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Joaquín Almunia, Vice-president of the European Commission
22.10.14 - 11:46 -
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"Unfortunately the EU is close to the edge of a third recession"
Joaquín Almunia retires from politics on 1 November. :: ERNESTO AGUDO
Joaquín Almunia (born in Bilbao, 1948) is going. Retirement has knocked at his door, so it’s ‘goodbye’ to the European Commission, ‘au revoir’ to Brussels, ‘adiós’ to politics and farewell from one of the most influential Spaniards in international public affairs.
He receives us in Berlaymont, in that building called the European Commission which has been his home for more than a decade. The 11th floor. He is cordial, friendly and you can even sense a tranquility in him, despite the controversies he has aroused in Spain.
He offers coffee, makes himself comfortable and apologises for the state of his office, which is decorated with half a dozen boxes piled up in a corner ready to be sent to Madrid, where he will be heading at the end of the year. Economics, politics, Merkel, the PSOE, Catalonia, Cañete, Caja Madrid... he talks about everything and has an answer for everything. This is pure Almunia. A career politician whose CV seems only to lack the position of Prime Minister. “It just means I’m very old,” he jokes. On 1 November, if politics doesn’t intervene, he will hand over to Margrethe Vestager of Denmark. Yes, Joaquín Almunia is going.
–So now, what?
–I don’t really know. What I do know is what I won’t be doing: influence peddling, continuing in politics and being on a board of directors. Apart from those, I’m sure there are endless things that I can do.
–You worked for the UGT, you were the leader of PSOE, you have been an MP, a Spanish government Minister, an EU commissioner. What has had the greatest impact on you?
–Everything. I have been lucky enough to have done all these things and I have done them voluntarily during a time that has been difficult, but above all exciting.
–Will your departure mean the end of an era for Spanish socialism, and even Spanish politics?
–No, no, not at all. It is true that there are few people of my generation left now and it is logical that people say it is time for us to go. I was an MP for 25 years, a Commissioner for more than 10, nearly nine years as a member of the government... we mustn’t monopolise! You know that a Commissioner for Competition is always against monopolies.
–Does being a veteran lose points on the CV of a Spanish socialist?
–Maybe having spent 35 years on the frontline could be a handicap to continuing in politics, but being 66 years of age shouldn’t be. You have to make way for new generations, open the door to people with more energy and more ability to understand the society of today and tomorrow, but experience is very important.
Debate on unemployment
–A third recession, a third phase of the same recession... Six years on, the abyss is still very much there. What is the threat?
– We are close to the edge of a new recession, unfortunately. I hope we can avoid it, I believe people are conscious that it is very important to avoid it in the eurozone, but nobody should think we are not at risk.
–Can and should the ECB do more?
–The ECB is doing the most. Can it do more? Maybe so, but nothing it could do will solve our problems. It is the governments who should make structural reforms, adjust their public finances, control debt and, above all, coordinate their activities in the eurozone. It is not logical for each one to look at its own country without worrying about or doing anything about the common interest.
–The disdain of France and Italy for structural reform, German passivity in ignoring the many requests for investment... Who bears the greatest responsibility?
–All of them. Each should do what they have to, but in a coordinated fashion. It’s not enough to tell a neighbouring country what it should do without sitting down and saying, let’s see what we can do together.
–You revealed that in the EU, since 2008, there has been an injection of 608,000 million euros of public money in the finance sector. Was it decided that the banks should be bailed out instead of the people?
–That is a false dichotomy. When there is a financial crisis like the one of 2008, either the financial system has to be rescued or the rest of the economy and the people are going to suffer even more. It is true that people could be supported instead of the banks, but without a solvent financial system nothing would work.
–Is the scandal of the ‘black’ credit cards of Caja Madrid yet another reason that politics should never become involved in savings banks?
–It is unfair to say that it was due to politics. The blame belongs to those people who adopt these regrettable attitudes, not politics.
–Spain is leading the growth in the eurozone. Is it an example for others to follow, as Germany insists to Paris and Rome?
–In some aspects it is, but in others we can only wish... in unemployment we are well down the list, although it is true that it is reducing slowly; public deficit is the same, our debt is growing and has not yet reached the turning point; in innovation we are far behind; in productivity we have improved, but could do better... we still have a long way to go.
–Does productivity mean lowering salaries even further?
–No. It means being more efficient, innovating more, using new technologies better, human resources... the most productive countries in Europe are those with high salary levels and a more efficient public sector in terms of collecting taxes and spending the money.
–You mentioned unemployment. You were Minister of Work at one time. What would you do?
–In Spain we have a very serious problem and it is not new. We had it at the beginning of democracy, then in the recession of 1992 and 93, and now we are again at the head of unemployment in Europe. I believe we still haven’t asked ourselves seriously what happened. We don’t have the right to look the other way or get excited when unemployment goes down by two percentage points, because 23 per cent is a scandalous figure. You can’t tell a generation of young people that employment instability is their only future.
–But what specific measures are we talking about? Making it cheaper to get rid of staff, a single contract?
–I can’t improvise, but I would say that the single contract idea is defended in the case of Spain by more than 100 different economists, many of them brilliant. What surprises me is that there has not been an in-depth debate on the subject.