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“If Gibraltar wants a relationship with the EU, it will have to go through us”: Spain’s foreign minister

Two months into job, Alfonso Dastis speaks to EL PAÍS in first print media interview

Alfonso Dastis, Spain’s new foreign minister, seems to be of the opinion that a poor deal is better than no deal at all. He never raises his voice as he chooses the least-controversial words for his answers, picking his way around conflicts with a smile. This 61-year-old career diplomat with a background in law is familiar with the ins and outs of the European project, having served as Permanent Representative to the European Union under the first administration of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy.

Alfonso Dastis during the interview in his office at the Spanish foreign ministry.
Alfonso Dastis during the interview in his office at the Spanish foreign ministry.

Dastis says he never thought he would one day be tapped for the post of minister. The day before his appointment, he received a telephone call in Brussels: it was Spanish Deputy Prime Minister Soraya Sáenz de Santamaría. Two months later, he spoke with EL PAÍS in what is his first interview with a print media outlet.

Question. How are you different from your predecessor, José Manuel García-Margallo?

Answer. I have the greatest respect and admiration for him, but I am more of a professional than a politician. The emphasis may change, but deep down there will not be any great differences.

Q. Margallo was dubbed the Minister of Foreign and Catalan Affairs. Is the separatist challenge in Catalonia still a priority?

Spain has the obligation to take a step forward, and that is what we are doing

A. This ministry has a task to do, and that is to project and execute foreign policy. To the extent that the Catalan separatist challenge affects that goal, we will have to deal with it, in order to explain to our partners the reality of the situation and the legal order in Spain. But I wouldn’t say that it’s a priority for the ministry. It is an important problem for Spain, and one that the entire government is going to be involved in.

Q. Will 2017 mark the beginning of the end of the European project?

A. Not at all.

Q. If Marine Le Pen wins the French elections and lives up to her promises, the EU will be mortally wounded.

A. I trust that this will not happen. If it does, then we will have to deal with it. But I hope that France will realize that it’s really cold outside the EU. It could be a difficult year, but certainly not the beginning of the end of the EU.

Q. The first challenge is the Brexit negotiation. Is it possible to separate the four freedoms of the EU: free movement of goods, people, capital and services?

Gibraltar has always been a controversial issue in Spain-UK relations.
Gibraltar has always been a controversial issue in Spain-UK relations.

A. I don’t think so. This is a principle that all 27 member states have made clear. The UK does not want to submit to the jurisdiction of the Court of Justice, and it wants freedom to legislate. But both options are incompatible with the EU common market. Other formulas will have to be found to give it access to the EU market, but all four freedoms must be guaranteed.

Q. What are the chances of Spain hosting the European Medicines Agency or the European Banking Authority, now headquartered in London?

A. We legitimately aspire to seeing any one of them come to Spain, although it is true that the European Council has said the new agencies should go to countries that have joined the Union late.

Q. The Brexit negotiation is hampered by the Gibraltar issue. Is Spain still offering Britain co-sovereignty over The Rock?

A. It is. But I think we need to be realistic. If the UK does not want to negotiate, it will be hard to move forward with this, and one of the elements that London is considering, before deciding whether to negotiate, is the opinion of Gibraltarians. We deeply believe that this would be a beneficial choice for them. If Gibraltarians remain skeptical and do not wish to explore that avenue, I would say, well that’s their business. They have a right to get left out of the EU, if that’s what they want. But if Gibraltar wants a relationship with the EU, it will have to go through us. And that will require a bilateral agreement between Spain and the UK.

2017 may be a difficult year, but certainly not the beginning of the end of the EU

Q. Spain has lately been absent from the EU’s core leadership. After the Brexit referendum, Germany’s Angela Merkel, France’s François Hollande and Italy’s Matteo Renzi held two summits that Spanish PM Rajoy was not invited to. Will Spain return to the front lines of EU leadership?

A. Yes. As a matter of fact, we’re already back. That was a transitory situation derived from the fact that we were under a caretaker government with a very limited capacity for action. But that is no longer the case, and we are not just back: we are actually taking a step forward because we’ve been asked to. It is obvious that the bigger countries have a special responsibility; we’ve always defended that we need to work alongside European institutions, and both the Council and the Commission have asked Spain, which is now in a situation of stability and less uncertainty, to act as a driving force to pull the project forward.

Q. Britain is leaving and two of the EU’s engines, France and Italy, are feeling a bit under the weather...

A. Yes. And the September elections in Germany are also introducing a dose of uncertainty. In such a situation, Spain has the obligation to take a step forward, and that is what we are doing...

Q. What can we expect of a Trump presidency?

A. We hope to maintain and strengthen a relationship that has grown closer in the last few years. I believe Mr Trump must be given a chance. He is a leader who has been elected in a perfectly democratic manner and who has to be judged for his actions when he is in the White House. I hope the US relationship with Spain and Europe will be maintained with the same level of cooperation as has been the case until now.

English version by Susana Urra.

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