Jordi Solé and Jill Evans discuss the main challenges for the next European Parliament

News / 19.5.14

Jordi Solé, the Secretary General of the European Free Alliance (EFA) running in the European elections for Esquerra Republicana, and Jill Evans, President of the EFA subgroup in the European  Parliament and running in the European Elections for Plaid Cymru, met in Brussels for a discussion on the prospects for the new legislative period and how to keep the issues of self-determination, protection of cultural and linguistic diversity, multilevel governance, democracy and human rights on top of the political agenda.

The Centre Maurits Coppieters  moderated that conversation. You can read it in full below:

Centre Maurits Coppieters (CMC): Let’s start with one of the most significant events to come this year: the referenda in Catalonia and Scotland. I was wondering if you have an opinion on what the President Barroso said regarding internal enlargement. How do you feel fist of all, about the referenda and the reaction of the European Commission, which has been a bit unclear sometimes…

Jordi Solé (JS) Well I think that the two foreseen referenda: the Catalan and the Scottish one are future opportunities to talk about basic democratic rights. Because we are talking here about the right to vote, the right for certain national communities to decide by themselves their political future. Since democracy is a basic principle of the whole European Union, I think every democrat should be on the side of people that want this referendum to happen. We are sure that the Scottish one will take place on September the 18th, and we Catalans, or we people from Esquerra Republicana, are convinced that our referendum will take place on the 9th of November but unfortunately we haven’t managed to reach an agreement with the Spanish Government, Not because we didn’t insist on that but because they have no will at all, not even to talk about it. They have no will to agree on the referendum but also they have no will to even give the possibility to the Catalan Government and the Catalan Parliament the right to even call for such a referendum. So I think this year, 2014, is the year about democracy and about voting rights and about what we call “the right to decide”.

Jill Evans (JE) I think that it is a really significant year because we have the European elections; we have a new Commission in place which won’t be Mr.Barroso anymore. For so long they have been denying the possibility that any part of the Member States could become independent. I remember I think it was in 2002 that we first published proposals on Internal Enlargement from EFA with Neil and the work he did. At the time people were just scoffing, saying that it was impossible, it would never happen, we don’t need to look at things like that. And now, not many years later, we are in a position where the Commission will have to announce what we are looking and what happens when Scotland and Catalonia becomes independent. After so many months saying that he would not comment on what was an internal Member State matter, I think that president Barroso statement on Scotland was disgraceful. It was a clear attempt to influence the debate in Scotland, and the way people are voting in Scotland. That’s something that the president of the Commission should never do. I think it was very unhelpful. I don’t think it will make Scottish people vote “NO” because of what he said. When there is so much evidence to the contrary.

(JS) I also think that Mr.Barroso has gone too far in his statements. Because the Commission has not the power to interpret the treaties. They have the power of surveillance the treaties but not the power to interpret them; and what he did was an interpretation of the treaties. What is clear is that there is no provision in the treaties saying what would happen if a part of a Member State becomes independent in relation to its EU membership. There is no precedent and there is no clear article or provision or statement in any of the EU treaties. So what the Commission has said is just an interpretation and I am convinced that the president of the European Commission should defend all the Europeans, not only the ones that think that independence will mean that for example Scotland and Catalonia will be out of the EU and would have to start from a scratch the accession process. So I think he has lost the neutrality that he should have kept.

(JE) Particularly when there is increasing euro scepticism. Maybe worst in the UK but not just in the UK. Here we have two nations that clearly see their future within the European Union and see it very positively and he is discouraging that. It doesn’t make sense.

(CMC) Now that you have brought up the issue of the UK. Some people say that after the “YES” vote in Scotland, 18 month to negotiate independence and maybe an accession to the EU prior to the declaration of independence is too short. Do you agree with this statement? Do you think 18 month is a reasonable time to renegotiate all these legal issues connected to EU membership and independence from the UK?

(JE) I think that what SNP has done is preparing a very detailed case for independence for several years. They looked into this very carefully. If they have said that 18 month is the necessary time then I would accept that. What we have seen in Scotland is the “NO” campaign, the so-called “better together” campaign failed badly because they haven’t prepared a case for people to vote “NO”. I haven’t seen any evidence from anyone that shows that 18 months is not long enough. People say it is not long enough but they are not backing it up with any evidence, whereas the Scottish Government has actually looked at what needs to be done and they have estimated that this could be done in 18 months, so I accept that.

(JS) I think that if there is from both sides political will to reach agreements, 18 month should be enough to conclude the negotiations. Specially regarding the EU; they will have to renegotiate the terms by which Scotland will be a new Member State. I guess the negotiations won’t be very complex because the Scottish people have been members and citizens of the EU since many years and they apply already EU law also since many years so the changes that have to be negotiated are in reality quite small. And in relation to the British Government, if they have political will, 18 month should be enough.

