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18 August, 2017

“The image and ideas we project and discuss today are not dissimilar to the ones discussed during WWII”

Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Kingdom of Spain to Ukraine on the place of his country in the EU, the factors that help the Spanish remain eurooptimists, the responsibility of the elite and intellectuals in politics, and the potential in Ukraine-Spain relations

Interviewed by Anna Korbut

How is the EU and its future seen from Spain?

The EU is the most successful experiment in international relations ever. And it is amazing to think how much something so successful is criticized. An EU representative once said that people talk about huge bureaucracy in the EU. But that, he said, is about half of bureaucracy at the Birmingham guildhall.

Why is Europe perceived as a bureaucracy? Because the approach we have to problems and reality in the EU is very bureaucratic. We have a beautiful anthem and flag, but we don’t use them. We don’t have the idea that could move hearts and minds, elicit the idea that we are working for something in the souls of the people. This is more of a philosophical issue, but it translates into a political problem. And a serious one: if you don’t try to elicit enthusiasm of people for big ideas or enterprises, they change mentality.

Look at the military field, the idea of defense of Europe: in reality, we have enormous economic, technological, demographic and cultural power. But we have serious weakness in will. We are now talking of the need to increase military spending across NATO. But I don’t think the problem is the amount of money that is spent. It is rather the idea of what you want this money or military power for.

Probably the best litmus test for that is Ukraine. It is the only country where people have died for that flag; we know how indisputably authentic their will for dignity is. The EU – the countries that share the same values and ideas – has to address this not only from the moral perspective. It would be also quite stupid not to do. Luckily enough, our ideas, values and interests are in the same place. The idea of a prosperous Ukraine is good news for everyone. Including Russia, by the way. While a problem of the size of Ukraine would definitely not be good for anyone. So, stakes in Ukraine are extremely high from the moral, ethical, political and economic viewpoints. The success of Ukraine is the success of Europe. This is how we can project the idea that we are doing this for something: not just to live for some extra money at the end of the month, but for a decent life, a political life that elicits the moral fiber of society.

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The vibrant civil society in Ukraine is a lesson for us, seeing how people mobilize and interact when they know that they need to overcome the terrible legacy of corruption. They have this sense of responsibility. Luckily, it is becoming more and more obvious for the population in the EU. Look at the latest election in France: the concept was not very much unlike the Maidan. It is the grassroots impulse that appears when politicians are not up to the task, but a country has a civilized and cultivated people, the human capital that finds the way out. It is a fight between common sense and an outlandish accumulation of partial solutions, not integrated into context or viable for society.

In that sense, Spain is another example of this common sense gaining ground. You know how difficult its economic situation was in 2010. Now, Spain is recovering seriously. We have had scandals of corruption that have eroded faith in politicians and government. But the results are there. So the general framework of how to rule and develop society is obvious: it is common sense.

Where do you see the sources and the agents of this will and inspiration in Europe today? Is it in the young generation, sensible segments of society, institutions or something different?

It’s a difficult question. It should come from a call to common sense that we have seen appear somehow previously.

When I think of how unaware or not proud of the success of the European project we are, that leads me to the question: what role in societies that evolve - and they always do - is played by the intelligentsia? Not so much in the sense of the most brilliant intellectuals, but the low-brow stratum, the popular culture. The values that are present in popular culture are essential because they are what drives people. To illustrate that, I use the example of the effort that the Hollywood took during World War II. It started in a private house of Edward G. Robinson in 1938 with a group of important actors who realized what menace Hitler and Nazism represented for Jewish people at that stage, and gained much more impetus when the US joined the war in 1941. The effort produced numerous masterpieces. I always refer to Casablanca, but it was not the only one. These people tried to convey to the world what the fight was about, what ideals were at stake, even if that society had a set of its own problems, such as racism. But that’s another question.

The image and ideas we project and discuss today are not dissimilar to the ones discussed during WWII. Now, however, we don’t see any sort of mission, nobody is broadcasting these ideas with a sense of importance. Nobody is taking responsibility for making people aware of what is at stake.

In that, we need the help of those who create popular culture. They have not been up to the task. Of course, there are projects and actors that try to promote values. But the idea that the whole society can transform itself through the values permeating popular culture is still not there. 

RELATED ARTICLE: Polish Ambassador Jan Pieklo on his country in the EU, Polish-Ukrainian relations 

Another problem we have is that politicians all throughout Europe and the West try to rule by polls, to cajole people by following what they think these people already want. Yet, the whole idea of politics is to come up with your ideas, present them to people and ask them to vote for you.

