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After the end of the military dictatorship in 1975, Spain has become a very pro-European country since entering the European Community in 1986. While the country is experiencing domestic conflicts among the autonomous communities in the Basque country, Calabria, and Catalonia, it maintains particularly good foreign relations with Latin America, the Caribbean, North Africa, the Near East, and the Mediterranean states. With an economic growth of 3.2 percent in 2016, Spain is one of Europe’s most stable economies, which is particularly due to the tourism and automobile industry. In an interview with Diplomatisches Magazin, the ambassador H.E. María Victoria Morera Villuendas speaks about the independence referendum in Catalonia, renewable energies, and fighting youth unemployment.

since the constitution of 1978, Spain has emerged as a social and democratic constitutional state. How has your country changed in the last 40 years?

Spain has undoubtedly changed a lot in the last 40 years, starting with the adoption of the new constitution you’ve mentioned and the consolidation of the democratic and social constitutional state in which we live in today. Even though we still face new tasks and challenges we have achieved the status of a fully matured industrial country, especially thanks to our entry into the European Union in 1986. Our GDP per capita has been growing uninterruptedly since then, and has tripled in that period. But economic figures aren’t everything. Our progress is also reflected in a number of details that would have been unthinkable in past times. We are a modern, pluralistic, open, pro-European society in which xenophobia has absolutely no place.

According to the regional government, 90 percent of the approximately 2.26 million voters in an independence referendum in Catalonia voted for a withdrawal from Spain on October 1, accompanied by massive clashes between the police and demonstrators. On October 10, Catalan prime minister Carles Puigdemont put the plans on hold, at least ‘for a few weeks’. What dangers do you see with a separation of Catalonia?

The Spanish Constitution does not provide for the exercise of an alleged right of self-determination by a part of the population of the territory, which does not permit any other constitution of the countries in our area. Compliance with the national legislation of the Member States is also enshrined in the Treaties of the European Union, since it is also part of the Union’s own rule of law. The territorial integrity of the member states is also guaranteed in these treaties. Therefore, the unilateral calling of a referendum on independence in Catalonia appears to be contrary to the Spanish and international law. According to Article 1.2 of the Spanish Constitution, the Spanish people, from which all state power emanates, is the carrier of national sovereignty.

This applies to the whole procedure, by the way. On September 6 and 7, the Catalan regional parliament adopted legislation for a referendum on self-determination and the legal transition and founding phase for a Republic of Catalonia. These laws openly violate the Spanish Constitution and the Statute of Autonomy of Catalonia. Both laws were approved by the local regional parliament, together with convocation of the referendum, apparently ignoring the procedural rules and the views of the parliamentary advisory bodies. They were subsequently annulled by the Spanish Constitutional Court, which is how the Supreme Court of Catalonia understood it as well.

Nor can the results of the referendum be valid. Firstly, because the vote took place outside the law and secondly, because the legal minimum guarantees were not complied with (there was no official electoral register, there were cases of repeated voting, there were reasonable doubts about the appointment of members of polling stations and persons responsible for counting the votes, some of the ballot papers had already arrived in the polling stations filled with ballots, etc.). There was also no majority stake. If we assume the cheapest calculation for participation in the election, 60 percent of Catalans did not participate in it. Not only the Spanish government, our Head of State and the Spanish public as a whole know this, but also the governments of neighbouring countries and even the EU. This independence is neither economically, legally nor socially acceptable.

official Name: Kingdom of Spain Population: 46,3 Mil. Government: Unitary parliamentary constitutional monarchy
Capital City: Madrid Population density: 92/km² President: Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy
Area: 505.990 km² National language: Spanish anthem: Marcha Real

On August 17, Spain suffered a terrorist attack in Barcelona that claimed 14 deaths, right after France, Belgium, the UK, and Germany suffered through similar attacks from ISIS. What measures are currently being discussed in Spain to protect the country from future terrorist attacks?

Spain has some experience with the topic of terrorism, and therefore our international security forces are very prepared. After the last attack it was evident that coordination and the exchange of information in the EU is extremely important, which is why we advocate for a stronger integration in these areas. At the same time, Spain will be strengthening its multilateral cooperation, especially in NATO and the UN, with the aim of fighting Islamic radicalization. Within this context, the security and economic development of key areas such as the Sahel remain a priority.