(CMC) What about the dilemma rose sometimes to discuss the Catalan case between self-determination or right to decide and territorial integrity? Do you think the principle of territorial integrity is above the right of self-determination?

(JS) No, I think that we, in the European Free Alliance are convinced that what is above all is democracy. Besides the principle of territorial integrity says another thing, not too different from the principle of self-determination. Territorial integrity means that no other state can invade another to change the boarders. Actually we have seen this, some days ago, in Crimea. This is clear violation of the territorial integrity principle. States cannot conflict between them in order to change the borders, but this has nothing to do with Scottish and Catalan cases because the right of the people to decide doesn’t imply a 3rd party, in the sense that there would be no aggression inside the UK or Spanish borders. These are movements that take place inside both states and if as a consequence of these political movements there is a change of borders, this will be because of the will of the people, not because any military pressure or threat.

(CMC) Going back now to the issue of internal enlargement, how do you see this declaration of independence in relationship with the EU? How do you see this happening? And also regarding the EU citizenship, what would happen to those people? Can you comment a bit on this?

(JS) I think that the EU as a whole will take stands once the Scottish and the Catalans have voted and have gotten a democratic mandate to build up new European states. Before the referendums we will hear many contradictory statements but no official statements. They would have to take stands right after the Scottish and the Catalans would have voted. Regarding the question about citizenship, we as Scottish or as Catalans or as Welsh have EU citizenship rights since the time we got in the EU. But then withdrawing right to the people is a very difficult thing and I think it is rather impossible, because once you got this citizenship rights you have to do very bad things to get your rights withdrawn. And we won’t do any bat things! We will only vote, we will only practice democracy so I am convinced that our rights as EU citizens will be kept and we will maintain our rights, this is my guess.

(JE) I can’t see how taken away EU citizenship could be justified if we are all treated equally than the Scots and the Catalans. I do think that after the elections and when the new Commission is appointed, there will be big changes in Europe; whether it is a constitutional convention again or however it is done. I think that this restructuring of Member States will be part of that change. And I think it will be a positive change. The EU can’t just continue as it has been. It has come through the economic crisis but it has been pushed right to the limit and things have to change. Now people are demanding more democracy, more accountability and more to say in what Europe does. I think that this is the moment to do that. This is the year to do that. The referenda are a catalyst in a way for further changes across Europe as well.

(CMC) I want to move on to a different subject which is also important for us as recognition of diversity and languages, and preservation of linguistic rights. Last year the European Parliament approved by a vast majority the “Alfonsi report on endangered languages”, and quoting Alfonsi “it represents an important step forward in favour of cultural and linguistic diversity in Europe”. What do you think that the EU should do in the next parliamentary term to give continuity to the work done in these issues?

(JE) Well I think from our point of view in Wales I am still working to get Welsh fully officialise. That is a campaign we have to do through the UK of course, but I think that we should be looking at the example of Ireland in more detail. The impact of making Irish an official language on the economy have doubled the number of university students studying in Irish has doubled and the language now, because it is an official language, young people in Ireland who speak English and Irish can apply for jobs in the EU. In Wales we have a lot of bilingual people, but it doesn’t count. I think we have to say that, as citizens of the EU, we have rights in our languages. This actually benefits the economy. There has been some recognition, true, but this is not enough. We need to do some more work on that.

(JS) I think the EU should put more pressure on these States which do not really believe in the equality of languages and are not really acting in favour if this equality. We have some examples across Europe and it is time to take action and to go from statements and motions into political activity. I think linguistic rights should be in the same level as other rights, for example democratic and social rights, because diversity is one of the characteristics of our EU and we should really not only believe in diversity and talk about it all day long but we should act and take advantage of this diversity. Not only from the cultural and diversity point of view, but also economically speaking.

(CMC) Reading the EFA manifesto for the european Elections I see that I chapter 7 is devoted to this issue [linguistic diversity]. What do you think about the current EU linguistic policies? Do you think the EU should have other official languages based in other principles than statehood?

(JS) Yes of course. It is unbelievable how languages like Catalan, with ten million speakers are not official in the EP. Of course, the principle of one state one language is something old-fashioned and something that contradicts the cultural diversity that exist in the European Union.

(JE) Because the aim (that we hear from the Commission and everyone) is to bring Europe closer to people, then if you don’t speak to people with the language that they speak -literally- then that’s never going to happen. People will always see Europe as something alien and far away.

(CMC) What do you think are the policies that work better when it comes to the protection of coexisting languages (that either touch each other or live in the same territory? What are the policies to be putted in place to empower minorised languages?

