THE EUROPEAN Union’s head of diplomacy, foreign affairs and security policy is Spanish – Josep Borrell – and his job will come heavily into focus during the Brexit transition period that opened at midnight on Friday and will end with the New Year chimes that mark the start of 2021.
Now thrust into international focus, the 73-year-old from La Pobla de Segur, in Catalunya, has been interviewed on the immediate future of Britain, the Union and Spain by his national media, and among the revelations he has made so far is his determination that the relationship between the EU and the UK post-transition will be ‘as close as it is possible to be’ for a third-country State.
Following Brexit, is it appropriate to talk about ‘winners’ and ‘losers’?
“Brexit is a decision in which everyone loses. Some British nationals who voted in favour of Brexit think they’re the winners, but they’ll soon realise that with their decision, the UK will be facing problems that, in the past, would have been resolved before they cropped up thanks to its membership of the EU.”
Is Brexit an opportunity for the European Union?
“It’s true that the UK did put the brakes on many things, especially in terms of greater political integration between the 28, which is something Britain never wanted and has never made any secret of not wanting. And perhaps, now, some of the policies which would require a deeper integration to be able to take effect, but which were hindered by London’s resistance, may be able to finally be developed.
“But let’s not delude ourselves: The UK is not the only country with a reticent attitude towards greater integration. Many other nations within the EU share this view.”
Are you concerned that Brexit will enhance the EU’s identity crisis and have a contagious effect on other member States?
“I think what Brexit has actually done is create a ‘vaccination effect’ rather than a ‘contagious effect’, because everyone has seen how complicated it has been and the drawbacks of leaving the EU. I don’t see any other candidates among the remaining 27 prepared to repeat the British experience.”
What can we expect in the talks about the future EU-UK trade deal?
“The aim of these talks is to achieve the closest possible relationship with the UK, reaching a trade deal that’s as broad as possible, whilst respecting the principles of the common market. But not just a trade deal: In many areas, the EU’s relationship with third countries – and the UK will be a third country – are not just about trade.
“We want, and hope, for the UK to continue being a partner in security and defence areas and in all related terms, such as fishing, the rights of European citizens in the UK and British citizens in the EU.
“The UK has left the European Union, but it has not left Europe. We hope to continue to enjoy a positive relationship on both sides.”
Could these talks with Brussels be conditioned by a deal between London and Washington D.C.?
“It’s normal that the UK would want to negotiate trade deals with other countries; that’s why it wanted to leave the EU. It was precisely that, among other reasons, why the UK wanted to ‘recover its independence’, as the Brits say.
“Well, they’ve recovered their autonomy, their ability to act, and the logical next step is that they’ll use it.
“But we’ll have to see whether the trade deals they make with other countries are compatible with the ones they want to make with the EU.”
Could Gibraltar prove a stumbling block, or a problem, in these talks?
“Loose ends with Gibraltar have been very well tied up. From now on, it’s a territory belonging to a third country, and it’s been made very clear that any deal the EU wants to make about Gibraltar has to be negotiated with the UK because Gibraltar does not have its own representation in the EU.
“Additionally, any of these negotiations are subject to Spain’s right to a veto – in other words, nobody can agree anything about Gibraltar if Spain does not approve of it.”
The UK’s departure will cause a redistribution of powers within the EU. Will Spain gain greater influence?
“Spain already has a great deal of influence within the EU. It’s not a party where if one guest leaves, the remaining guests get a larger slice of the birthday cake. Political influence depends upon your own, individual abilities. Spain has perfectly sufficient abilities, and I’m attempting to develop them further, as we did with the previous socialist government.
“But it’s clear that Spain, now, has gone up a notch within the hierarchy of EU countries based upon size – not through its own merit, but because a larger country has left.
“Many times in the past, Spain has played a greater rôle than it technically should have based upon its economy and population, because it had greater political influence thanks to its government’s leadership. At other times, this has not been the case, but this is starting to happen once again.”
What are the main challenges that the EU will face now?
“The EU needs to try to find its place in a world tainted by the great conflict we’re experiencing between the USA and China. Up to now, there was a strong alignment between European and North American attitudes and approaches, but at the moment, this is less so; there are more and more differences of opinion between the EU and the USA and the USA is adopting more and more of a unilateral attitude in defence of what its president believes are its own interests. And at the same time, there’s a clear and huge geopolitical conflict between two very large countries which are being called upon to take centre stage this century, and the EU needs to find its place among all that – not just appear as a party unable to protect its own interests and suffer the consequences and decisions everyone else makes.
“This is the major challenge that we Europeans face: Our existence in this world. For that reason, we can only deal with the challenges as a union, and if we’re not united enough, it’s a problem.”
Do you think the Spanish government was on the wrong side of the law with the pit-stop at Madrid airport made by the Venezuelan deputy president Delcy Rodríguez, as the PP and Ciudadanos say? [Public works minister José Luis Ábalos met Sra Rodríguez, Nicolás Maduro’s second-in-command, despite Spain and the EU’s having officially recognised his rival Juan Guaidó as Venezuelan leader. Ábalos insists Delcy Rodríguez never got off the plane, and Spain’s president Pedro Sánchez says Ábalos was playing devil’s advocate to try to smooth over an international diplomatic crisis].
“It’s the member States whose responsibility it is to ensure the compliance with sanctions collectively adopted by the EU. The EU is not the police, and it does not have executive jurisdiction, so each member State is responsible for its own decisions and it’s their governments who need to guarantee the correct application of decisions taken within the EU.”