There is a huge constituency for that. The problem is that this constituency has long been fed rubbish. The irresponsibility of some of the political ideas that have been used in Europe is striking. The absence of a craving for enthusiasm, the lack of effortі to mobilize people for greater tasks is disastrous. Not only because it’s morally wrong or disappointing. But because it reveals a lack of understanding of what makes people happy. People are not happy because they can have more food.  They are happy when they get mobilized for a purpose. 

Also, commonsense societies have been manipulated through some sort of political correctness that often obliterates the real debate. The only way to recuperate that is to reconcile ourselves with reality.

I would quote Ortega y Gasset who wrote The Revolt of the Masses 80 years ago – that work is much more current today than it was at that time. The idea is that we have to reclaim the concept of excellence, of personally trying to be better than the day before. Ortega denounces what he calls the “man mass” where one doesn’t have to be better than he is, there is no aristocracy in the etymological sense, and there is no better or worse. This has permeated our societies.

Even the level of hypocrisy, a tribute that vice pays to virtue, is too low. When someone is a hypocrite, he is bad but at least tries to pretend to be good. But when there is a point of aberration where one doesn’t even pretend to be good, that’s when we’re seriously in trouble. 

How would you define the place of Spain in the EU now? How has it changed?

Given its size, both geographically and demographically, Spain’s role should be bigger than it is. The connections Spain has with America make it a very special country. Also, the reality of the Spanish language is absurd to ignore, even if it’s not always recognized enough in the EU. 

The best contribution Spain can offer to the EU is the importance of common sense. When you look at the Spanish democratic transition, the first general elections after the death of Franco, more than 500 parties were running. Yet, people voted for 3-4 logical options. That proves that the real conductor of the Spanish transition was the Spanish people voting in a show of common sense. 

It has been distorted through some propaganda, manipulation in the media, especially TV. But in the end the Spanish people have demonstrated a tendency to strong common sense. Now, that contribution is shown in Spain’s reasonable role in the various debates on the EU. People are beginning to recognize that around Europe.

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If we were more listened to, it would be better. One small example from the energy map of Europe: Spain has insisted on the need to diversify our sources for a long time, including the use of gas coming from North Africa, the improvement of interconnections of our systems and of the energy system in Europe. This is perfectly common-sense. The same is true about the relations in the Mediterranean, with the US and South America. 

Other countries also say that they would like to be heard more. They have been turning skeptical about the EU. What makes Spain remain eurooptimistic?

It depends on what countries you compare us to. But I’d say that we have seen the results of what being part of the EU has been - they are absolutely obvious in Spain. And, despite of everything, the common sense I mentioned makes us understand that this joint enterprise is very much our own. The essential core of what defines Europe is the essential core of what defines Spain. 

For a time, in the late 19th and 20th centuries, Spain was considered an outcast by the emerging powers in Central Europe. There was a debate in Spain on whether Europe was important for it. But it is absolutely over. For us, the idea that we are part of Europe is not in question anymore. What emerges is a gradual understanding that we have much more to offer to Europe than is realized in Europe or in Spain. 

When Spain was hit by the 2007-2008 crisis, it had to go inward and focus on itself. Now, that the country is recovering, how does Spain define its foreign policy ambitions in the near to mid-term future?

If you consider the international society as a theater, there is a front row there. One of the places in this row corresponds to Spain based on the criteria I mentioned above. Sometimes, a latecomer tiptoes to the front and sits there, surprising everyone. Similarly, other countries are sometimes surprised to see Spain playing the role which they are not used to. We have had our ups and downs, the last one being the economic crisis. But the more we get out of it, the more obvious it becomes that this seat is waiting for us. The way to do it is to proceed there according to your capacity, i.e. to not over -- or underdo it. It’s not easy. You have to not pretend to play a bigger role than you can. At the same time, you have to fulfill the role you are up to completely. I think this requires common sense and real values in society.

Before the crisis Spanish companies used to have 20% of their market out of the country and 80% inside. It is exactly the opposite now. This incredible transformation is an example of the capacity of the real Spain, its society. It has to be achieved through common sense in politics and the game of freedom in economic terms. Allow people and companies to grow to their full capacity -- and they will find the market.

It’s not much unlike what is happening in Ukraine: if human capacity this country has is allowed to develop, success is guaranteed. But you have foreign countries trying to stop the evolution of Ukraine, and the obstacles of corruption and oligarchy trying to stop the capacity. I may be a pathological optimist, but I don’t think you can stop forces like that in history.

