"The European Union is the best collective instrument we have to face the future"

2016-07-15 05:00:00

Professor Fernando Guirao’s knowledge of the European Union falls little short of encyclopaedic. He has published works including ‘Spain and the Reconstruction of Western Europe, 1945-57’, and has also written about the CAP reforms, the crisis in the EU in relation to German leadership, and the question of EU membership for an independent Catalonia. He considers the Costa del Sol to be almost a second home, as he has spent the summer months in Torre del Mar since he was 14. He talked to SUR in English about the EU, past, present and future.
–You’ve been running a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) entitled ‘Why the European Union?’ Can you tell us what your answer to that question would be?
–The European Communities (the forerunner of the European Union) were created to assist their member states to cope with problems of strategic importance which they could not deal with by themselves, such as how to cope with the new Federal Republic of Germany in 1949, how to respond to the sort of globalisation that the United States had designed for the west at the end of World War II, and how to help the weak European democracies. Without the EU, how would Europe have coped with the reunification of Germany in 1990 and the breaking up of the post-1950 power balance in Europe? How could individual European nations deal with the rise of China, which, combined with India, will generate 60% of the world’s wealth in 30 years time? It is very pertinent to think about this now that our democratic values are profoundly in crisis and that there is a generalised fear of new forms of globalisation.
- Why do you think the UK is now debating whether to leave the EU? Is it due to failings in the union?
- The financial crisis that started in 2007 turned into the most important economic and social crisis since 1929, and for some countries it was even more dramatic than the 1929 crisis. For the first time since 1945 the western economies had to face a period of negative growth rates, with all its consequences. All the members of the European Union are at present debating the pros and cons of EU membership, and many (Greece, the Netherlands, Hungary, and the United Kingdom) are having recourse to a referendum. What makes the United Kingdom special is a problem within the Conservative party which has led to this critical debate. Whatever the final outcome on June 23rd, the split within the British Conservative party will not be repaired.
The European Union itself has little responsibility for all this. Public opinion tends to accuse the European Union of failings which rightly pertain to the 28 individual EU governments. This has obviously been promoted by the national governments as the quickest and simplest way to prevent their electorate from passing on to them the bill for their own faults. In the end, this strategy has not worked - they have all but one been removed from power - but its collateral effect has been an extraordinary erosion of the credibility of the European Union. If the European Commission, European Parliament, Court of Justice, and the European Central Bank have not been more active and effective since 2008-10 it is simply because these institutions lacked the necessary attributions - competences that can only be transferred to them by and from the States. It is the European Council, an intergovernmental body recently imbedded within the supranational structure, which has taken over and made the crucial decisions, from how to bail out countries to closing down the frontiers to refugees despite their clear-cut international obligations.
Since this crisis started in 2007 the battle ground has been entirely centred on policy areas where the nation-states had actually kept responsibility for themselves - banking regulation, fiscal policy, social policy, exile and refugee policy, and foreign policy!
- Can the situation be put right?
- The European Union is the best collective instrument that we have at hand, at the moment, to face the future. There are various things that could be done. The social dimension of the European Union could be enhanced with a European unemployment scheme that could be introduced at zero cost: member states could simply transfer to a European fund the unemployment funds that would correspond to the minimum unemployment benefit that the least-generous EU member offers. This would be the first level of assistance that any unemployed people would receive, and could then be complemented in line with the national regulation in each case.
The refugee crisis could be ended rapidly if an automatic distribution of present refugees could take place: 1.5 million refugees would mean that each government take in 347 refugees per million of its inhabitants. After this emergency operation, a serious policy of putting an end to the various civil wars on our eastern and southern frontiers, a serious policy of enhancing development in Africa, and the collective control of borders should take place.
I could give you possible solutions for most of the ‘EU failings’. So, can those failings be put right? Yes! Will they be put right? Probably not! Our governments are not leading their society. They have decided to act as if they were trapped by volatile public opinion polls.
- If the ‘Leave’ campaign is successful, can you predict what will happen in the rest of the EU?
- Not with any confidence. The United Kingdom will leave the institutions but stay in the single market and in multiple other programmes of cooperation, such as Erasmus. There would no doubt be great fuss about the possibility of reversing the whole project, but the de facto situation of the EU will not change substantially. Most probably Brexit would not lead to a re-foundation of the European Union, which is very much needed.
On the other hand, a non-EU United Kingdom will be much more cooperative than it has been in foreign affairs and defence. So I predict that great advances could take place in both these fields. As a member of the European Union the United Kingdom will resist any further transfer of sovereignty in foreign and defence affairs. As an independent state it would be in its interest to promote such developments. Public opinion in the UK would then see these as arrangements among equals, directly supervised and controlled by British institutions.
- What is the feeling among Catalonian independentists about the UK’s referendum?
- The pro-independence social and political forces have a genuine interest in anything and everything that could have an effect on their cause. They are on a permanent state of alert. A majority of the Catalan people will not support independence for Catalonia unless EU membership is guaranteed.
- Jean Monnet said that there is no future for the people of Europe other than in union. What do you think he would make of the European Union today?
- He would advocate more integration in those fields in which states are struggling with each other.
- Boris Johnson has said that the EU is trying to create a superstate like Hitler did. Is it?
- Mr Johnson is entitled to criticise some aspects of the European Union but not to distort the facts, and less to trivialise about the Third Reich. The European Union is a genuine democratic construction: so democratic that Mr Johnson can campaign for Brexit.
- Do you have a message for our readers - specifically those who have a vote in the June 23rd referendum?
- The people of the United Kingdom are deciding what country they want to have in 40 years’ time, whether they want to be outward- or inward-looking, pondering the balance between the risks and opportunities on each side. How do you think the British population as a whole will be better protected and have more potential for economic growth, social cohesion and political stability - with a United Kingdom co-leading the European Union or a United Kingdom retreating into itself? Your vote on June 23rd should be your response to that fundamental question.source surinenglish