(JS) First of all, public institutions and public authorities have to foster equality of rights among all the speakers, whatever language they speak. They have to give the same rights to all the citizens. It is very difficult to find an example where two languages coexist in the same level; normally one language is more powerful than the other. So I think we should apply the principle of positive discrimination on the languages that are not so much widespread and spoken.

(JE) We do have some good examples, in some aspects Wales has been a good example with the Welsh Language Act and the Welsh Language Board. But it has always been as a result of campaigns and pressure (on education or public bodies for example). Over the years we have made a lot of progress, but it doesn’t mean it has been easy. It has been very difficult and people have sacrificed a lot to get in a position in which they are today. We need to share these experiences build on the positive examples we have. It has to be recognition of people’s rights, built on rights. It comes into all aspects of policy in the work we do. In terms of planning, for example, particularly now the new locals plans have been adopted in Wales, which can have a very detrimental effect on Welsh language. Unless the language is a criteria in looking at the impact of planning a new development, then we are going to see the language being undermined constantly. We call very often in Parliament here for an environmental impact assessment on all kinds of developments we should be having linguistic impacts assessments as well. At the same level, treating them equally important.

(JS) I would also like to point out that there are still too many cases of linguistic discrimination in Europe. We can find many cultural communities that still have to fight for their linguistic rights and I think it is a pity that in the year 2014 we still have to fight for something as evident as this. Every language is a richness and a treasure, every community and person has the right to identify itself to a certain language, protect and foster it.

(CMC) Do you mind if we move on to the economic chapter of the conversation? Also in the EFA manifesto (chapter 3) there are some points devoted to the Euro crisis and I can read words like social cohesion, sustainable growth, inclusive growth, solidarity and subsidiary. With this in mind and regarding the crisis exit strategies that the EU has put in place, where do you think the EU should put more effort to overcome the crisis? Maybe since Jill is also working in the Parliament she has been following the Multiannual Finanicial Framework (MFF) debate, could you make a comment on this?

(JE) Well, I think the whole approach to the crisis has been wrong. Of course we support the better control that have been putted in place and the role of the ECB and the mechanisms to ensure that if there are major problems in the horizon we know about them well in advanced. But the general response which is the austerity policies across Europe have caused tremendous misery and we call instead for more investment and job creation. It is unacceptable that some Member States have youth unemployment of already 50%. In the UK it is over 20% and it is seen as acceptable. We have lost sight of what the goal of the EU was. If you look at the Lisbon Treaty, which is the constitution, the goal is full employment. Nobody is talking about full employment anymore and we need to get back to that. We need to be able to use the enormous resources that we have in the EU budget to actually stimulate the economy again. I think the approach has been wrong; studies are showing now that that is the case and while we do need much better financial controls we need to refocus on people because the economic crisis has shifted the entire focus into economy and the financial markets. We need to get back to focus on people and social Europe.

(JS) At the EU level we have many examples of agreements in terms of economy in general (common market, euro-zone, euro, banking union, fiscal and tax matters but we don’t have a big agreement on social issues and social inequalities. We think that these are huge and not acceptable from a humanistic point of views. We have reached many agreements and we have many rules on the functioning of the common market for example, but we haven’t settled common standards in social matters for example in order to close the gap that we find across European countries. It is time to put the accent on this social standards and social justice. It is evident that we have to bring the economy back to the growth way, but we have to keep in mind that this economic crisis has worsen the social situation; not just in Southern Europe but also in other areas of Europe. So, European policies now have to focus on the social consequences of the crisis and the growing inequalities that we have within the Union.

(CMC) If I can throw a couple more questions… what do you think are the best strategies to build a European social model of welfare state sustainable? And also if you could comment a bit on the role of the European Central Bank  (ECB), which is now focused mostly on keeping the inflation low. This has been criticized in the past and CMC has also published a report very critical with the ECB and other issues. Could you comment on how to maintain and keep European welfare state sustainable? Role of the ECB and other European institutions and how to make EU fiscal harmonization and integration compatible with the different models that exist in Europe?

(JS) We should increase the resources in the EU budged indeed. The EU Budget is already important -even huge in some areas- but Europe has to invest more in people. Especially in those policies that can help people to improve their living standards and their social situation. I think we need to increase the European budget but we have to find new incomes, like for example through the economic transactions tax (Tobin Tax). By doing this, the European budget would have more resources directly in training programmes and even in social benefits for the people. Then I am sure all these huge inequalities and differences in social standards would be lower by direct European action and policies.

