Jean-Claude Juncker: “Nationalism is poison”

The president of the European Commission says Catalan leaders “should not underestimate the support for Rajoy in Europe”

Jean-Claude Juncker, during the interview in his office in Strasbourg.
Jean-Claude Juncker, during the interview in his office in Strasbourg.Delmi Álvarez

The length of the first paragraph of an interview like this one is usually inversely proportional to the interest of the message of the interviewee. This first paragraph is going to be short: there needs to be room for the ideas of Brussels about Catalonia with a month to go before regional elections there on December 21. The president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, receives EL PAÍS in his office in the European Parliament in Strasbourg. Relaxed and wry – while at the same time firm and prolific as never before about the pro-independence challenge – he speaks for an hour with words of total support for Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, only slightly overshadowed by the police violence seen at the illegal independence referendum on October 1. And he criticizes ousted Catalan premier Carles Puigdemont for “violating the rule of law,” and as such, “going against European values.”

At its best, Europe is a conversation with people like Juncker. Judging by the theses of the head of the executive branch of the EU, the arguments of pro-independence forces in Catalonia have not managed to penetrate a single centimeter into that unidentified political object known as Brussels.

Question. What has taken more of your time lately, Brexit or Catalonia?

Answer. I honestly don’t know.

Q. Has the pro-independence “process” turned into a headache for the EU?

A. Catalonia is a great, an enormous worry. I don’t like the situation that has been created: it’s a disaster. In many senses. It has rarefied the political atmosphere, it has generated an internal fracture in Spanish and in Catalan society. It has created problems inside families, among friends. It’s very sad. This never should have happened.

Europe must learn that it cannot only do what it has to when it is at the edge of the precipice: it must also act when things are going well

Q. Populism took political uncertainty to new heights several months ago, but after the French elections the risk seems to have fallen. Is populism the political disease of the Great Recession? Does the independence drive fall into that category?

A. I never had the sensation that the danger had faded away. The far-right parties took a lot of votes in Holland; 11 million French voters supported Le Pen. In Germany they have gained ground. The dangers are still there.

Q. And do you see a parallel between those processes and what your vice-president Frans Timmermans calls “populist nationalism” in relation to Catalonia?

A. Nationalism is poison. But I don’t believe that nationalism and populism are exactly the same; there are nuances that set them apart. I don’t like the idea that if you form part of the winners of a nation that allows you to leave when and how you want. I am in favor of the Europe of regions: of respecting identity, of differences. But that doesn’t mean that we are going to follow those regions in all of their adventures, which sometimes are a tremendous error, even more so if unilateral independence is declared based on a referendum without any guarantees. Outside of Europe they are asking me if Spain is in a process of decomposition: if the country is going to split into two. I say that it is not, that the majority of Spaniards are opposed to independence, that not even in Catalonia is there a clear majority. The government and the Generalitat [the Catalan regional government] can discuss the levels of autonomy, but Europe is a club of nations, and I don’t accept regions going against nations. Even less so outside of the law.

Q. In Salamanca, a few days previously, you made reference to the nationalism of the 1930s.

A. We need to be careful with this kind of comparison: times have changed. What I was trying to say is that, historically, when nationalist drives are reborn, Europe usually ends up at war, as Mitterrand used to say; but that does not mean that what is happening in Catalonia is incubating a war. History shows us that regional whims must not be nurtured and contrasted with national identity. That is not the way to fight for one’s identity. What’s more, what has happened in Catalonia is not taking into account this historic moment: Europe is a small continent. It’s losing influence. Its demography is not buoyant. It has come from a dramatic crisis. What these times call for is not division but rather a pooling of all of the ambition, the talent and the energy of Europeans: what Catalonia has done is exactly the opposite.

Catalan authorities must not underestimate the ample support that Rajoy has from the rest of Europe

Q. Puigdemont is accusing you of leading a Europe that is a caricature of itself, that doesn’t respect its values, that supports a Spanish prime minister who, according to his narrative, has carried out a sort of coup d’etat and has political prisoners. Are these ever-more frenzied attacks affecting you?

A. I have not had any personal contact with Puigdemont. Rajoy is a good friend of mine, but that is not an argument: as president of the Commission, I support the position of the Spanish government. And do you know why? Because I am in favor of those who respect the law. The EU is based on the rule of law, and what my Catalan friends have done is the opposite: break the law. I am with those who have respected the constitutional framework, I can’t support those who violate it.

Q. But are you in favor of the application of Article 155?

A. The government had to react to ensure that the Constitution was respected. Applying 155 or not was the government’s decision: I have nothing to say there. It’s the same with judicial processes: I have no opinion on the matter. What I will underline is that Catalonia, like all of Europe, must respect the rule of law. The Prodi doctrine has been there for years. And I’m not going to move an inch on that line: respect the Constitution and the laws, respect the decisions of the Constitutional Court and the courts. Respect.

Q. The pro-independence leaders always said that the EU would end up embracing their cause.

A. Several weeks ago the Catalan government appeared to be convinced that the declaration of independence was going to be recognized. But Puigdemont has now given interviews in which he says another thing: that there are alternatives to independence. If he once believed that we supported him, he should do away with that idea: we are not going to do it. Not a single government from the European Union is going to support what happened in Catalonia after October 1.