“Due to our history and our geographical location, we are a country with a simultaneous Atlantic, Mediterranean, and European character.“

Spain has particularly strong foreign relations with Latin America, the Caribbean, northern Africa, the Near East, and the Mediterranean states. However, its presence in Asia is still relatively small. Since 1955, your country is a part of the United Nations and since 1982 part of NATO. What are the most important partner countries for your government?

Due to our history and our geographical location, we are a country with a simultaneous Atlantic, Mediterranean, and European character. We have a strong bond to Latin America that we’ve been strengthening a lot on the last few years. Our relations to northern African countries are also a priority for us, and of course we are very close to the other European countries. Spain’s entrance into the European Community (now the European Union) was a symbol of our “return to Europe.” There is always a great amount of political consensus when it comes to European issues, and our society is one of the biggest European supporters of the Union. But that doesn’t mean that we’ve forgotten our other priorities. We are joined to the Latin American countries by a shared past – with all its light and darkness, a very dynamic present, and without a doubt by our future. The Mediterranean countries are a key region and through dialogue and cooperation we’re working on bringing together both shores of this sea. We are also present in other continents and are invested in expanding our political, economic, cultural, and social relations with all countries.

Spain has been a member of the European Union since 1986, and is part of the Eurozone. Your country has distinguished itself in the past years during the decision to stabilize the mutual currency and in the inner- state implementations of council orders. What is your government’s evaluation after being in the EU for over 30 years?

Spain celebrated its 30th anniversary of EU membership last year. We definitely have had a very positive experience. And we’re not just talking about the official consensus, but also about the mutual feelings in Spanish society and their thoroughly pro-European stance. Over three decades, Spain has experienced spectacular growth and incredible development under the leadership of the European Union. We’re looking at a consolidated democracy, a dynamic, open society, and a growing economy. The structural changes that have taken place in my country and that have made us global innovators in areas of infrastructure and renewable energies are a joint product of Spanish and EU efforts. The years of the financial crisis have made us realize more than ever how important the EU is, since together we were able to overcome the crisis and return to our growth.

We are also aware of the fact that the challenges that we are currently facing are global challenges. A solution to the issues of terrorism or cyber-attacks is not possible without a coordinated action through the EU. We are convinced that our experiences will contribute greatly to EU policy, with topics such as the process of Valletta and its trust fund, so that the fundamental reasons for migration can be addressed. This issue is – and must be – a priority for both Spain and the entire EU.

With an economic growth of 3.2 percent in the past year and a projected growth of 2.5 percent for 2017, Spain is doing well. More than eleven percent of the total economic output is generated by the tourism sector. What other economic sectors are important pillars?

Even though tourism is very important, Spain has become more competitive with its different service sectors. I’ve already mentioned some of them, such as renewable energies and infrastructure, but in the past years we’ve also seen a growth in consulting and auditing. In general, Spanish exports are also experiencing a boom, in which the volume in the last years has reached historic heights and our export growth is one of the biggest among OECD countries. That is not easy to do in the rather difficult environment in which we’re working, and it reflects the efforts and structural adaptations that have pulled this country out of the economic crisis.

“Spanish exports are currently experiencing a boom, in which the volume in the last years has reached historic heights.“

After France, Germany is Spain’s second-largest trading partner. Cars and motor vehicle parts, machines, chemical products, and electronics are some of the most important German export goods. What measures is your government taking to continue strengthening this partnership?

Our relationship within the EU and to other European countries continues to be maintained, but our strong bilateral relationship to Germany will never lose its importance. The government wants to expand this relationship with consistent and, if possible, frequent meetings between the governments, authorities, and businesses of both countries. This has been happening for a while now on a political level, with the bilateral summit meetings and the “Spanish-German Forum.” The latter takes place every two years and is attended by heads of states and representatives, as well as governments, associations, and businesses. These communication channels will be upheld, and, if necessary, expanded.

Spain is one of the European pioneers in renewable energies. Three years ago, your country was the fourth-largest producer worldwide of wind energy, right after China, the USA, and Germany. Furthermore, with the presence of Andasol 1, 2, and 3, Spain has the biggest solar power plants in Europe. What future projects to expand renewable energies is your government planning?

It’s up to the businesses to develop and carry out new projects. The role of the government is to create the adequate conditions for these businesses. Spain’s path in promoting renewable energies is very similar to the German one: it entails protecting the generator of returns through legally determined premiums. In the past years, some necessary adjustments have been made in order to guarantee the sustainability of the system and avoid excesses. In the next years this support will continue, although we will be introducing market-oriented mechanism that are required by European guidelines.

