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The Warsaw Voice » Other » February 23, 2010
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Spain Takes the Helm
February 23, 2010   
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Francisco Fernandez Fábregas, the Spanish ambassador to Poland, spoke to EC Graham about Spain's objectives during its EU presidency and his impressions of Poland after his first year.

Spain took over the rotating presidency of the EU on Jan. 1. What is Europe expecting from Spain?
The Lisbon Treaty is the creation of a new image of Europe, with new sectors like education, tourism, technology, and politics that are now under the European Union in a way that wasn't part of the agreements in Rome or Paris. Now there is a new High Representative for foreign policy, Catherine Ashton, and a parliament presided over by a Polish president, Jerzy Buzek, with greater powers than any of the previous parliaments. With the Treaty, the EU Commission has the power to supervise finances in individual countries and promote economic reform.

What are Spain's main goals at the helm of the EU?
The Spanish worked to solidify their six-month objectives with the two successor states in the presidency: Hungary and Belgium. With the treaty and the trio of presidencies working together, it's an opportunity to set an agenda that will move all of Europe towards its goal.

Part of this task is to create more renewable energy, to fight against climate change, and to guarantee the rights and social protection of the 500 million people of Europe.

There isn't a 'Spanish' program - but a program the three rotating incumbent countries have created with Spain: Belgium and Hungary. Even though it has the six-month presidency, Spain's mandate is to cooperate and facilitate, not be a protagonist.

An equivalent could be building an apartment block-these next six months will put down the floors for a new edifice: future groups will have a turn at adding the other features of the house.

If we extend the metaphor, then Europe is like a group of neighbors living in the same apartment block... we share the same heat, water, and common space. We live together in the same block and share the same basic services, so decisions like security and resources need to be weighted in favor of the group, not giving individual members more rights than others. But influence is also proportional to the effort. In the end, the neighbor upstairs is more at ease when his neighbor downstairs is content, and all the neighbors are more at ease when the community's rules are agreed upon and respected.
The future of the European Union will depend on a stable internal market and a legally and economically unified Europe. A solid EU means that it can act with all the weight that it brings to bear on pressing environmental issues, and protection of the model of a social economy.

For Europe to move forward as one, the fundamentals have to be in place.

How do the different parts of the EU interact with each other?
The European Council is comprised of the heads of government and has a president appointed for two-and-a-half years. This is the highest authority in the EU.

The Parliament and the Council of the European Union, work together to approve laws, but the laws can only be proposed by the Commission. The Commission is the executive branch of the EU, and proposes initiatives for the Council of the EU (which has rotating, six-month presidencies) and the Parliament to jointly decide on.

In short: the Commission proposes, and the Council of the EU and Parliament jointly decides, and the European Council (heads of government) is its highest authority.

Another important change that came from Lisbon is the citizen's initiative. Spain will work to implement this important change by June. The citizen's initiative- the right of citizens to propose a concern to the Commission that it must respond to-is something that didn't exist before. With it, the citizens have a greater say because they can participate directly through the Commission by gathering 1 million signatures, making them more of a protagonist in the decision-making process.

What does a united Europe stand for?
Europe, with its experience, economic might, geographical and strategic importance, needs to be one of the principal actors in the world. The issues at stake are the ones outlined in the presidential program: security, environment, and human rights. A united Europe can act, hand in hand with other powers like India, China, Russia, and the United States, to bring about positive change.

The presidential role of Spain is to integrate, help and coordinate. The Spanish are committed to the successful implementation of the Lisbon Treaty. They want Ashton's role as the bloc's foreign minister to be a real and powerful position. Europe is asserting itself in a world where divided interests make stronger leadership necessary for summits for the environment, and where human rights are still being abused.

Will these goals be more difficult to achieve in light of the economic difficulties of Spain and of Greece?
There was a meeting in Brussels recently to analyze the economic problems of Greece, how to respond and sew Greece back together. Greece will have to adopt a series of difficult decisions to move it from its current state.

In previous years, when a country ran into difficulties like Greece, it would devalue the currency and print more notes, leading to cycles of inflation and other problems. But that isn't a viable solution anymore. If Greece has overspent, then it must bring its spending back in line with it's budget. This was made clear in Brussels.

