and enduring alliance between the United States and Spain. The relationship between Spaniards and Americans goes back centuries. We’re connected by the ties of family and culture, including millions of Americans who celebrate their Hispanic heritage. Spain is a strong NATO ally, we’re grateful for Spain’s many decades of hosting US forces, and we’re major trading partners. That’s why the United States is deeply committed to maintaining our relationship with a strong, unified Spain.

I would hope and expect that the next Spanish government will be just as committed to a strong relationship with the United States and Europe. We need Spain’s continued contributions to the campaign against ISIL, to counter-terrorism efforts that prevent attacks and to NATO efforts that enhance our defense and deterrence posture. We need a growing Spanish economy to help sustain trade, growth in the EU and entrepreneurship so that globalization is creating jobs and opportunity for all people, not just a few at the top. We need Spain’s continued cooperation as we meet transnational challenges, from desperate migrants crossing the Mediterranean to confronting climate change.

We need a growing Spanish economy to help sustain trade, growth in the EU and entrepreneurship 

I’m confident that, whatever shape the next government takes, we’ll continue to have a strong partner in Spain.

Q. Taking into account that you have stated, in a recent Atlantic interview, that Americans “[don’t] have to always be the ones who are up front”, and that one should be aware that the US cannot automatically solve every problem, what new responsibilities should Europe and Spain take in order to deal with the arc of instability from Syria to the Maghreb, and the threat of homegrown terrorism?

A. Unlike traditional threats, such as conflicts between great powers, today’s most pressing threats are transnational, as we’re seeing across North Africa and the Middle East. The civil war in Syria has killed hundreds of thousands, created a humanitarian catastrophe, sent waves of migrants and refugees into Europe and allowed ISIL to gain control of a swath of territory in the heart of the Middle East. Disorder and conflicts in the Maghreb have caused more desperate men, women and children to flee for the safety of Europe. From their strongholds in Syria and Iraq, ISIL has directed or inspired attacks – some homegrown – in many nations, in United States and other NATO countries.

I believe that American leadership is indispensable to the security and prosperity of the world. That’s why we’re leading the global coalition to destroy ISIL, working tirelessly for a diplomatic solution to the Syrian civil war, contributing more humanitarian assistance than any other nation, and mobilizing a global refugee summit this fall to mobilize new commitments.

Spanish forces are critical to EU and NATO maritime security efforts in the Mediterranean

At the same time, it’s clear that no one nation – even one as powerful as the United States – can solve these kinds of transnational challenges alone. We need coalitions and partnerships that draw on the unique strengths that different countries have to offer. We’re more secure when nations share the burdens and costs of upholding international security and peace. That’s why we’re grateful for Spain’s contributions of personnel to help train Iraqi forces as they take the fight to ISIL. Spain is the first country to command NATO’s new joint task force, which is ready to deploy quickly across Europe, and Spanish forces are critical to EU and NATO maritime security efforts in the Mediterranean. And Spain is a leader in peacekeeping, from Bosnia to Lebanon to Africa. As today’s threats evolve, we’ll need Spain and our European allies and partners to continue stepping up, to include investing more in our common defense.

Q. You were skeptical about the EU austerity policies during the Great Recession, and, in fact, you adopted the opposite policies in the US. How do you assess the impact of these policies in Europe and particularly in Spain?

A. Through the G7 and G20 we’ve worked closely with our European partners to pull the global economy back from the abyss and recover from the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. One of the ways we did this was with a collective focus on boosting global demand.

Obama: “Thanks to a combination of factors – including difficult structural reforms, fiscal consolidation, investment and, most of all, the resilience of the Spanish people – Spain has turned a corner.”
Obama: “Thanks to a combination of factors – including difficult structural reforms, fiscal consolidation, investment and, most of all, the resilience of the Spanish people – Spain has turned a corner.”

In the United States, we moved quickly to reform our financial sector; invest in manufacturing, clean energy, transportation and infrastructure; and retrain workers. Today, we’re in the longest stretch of private sector job growth in our history. Our businesses have created more than 14 million new jobs. We’ve cut our unemployment rate in half. Wages have started to rise. We’ve cut our deficit by nearly 75 percent. Our GDP is bigger than it was before the crisis. There’s still a lot more we need to do to reduce economic and inequality and help workers and families who are struggling just to get by, but we’re moving in the right direction.