(JE) I think we should be looking at issues like the minimum income or wage, which I know that at the moment the EU has no competence over which policy as such but if we had some kind of minimum income or benefit then that would correct the situation where people having to leave their own communities to go and work in other countries and it is often very low paid work. I am totally in favour to people being able to move and work to other countries as a basic principle of the EU, but it is a totally different situation when people are forced to leave their homes because they just haven’t got work. We do need to look at some kind of policies which will help people of the poorest communities. The financial transaction tax is something that we have always believed in. This is a very popular issue amongst people and it is a way for the bankers and the financial sectors to pay something back for all the trouble they have caused. I know that European taxes as such might not be welcome (certainly not in the UK) but in that case, I think it is something that we really need to push very hard on. We can’t have a situation where every 4 or 5 years, where 28 or even more Member States arguing over how much are they going to cut the budget. It is about time that the EU has its own income – if it is not entirely as own income, at least to reduce the contribution of the Member States by introducing the financial tax-.

(JS) It is time for a social union, and we need to set specific targets to achieve improvements in social standards. Knowing that of course the situations are very different but this time the EU should put the effort on the fight against poverty and those huge imbalances that in social terms we do have in the EU.

(JE) We still use the word “solidarity” in EFA.

(CMC) My last question on economic affairs is a bit different. It doesn’t regard social cohesion but it regards a paper or an idea that was written by Adam Price at the university. He publish a paper on the “flotilla effect” suggesting that small states and medium-sized states are more flexible and can react better to international markets in an internationalised economy or they react better to crisis scenarios. They can restructure their economies more easily in order to get out of potential financial crisis. What is your opinion on this? And also… if not through a State, do you think that fiscal devolution or tax devolution could also help regions and stateless nations to recover from the crisis?

(JS) Advanced economies are open and much interconnected economies. Times when the market was only the national market are gone for good. I think the size of an economy is not the most important factor to understand the success of an economy. They way that these economies are linked together and open to export and to import is what really matters. I agree with the idea that small states that are opened and very well located in geo-strategical terms can adapt easier and faster to shocks in the economy because they have good connections and are export-minded and open-minded. I think that globalisation facilitates the probability that countries can become new states, because the cost of building new states is indeed not a cost; but an opportunity. Maybe 30 years ago when the economy was not that much opened and linked, proposing the emergence of new states was a risky idea. Small nations where very much dependent on the market of the State level. Now it is not true anymore. The costs of becoming a new state have transformed into opportunities.

(JE) What the research showed was that small states are not under any kind of disadvantages in an economic crisis because the argument that was being used against Scotland for example was “you can’t have independence because there is a globally economic crisis going on and Scotland would not survive”. What the research showed was that not only can small states survive but can actually by working together be more flexible and survive an economic crisis better than large states. I think that it is important to look at the way some economies really managed to grow during the economic crisis such as the Basque Country. It was a result of a forecast planning and planning for a successful economy in the future. The Basque national identity was very central to that whole planning and the way they saw their future as a nation within Europe. I think that this is something we need to do in Wales. Scotland has done very successfully: they have developed their own sectors such as renewable energy. They have been able to lead the whole Europe in this particular sector. It is not the size of a country or a state that matters, but it is about how we develop the economy and how we specialise.

(JS) If size would really matter then how would you explain that countries like Denmark, Switzerland or Norway rank so high economically and in living standards ranking. It is clearly proved that size is not the question, but how do you manage your economy.


(CMC) If you could just make a comment on the upcoming European Elections. How do you see them? What are your stands and how do you see the decline on EU trust by citizens since the beginning of the crisis? Which are the strategies to reverse this trend?

(JE) It varies among different countries, of course, but there is a lack of trust. Certainly in the UK the support for the UKIP has increased massively and it is going to have an impact on all the other parties and it is more than anything else a protest against the establishment; even though the UKIP are more establishment then the rest of us. It seems as a protest vote and people who might have not voted in European elections before might go and vote for them this time. It is a very difficult election for us because it is very difficult to have the real debate about Wales national interests and Wales’ future in Europe when all the forecasts are on whether the UK will stay in or fall out. Generally I think that for the EFA parties, from the discussions we have had, what we have shown in the Parliament is that we can make a difference being an small group and if EFA isn’t there as a force in Parliament then issues we have discussed like linguistic equality, cultural issues, democracy and the right of small nations would not be in the agenda at all, because nobody asks to put them there. It is a crucial election for EFA as well as for Europe because we have put those things on the top of EU agenda.

(JS) This time voters should realise that their vote will not only decide the composition of the new Parliament but also who will be the next president of the Commission. It is not the same if he or she comes from the progressive movement, the conservative or the liberal. It will determine the composition of the Parliament and the person which will have to lead the policies for the next five years. These will be a crucial five years. They will be the years of post-crisis and the years of building again confidence in the European project and values. We are facing, in this sense, very important elections. In the upcoming weeks, we have to convince people that if we really believe in the European project, we have to vote and use our right as European citizens, we have to vote thinking about the importance of the next five years.