One of Spain’s biggest problems is its high youth unemployment, which, at over 39 percent, is the second-highest in the EU after Greece. Because of this, many young and highly qualified university graduates leave the country. What measures is your government implementing to fight this?

Our youth unemployment dropped from about 56 percent to 39.53 – for the first time since 2009, it’s below 40 percent. Different measures have shown their effectiveness. A total of 2,174,000 young people have profited from the 100 measures of the national strategy to promote employment and entrepreneurship among young people. In an annual comparison, the rise of employment among young people under 25 was at 9.56 percent, and is therefore double that of the entire employed population. In August 2017, more than 750,737 young people under 29 were enrolled in the EU Youth Guarantee Employment. 443,606 young people under 30 years have taken advantage of the “flat rate” of the social security contributions and have become independent. In conclusion: the adjustments and reforms are showing their effect, but the challenges remain.

However, when looking at the expansion of employment, the quality of the jobs is just as important as the quantity. One of the main goals is to expand employment opportunities that aren’t based on a specific time frame. The dialogue with social partners will play a central role here. Government, unions, and employers’ associations are working closely together to ensure economic growth and stabilize employment, strengthen unemployment protection, improve the implementation of the Youth Guarantee, adjust the minimum wage, working conditions, and strengthen the tariff negotiations and make the pension system sustainable.

Since the beginning of the economic and financial crisis, many young Spanish people have certainly used the opportunities available in skilled employment jobs in countries such as Germany. Europe stands for a mutual European job and education market. We support young people that come to Germany in order to search for work. We accompany private and public ventures that want to promote the mobility of young people from Spain to Germany, such as the special program MobiPro-EU. We can generally determine that the number of young Spanish people that are searching for work abroad has noticeably decreased – this surely also points toward our economy’s healing.

Spain, apart from possessing a great wealth of historical cultural riches, also has a lively art and culture scene that has expanded beyond the metropolises of Madrid and Barcelona. What cultural highlights would you personally suggest?

What determines the uniqueness of the contemporary Spanish cultural scene is for me without a doubt its large diversity, which is also marked by regionality. Even though Madrid and Barcelona are internationally known, one cannot overlook other cities – such as Bilbao with its Guggenheim or San Sebastian, Valladolid, and Málaga with its corresponding film festivals – that have secured their place in the European cultural scene. Traditional theatre festivals, such as the ones in Almagro and Mérida or the Festival of Fantastical Films in Sitges, are, in addition to the established art fairs such as ARCO in Madrid or the music festivals of Benicássim in Alicante and Sónar in Barcelona, further examples of our dynamic cultural events. Vitoria, San Sebastían, and Barcelona are also known for their jazz scenes. We also consider gastronomy to be culture, and regional diversity also plays an important role here. The new Spanish cuisine has its roots here. But we also cannot forget the influences and effects of the emblematic witnesses of our cultural heritage, such as the Camino de Santiago or the Mezquita de Córdoba, that are represented in contemporary art. We can certainly speak of a highly motivated contemporary Spanish art and cultural scene that has a very avant-gardish, innovative, and experimental side and contributes to European culture in general.

According to the WTO report from the past year, Spain was the third-most visited country in the world, after France and the USA. On the other hand, the population shows itself to be increasingly resistant to the tourism boom, as can be seen in a recent instance where locals stopped tourists from accessing the beach of Barcelona. What measures is your government taking to protect the population from the negative effects of the tourism boom?

Despite the macroeconomic importance of tourism for Spain – it’s the true motor in some autonomous regions, such as the islands or other mediterranean regions on the continent – there have been some sporadic and very localised cases in which resentment due to an excessive geographic concentration of mass tourism has expressed itself in negative actions.

These are very concrete cases but they do not represent the general opinion of citizens who live close to some of Spain’s most important tourist destinations. Spanish society knows how important tourism is for the economy and values and likes the arrival of people from other countries who have chosen our cities, beaches, and nature in order to relax and enjoy our excellent cuisine, our cultural riches, and our pleasant mediterranean climate.

The tourism promotion strategy by Turespaña (the Spanish tourist office) is directed at acquiring and consolidating a touristic segment that distinguishes itself through higher spending and higher profitability – the so-called “cosmopolitans.” The travel motivations of the cosmopolitans deviates from the classic sun and beach holiday, so that their travels cut through the seasonal rushes and lead to geographic diversification, thus contributing to prevent congestion of our most popular travel destinations.

Interview Markus Feller

Pictures: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 = Mohamed El-Sauaf