It’s true that some European countries embraced a different economic approach, including austerity measures. I think that’s one of the reasons Europe has seen slower growth. In some places, there’s been a decade of stagnation. Europe is only just now getting back to where it was before the crisis. And I think this has been a large factor in the frustrations and anxieties we’re seeing in many European countries – concerns that integrated economies and globalization aren't delivering economic benefits equally.

Slow growth across the continent has left too many Europeans, especially young people, unemployed and frustrated

Spain, of course, has traveled a particularly difficult path in recent years. The banking crisis and recession here were brutal blows to many Spaniards, who lost their savings and their jobs. But thanks to a combination of factors – including difficult structural reforms, fiscal consolidation, investment and, most of all, the resilience of the Spanish people – Spain has turned a corner. The economy is growing again, with growth rates that are among the strongest in Europe. There’s new hope for the future. Of course, unemployment here still remains far too high, especially among young people. Here in Spain, Europe and around the world, I’ll continue to argue for policies – including the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership – that invest in our people, boost growth and create jobs.

Q. In the context of Brexit, right- and left-wing populism, and economic malaise, do you see the European project in danger?

A. As I’ve said, I believe that an integrated Europe is one of the greatest political and economic achievements of modern times. We should never take it for granted. Yet, it’s clear that the project of European integration is being tested like never before. This is not the time for complacency. The flow of migrants and refugees into Europe has focused new attention on EU border policies and the ability of EU countries to work together to address a shared challenge.

Slow growth across the continent has left too many Europeans, especially young people, unemployed and frustrated. In all our countries, too many people feel that they are being disadvantaged by globalization and automation. We saw many of these forces on display in the vote in the UK to leave the EU. We ignore these forces at our peril. Governments, including EU institutions, need to show that they are connected to and responsive to the daily concerns of citizens. Instead of trying to stop trade or engage in protectionism – which isn’t even possible in a global economy – all our countries, including the United States, have to do a better job of making sure that globalization, integrated economies and trade create jobs and opportunity for everyone.

We need to invest more in the education, skills and job retraining that helps reduce inequality and helps people succeed in a global economy. And we have to reject the “us” versus “them” mentality that some cynical politicians are peddling. We have to stay true to the enduring values that define our diverse, vibrant societies and which are among the greatest sources of our strength – our commitment to democracy pluralism, inclusion and tolerance.

Q. How has the thaw of US relations with Cuba changed Latin America, from Colombia to Venezuela, and the position of the US in the Western Hemisphere?

Greater ties and commerce between the US and Cuba will mean more economic opportunities for the Cuban people

A. Our decision to end a half-century of failed US policy by restoring diplomatic relations with Cuba and beginning a new era of engagement with the Cuban people has already had a transformative effect. Most importantly, greater ties and commerce between the US and Cuba, including more Americans traveling to Cuba for education and cultural exchanges, will mean more economic opportunities for the Cuban people. Cuba won’t change overnight, but as I saw during my visit to Havana, Cubans have new hope for the future, and we’re committed to working with them to create more opportunity and prosperity across the island.

More broadly, we’re already seeing how closer ties between the US and Cuba can benefit the region. We’re deepening our cooperation to prevent the spread of disease, protect the waters of the Caribbean and go after narco-traffickers. The Cuban government hosted peace talks between the Colombia government and the FARC which the United States joined in Havana – something that would have been unthinkable a few years ago – and now Colombia is poised to achieve an historic peace.

While I did not discuss Venezuela extensively with President Castro while I was in Cuba, all countries in the region have an interest in seeing Venezuela address its economic challenges. The United States continues to call on the government and opposition to engage in meaningful dialogue. We urge the Venezuelan government to respect the rule of law and the authority of the National Assembly, release political prisoners and respect the democratic process – including legitimate efforts to pursue a recall referendum consistent with Venezuelan law.

Finally, I’d point out that our new approach to Cuba has removed an irritant in our relationships with other countries across the region. Governments across the Americas have enthusiastically welcomed our change in policy. Today, the United States is more deeply engaged across the region than we have been in decades, and the relationship between the United States and the Americas is as good as it has ever been. Rather than being trapped in the conflicts of the past, we're focused on the future. Spain is a part of this new moment of promise in Latin America, and we’re grateful that in Spain we have a strong partner who works with us on behalf of the security, prosperity and dignity that the people of Latin America deserve.

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