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What role have Spain’s elite played in that ability of society to make commonsense choices, and in the fact that the country keeps finding ways out of its difficulties? 

We should define what we mean by the notion of elite. When I was posted in Budapest in 1987-1990, I received the visit of a prominent political figure in Spain and a respected writer, the then Education and Culture Minister Jorge Semprun. He told me that distinguished intellectuals in Hungary asked him what intellectuals in Spain were saying about the developments of that time. He then asked himself: who were those intellectuals in Spain? And how do we understand what is happening in Eastern Europe?

I recall that because I find it confusing to see that many intellectuals in Europe don’t understand some of the things I observe, such as what is happening in Ukraine today. This lack of sensitivity is surprising for me. But I think this is because when history accelerates, it reveals a cynical approach (practiced by many experts) that comes from the fact that they don’t understand anything. Instead of adapting to the new reality, they try to impose their cynical approach on the new reality. The stereotype example could be Henry Kissinger.

When the Berlin wall fell down, you had to see the reaction of many people in the US, for instance: they simply didn’t understand what was going on in that period. In many aspects, it’s not dissimilar to what’s happening around Ukraine.

The role of the elites is the role that has been diminished in general, as I mentioned before. There is no sense of aristocracy – in the etymological sense, I insist. There is no admiration of intellectual value in societies. On the other hand, there is no feeling that intellectuals are politically responsible for what is happening around. When we were bringing Mario Vargas Llosa to Ukraine, I told him: I know you’re very busy, but as someone aware of your intellectual and political responsibility, I’m sure you can’t be indifferent to what’s going on in Ukraine. He came right away without asking a single penny just because he felt attached to the developments. That is an example of an engaged intellectual.

The problem is that, in our minds, we often have almost an old-fashioned concept of an engaged intellectual: as someone who was meant to be responsible to the party, follow the orders of the party. While here I’m talking about an intellectual who is responsible for what his work produces in society.

The most responsibility probably lies with the low-brow culture: the politics and aesthetics that impress society to the core in a widespread manner. High-brow will still be there: you can have fantastic opera or museums. But that doesn’t change societies. What really affects societies is the low-brow culture. And there we have a complete lack of the sense of responsibility and engagement in what is at stake.

Where do you see the relations between Ukraine and Spain underdeveloped?

All over. The potential is huge because we have lived too far apart for too many years. Spanish public opinion is among the most favorable to Ukraine among the EU nations. From the political and government perspective, we support Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity without interruption. What we lack is the presence of that other part of Spain I mentioned above – the economic power that has gone out of Spain but came only timidly into Ukraine, has seen the horror that corruption is and has run away. Some have had very bad experiences here.

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But I’m sure, as the rule of law evolves here and people feel more secure about investing in this country, there will be huge development of our relations in the future. What our companies do very well is what this country needs: infrastructure, energy, including renewables, defense sector. There are many sectors in which we are condemned to collaborate. But this hasn’t happened because we have faced the difficulty of not yet trusting the rule of law in Ukraine. I have been trying to dispel this image, but it’s not very easy.

Over your tenure here, have the political contacts between the countries evolved?

They have changed dramatically since Viktor Yanukovych fled the country. We started having the relations between two countries that hadn’t been there before.

Formally, we had good relations with Ukraine all the time because we don’t have any bilateral problems. What has changed is the identification on the level of political parties, including in the European framework, through international parties working together more and more in Europe. There is honest cooperation in the sense that we understand each other. And we understand the need to defend Ukraine as a European frontier.

Are there any misleading stereotypes about Spain that you have noticed in Ukraine – on the public and political level, that you would like dispelled?

I don’t think there are any. In any case, any perception of a given country has some truth about it. Take a torero as an example: the phenomenon builds on some sort of reconciliation with death in the Spanish culture. It is present in our culture, and it is in the bullfight too. A famous bullfighter has been killed recently. Whether you like or dislike bullfighting is one thing. But the seriousness of what is at stake in the bull ring every afternoon is absolutely striking if you look at it with open eyes. I wouldn’t waste time dispelling this kind of stereotypes.

As for Ukrainians, there are a lot of them living in Spain. So the misconceptions on the country are not too widespread: more and more people know Spain, and more people like it, I think. As much as we like Ukrainians: when you look at more than 80,000 legal Ukrainian immigrants and probably many more illegal ones, they have a very good image.

I hope that it’s a matter of time before these two realities can be brought together in the economic dimension as well. Before this political and personal sympathy translates into meaningful developments in the economic field that would create stronger ties, and transform into even more political and personal sympathy.

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