Dastis: ‘Not all our bold ideas for eurozone reform will be fulfilled’

Spanish Foreign Minister Alfonso Dastis (L) points out to German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel (R) after their joint press conference in the Foreign Office in Berlin, Germany, 28 March 2017. [Felipe Trueba/EPA]

This article is part of our special report Davos 2018 debates ‘shared future in a fractured world’.

Spain’s Foreign Affairs Minister Alfonso Dastis had to deal with a diplomatic crisis with Venezuela in the midst of an exclusive interview with EURACTIV in the margins of the World Economic Forum, where he said that concrete steps forward in the eurozone should be made by June.

When he sat down with EURACTIV for this interview over lunch, Venezuela temporarily recalled its ambassador from Spain to protest at Spanish interference in its domestic affairs. A couple of hours after the interview, Nicolas Maduro’s government expelled the Spanish ambassador in Caracas.

Venezuela was not the only item on the menu, as discussions on Catalonia, Spain-US relations and the future of Europe formed part of the interview.

Alfonso Dastis was appointed Foreign Affairs Minister in 2016. Prior to that, the diplomat was Spain’s permanent representative to the EU.

Dastis spoke with EURACTIV’s Jorge Valero during the World Economic Forum in Davos (Switzerland).

You participated in a panel on Venezuela in Davos. What can be done considering that the solution depends on Maduro and the opposition?

We aspire to an agreement between the Government and the opposition. That is why we have supported the dialogue in the Dominican Republic, and we have put some incentives on the table from the EU to encourage the Venezuelan government to fulfill its promises [the reversibility of sanctions].

We have always said that the crisis in Venezuela is a question that Venezuelans must resolve. Then it is for the regional actors to contribute. We have always been willing and favorable to support in any role that we are asked.

The future of Europe was one the great issues during the forum. Are you optimistic that there will be concrete progress in June to push forward the economic and monetary union?

There must be some step forward in June, if we can count on France and Germany’s push, with the support of Spain and Italy. Naturally, we always strive to find consensus, and we will always have to make adaptations so that the largest number of states can agree with the proposals. But we must seize the opportunity this year, before the European elections next year.

What do you mean with ‘some step forward’?

I am referring to completing the banking union, turn the European Stability Mechanism into a European Monetary Fund. We made an ambitious proposal for the economic and monetary union. Unfortunately, I am afraid not all our ideas will be fulfilled.

Some require a treaty change. But surely there is a need to improve the governance and to provide the means to advance in an economic and monetary union. It is also important to progress with the reforms in the countries to achieve greater convergence among national economies.

The touchstone is to see how far we want to go is fiscal union. Is it too early to talk about that?

It’s not too early to talk about that. Another thing is whether it will move ahead. We believe it is important that this issue is on the table.

French President Emmanuel Macron reiterated during the forum the idea of a multispeed Europe. Is there a risk that this could bring more divisions in Europe, given the problems with Hungary and Poland, in addition to the difficult Brexit talks looming?

I have always said that we have to aspire to move forward with all the EU member states. But if that is not possible, we must always offer the possibility to advance more quickly to those who wish so, leaving the door open to the laggards to join.

That has never been excluded. In fact, it has been done in the past. Without making it the preferred option, it is an alternative at our disposal. And when the collective effort fails, we must see ways to continue advancing.

Is it not a return to two speeds? I thought this option was rejected when the president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, warned about the danger of creating a new curtain in Europe.

We certainly have not changed our priorities, which is to advance first with 27 member states. If it is not possible, we have to find the means, including enhanced cooperation.

The ‘Spain brand’ was damaged after the financial crisis and now again with Catalonia. Have you perceived in the forum that the confidence in Spain has been restored?

‘Marca España’ was damaged, but now Spain is back with strength. On Tuesday night, I had a dinner about the role of emotions in politics. I thought they were going to ask me about Catalonia. But all that matters here is [Donald] Trump and the emotions in American politics. I notice that there is a significant decrease in interest [on Catalonia]. Everyone agrees that this issue has been addressed in a satisfactory manner and that it will be resolved within the framework of the rule of law and respect for the Spanish Constitution.

What message do you expect Trump will bring to the Davos audience?

The same message he has repeated: ‘America first’. This year we have seen that one of the things he has shown publicly is that he does what he says.

Have Spain-US relations worsened since he arrived to the White House?

With Spain certainly not. The economic relations continue smoothly, also those of security and political exchanges. The meetings have continued at a normal pace. When we visited the White House with President Mariano Rajoy, we were treated very well. We have not observed a change for the worse in the bilateral relations, I would even say it slightly improved.

Why?

It is clear that Mr. Trump gave President Rajoy a better reception than Mr. Obama gave him in the White House. I have had several exchanges with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. The Minister of Defense also with her American colleague. I believe that the situation of our economic relations is constantly improving. You have to make a distinction between …

Trump’s twitter account and his Administration?

More or less.

Spain’s Ministry of Economy takes for granted that the ECB vice-presidency will be for Spain.

I also say that.

Will Minister of Economy Luis de Guindos be our candidate? When will President Rajoy put forward the name?

I don’t know that. But I know that the post must go to Spain and I trust that it will be the case.

If this is not achieved, it would be a new setback for Spain, after losing the chair in the Executive Board of the ECB, the presidency of the Eurogroup and the European Medicines Agency.

But we are going to get it. Never in this life can you be 100% sure, but it falls within the logic. It is consistent with the situation of the Spanish economy and its relative weight in the eurozone. I cannot think of arguments against it.

Does the under-representation of Spain in the EU´s top post also helps?

I do not think we are underrepresented. In all the institutions we have people.

But considering we are the fourth economy of the eurozone, if we compare ourselves with Italy …

We have a commissioner as they have the High Representative. It is a commissioner position with another responsibility, but perfectly equivalent, with a portfolio which is surely one of the most important nowadays in the Commission. We have four director-generals in the Commission, another one in the Council. We lead the European Defense Agency. We have one Deputy Secretary-General in the EU External Action Service.

Is that comparable to the presidencies of the European Parliament and the ECB, and the EU’s high representative, as the Italians do?

If one compares it in quantitative terms, yes.