However, the situation in Greece isn't comparable to the one in Spain. The debt in Spain is lower than in England, France, or Germany.

The media needs a good story. While it's true that the economic system of Spain has been affected by the world crisis, that it needs process of revision, that the economy needs to modernize and adapt to the world economy, it doesn't mean that the Spanish economy will sink.

When it entered the European market, Spain's economy was the equivalent of a developing-world economy. Today the Spanish economy is the eighth or ninth largest in the world. In Europe, it's the fifth largest economy-accounting for 15% of the GDP of Europe. When Spain entered the community the figure was 5%.

It's a solid economy, with defects, and one that needs to modernize, but it's not in crisis.

As an observer, not an economics expert, I expect that Spain will try to shift to a research and science-based economy instead of a construction and consumption economy.

Currently the tourist industry accounts for 11% of the GDP-making Spain the top tourist destination in the world. France claims to have more tourists, but a significant number of people pass through France in their cars from, for example Germany, and continue onto Spain, often staying there longer. A tourist is a person that stays more than one night, but the kind that drive the industry forward are the tourists that stay a week or more.

After Italy, Spain is the second country with the most UNESCO-protected sites in the world. It receives more tourists than it's own population and has built an important tourist capacity.

According to Time magazine, one of the main conflicts between the EU and its member nations might be the protectionist measures that individual states take to protect their workers in a recession from the loss of jobs. How will the Spanish presidency work to resolve this tension?
The EU is committed to open labor markets, which means that these things will iron themselves out. There are 4 million Spaniards on unemployment benefit. And the figures for unemployed youth are also high. The social safety net could be in danger if this situation doesn't change in four or five years. But the crisis is lifting and the economy will take a few years to recover. If this didn't happen, the social system would be in danger.

But there are controls from inside and outside that are designed to prevent economies sinking.

What are Spanish-Polish relations like at present? What are your impressions of Poland?
Poland and Spain are two extremes of Europe, marking geographical limits and in many other important ways, forming the two ends of the spinal column of Europe. Both countries have similar pasts: being countries that were invaded and occupied.

But they are also similar in how they dealt with occupation: both the Spanish and the Poles have been able to integrate these periods into their cultures and languages and survive all the occupations and political upheavals in their long histories with elegance and intelligence. Like Spain, Poland is far more than a territory delimited by borders; it is a culture, a language, a civilization.

In Spain we have been invaded and occupied many times by cultures that have blended into the Hispanic culture: the Phoenicians, the Arabs, and now the tourists that invade every year. But seriously, thanks to this, we have a rich language where a great many words and concepts have been added by those former occupants.

The Cervantes Institute of Warsaw is the largest one in Europe, and is one of the fastest growing ones in the world. There is a great interest in the Spanish language from Poles, many of whom are naturally gifted linguists, because it opens up over 20 countries whose official language is Spanish.

Each year about 420,000 Spanish travelers visit Poland, and 700,000 Polish travelers go to Spain, so there is a large interest on the part of Polish and Spanish people in getting to know each other's cultures. The internet is facilitating this as well.

The work of the Spanish embassy in Warsaw is to promote more understanding of Spain, and to promote more understanding of Poland in Spain. For that we have a qualified team that is constantly organizing and sponsoring events to promote those ends, including conferences, film festivals, cultural outreach and the promotion of bilateral business ventures.

Poland would do well to look to the example of Spain, to learn from her lessons and not repeat the same mistakes. An olive isn't gotten from the olive tree right away, but working to plant the tree and take care of it will eventually produce the olives that you want.

You are a career diplomat and have lived in many countries before. You have been in Poland for over a year now. Have there been any surprises for you?
The snowy blanket of winter that homogenizes the landscape is deceiving: like Spain, Poland underneath is rich and diverse, a complex society comprised of at least four Polands: the urban, rural, intellectual, and industrial Poland.

In one year it's impossible to know Poland, and it's impossible to summarize such a complex set of societies in just one phrase.

But, as far as daily surprises, over a short stretch of road where the embassy is located the street changes names four different times. The amount of complexity and history in the city is observable through many details such as this.

The Warsaw opera scene is superior to Madrid's, for example. There are more operas here in one month than in Madrid.
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