Q. And what will happen if pro-independence parties win the elections on December 21?

A. You should not ask me to give my opinion on hypothetical scenarios. I want to see Spain use all of its strength and intelligence to channel this toward a happy ending, or at least an acceptable one.

The EU is based on the rule of law, and what my Catalan friends have done is the opposite

Q. In Europe, there have been reproaches directed at Rajoy. For ignoring the issue until it rotted. For the police charges [against voters on October 1]. For an exclusively legalistic approach. Do you agree with those criticisms?

A. It’s true: Rajoy has an approach that is very much based in legality. Should someone be criticized for that? It won’t be me who does that. Especially when it was provoked by illegal behavior on the part of the Catalans. In terms of the police intervention, I am not sure how events unfolded.

Q. Various government have expressed discomfort. It wasn’t positive for the image of Spain.

A. There was a moment when the police had to intervene. I was not there. I saw a lot of images and a lot of fake news: I don’t feel capable of distinguishing them, I am not going to judge. But I can say I am, on principle, never going to be in favor of the use of force. Never. By anyone.

Q. Then did the situation require more politics?

A. I am favor of dialogue but it is not my job to call for dialogue, let alone to mediate. Dialogue is always better than the use of force, but I believe it was never the intention of Rajoy to use force. The Spanish government is the one that must put its house in order. For that, there has to be dialogue. How? That is not up to me.

Q. Your public discourse is clear: respect the law. Perhaps a few weeks ago it was a little more ambiguous…

A. No. I have always repeated that the legal framework cannot be violated in a democracy in the name of the people.

Q. What have you said to the Spanish government in private?

A. That I am in favor of the law being obeyed. I have never passed on criticisms, except in the case of the police actions on October 1. And even then we were not sure what had happened.

Q. Give me a message for Puigdemont.

A. The Catalan authorities must not underestimate the ample support that Rajoy has from the rest of Europe. They would be completely wrong if they were to do so.

Europe is a small continent. It’s losing influence. Its demography is not buoyant. It has come from a dramatic crisis

Q. I am sure you aware of the cliché that “Spain is different.” In the Eurogroup you were charged with fighting against the biggest crisis in Spain in recent decades: in the Commission with the biggest crisis of state. Are these constant existential crises a point of difference?

A. I can never be neutral when it comes to Spain. When I was 18 I protested against Franco in the streets of my country. I demonstrated against the Burgos trial. Spain did something extraordinary, which you call the “Transition:” all of the political forces of the country – from the communists of Santiago Carrillo to Adolfo Suárez and King Juan Carlos – managed to channel those enormous tensions into the Constitution. I lived through all of that with great intensity: for the people of my generation, the Spanish Constitution was not just a piece of a paper that can be damaged just like that.

Q. European Commissioner Pierre Moscovici says that Catalonia is a risk for the euro. In this sense has it ceased to be just an internal matter for Spain?

A. Moscovici was right: he said the risk was there but that is difficult to evaluate its impact. It would have been naïve not to mention it. More than 2,000 companies have left Catalonia. I don’t believe there could have been a greater warning sign.

Q. Has the worst already happened?

A. December 21 is the date at which all could and should improve. Rajoy agrees with me on this. That will be the moment to restore normality: power is the capacity to redefine a complex situation; politics, the art of returning things to normal as quickly as possible.

Q. Apart from Catalonia, there are other risks for Europe: Brexit, and the fact the euro is still exposed to the crisis. Is Berlin going to oppose, as it usually does, the reform of the euro?

A. Europe needs the Franco-German axis but this axis is not enough in itself. I think Merkel will make a move in the right direction.

Q. Are you certain?

A. Yes. I am confident she will do it. And I know what I am talking about here.

Q. There is the curse of Jean Monnet, which states that “Europe will be forged in crises.”

A. Europe must learn that it cannot only do what it has to when it is at the edge of the precipice: it must also act when things are going well. The most has to be made of this window of opportunity to carry out reforms that strengthen the euro zone.

Q. What reforms?

What these times call for is not division but rather putting all of the ambition, the talent and the energy of Europeans

A. Governability has to be reformed; we need to look at whether treaties allow us to make decisions on essential subjects not via a unanimous decision but via a majority. There has to be a final farewell to austerity, perhaps the greatest error of the crisis. A budgetary line has to be set up to support the euro in bad times, and there needs to be the creation of a euro finance ministry. Banking union must be completed with a mutualized deposit guarantee fund to improve solidarity.

Q. What is the main risk at this time? Italy?

A. We are much better equipped than before for another crisis. We cannot go back to the game of laying the blame at each other’s feet for what happens: Brexit is proof of the need for unity.

Q. Have you been surprised by the unity of the 27 member states after Brexit?

A. No. It is the logical consequence of divorce. When a country decides to leave, those who remain are going to be more united than before. If this unity broke up now, while we are talking about divorce, it would be truly difficult to maintain when we are negotiating our future relations. Brexit has politicized the EU. That is good news.

Q. Is there a real risk of no deal being reached?

A. We need a deal: that’s the best thing for the UK and for the EU. And it is possible, perhaps it will come in December.

Q. Are you optimistic right now?

A. No. But not pessimistic either.

English version by Simon Hunter and George Mills.

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