Teresa Freixes: "If citizens do not understand what the European Union can be, Europe will fail"

Professor of Constitutional Law recalls that without the European Union it would be very difficult to tackle the coronavirus crisis  
Teresa Freixes es catedrática de Derecho Constitucional en la Universidad Autónoma de Barcelona, también ostenta la cátedra Jean Monnet


Teresa Freixes holds the Jean Monnet Chair and has recently assumed the presidency of the NGO Citizens for Europe. The Spanish jurist analysed various issues at the microphones of Atalayar Radio, such as the agreement to relaunch Europe, the situation of the European Union in its fight against populism and nationalism, and the government's pact to disassociate Spanish as a vehicular language in education.  

What assessment would you make of the agreement to get Poland and Hungary to lift their veto on the fund for European reconstruction?  

It is very positive news. We must think that the rule of law is one of the values on which the European Union is based in Article 2 of the Treaty on European Union, and that when states put or risk putting the rule of law into question, they can be sanctioned or even, after a sanctioning procedure for infringement of values, excluded from the European institutions. Because Europe is not just an economic entity, as some continue to say, but an organisation based on the rule of law, democracy, human rights and apart from all economic freedoms, etc. Poland and Hungary have had serious problems in this respect, which does not mean they are alone, and, as the European Parliament and the Council decided that the reconstruction funds would be closely linked to strict respect for the rule of law, they did not want to go through that because they have procedures open that can lead to infringement proceedings for violation of European values.  

This position of Poland and Hungary, countries where this democratic cleanliness or neatness in the contemplation of the rule of law is being questioned, has coincided with the highest peak of the pandemic on the European continent. Does this mean that the coronavirus crisis has not caused nationalisms and populisms in Europe to retreat, but on the contrary, it has given them more strength?  

Well, we are really going through a very complicated situation. We cannot really think, as we also see in Spain, that the crisis has caused populism and nationalism to recede, which are the two great evils of Europe. These movements or parties are taking advantage of everything they can and for them the worse, the better. That is, far from collaborating to overcome the crisis, not only on a health level, but also in terms of the socio-economic effects that it will produce; on the contrary, what they have tried to do is to make the most of the situation, to see what they could benefit from.   

Does the fact that within the European Union there is a need to claim principles and values of our own, do you think that this pushes us to wage an all-out war on populism, nationalism and all those who are taking advantage of the system and then trying to destroy what we have worked so hard to build? For example, I'm thinking about the Brexit issue.  

Within the European Union, the fight against populism and nationalism is very important. When there have been major commemorations of major milestones in Europe's history this has become very clear. Because both nationalism and populism seek to destroy the European Union and they seek to destroy it at a very dangerous juncture because they are based on sentimental and irrational issues. The fake news, for example, in Brexit, which was won by a very small margin, has shown that the lying and manipulative treatment carried out by certain media and countries precisely to break up the European Union had a great influence.   

This is a lesson to be learned, because just as they have succeeded in breaking up the EU on the UK side, they could do so in other contexts. They have also attempted to do so by interfering in nationalist and separatist movements in different countries, for example here in Spain with the issue of Catalonia; it is also proven that there has been direct interference in this respect. Those who have encouraged this, apart from the secessionists themselves, have sought to introduce a wedge that will weaken the European Union. The European Union is a model that has its difficulties, but if we look back, we realise that compared to the above it is a model of success. Because it has made life easier for us Europeans from many points of view and the rights we have as European citizens must be preserved. Free movement, for example, has meant that people, goods, capital, etc., are treated differently and can move around the Member States as if we were nationals of them. This is a revolution, as are certain forms of support in the Member States, without which no progress could have been made in many areas, neither in research nor in agriculture, including social policy, even though the EU only has complementary powers, European support has been decisive in many areas.   

Or the very fact of the euro, the single currency, or the Erasmus programmes for young people...  

The euro has been very important, I remember that when it was being introduced there was a kind of experiment. The equivalent of a thousand euros was taken and to move around the different countries where there was still no euro. Of course, then you had to change the currency every time you changed countries and pay the exchange rate tax. It became clear that when the journey was over, there was practically no money left.  

On the one hand, we have the political leaders, who represent us and who have to defend the construction of a European Union, but there is also the indispensable role of society, which must be aware of what it has and react. That is why this activity of Citizens for Europe can be fundamental so that civil society can also work, move, demand and fight for a European Union that is very positive for everyone.  

Of course, the European Union is not just a union of states, it is also a union of citizens, we have a European citizenship that adds rights to those that each person has within their own state. This is basic, if the citizens do not come to understand what the European Union can be, Europe will fail. That is why it is so important to connect with all people, why it is so important to get to know the European Union well. The problem is that it is little known, it is not on the political, media or cultural agenda as it should be. The European Union does not have its own communication policy, the Member States have not wanted to give it to it, they have not wanted to attribute communication to it. We do not have, for example, a European television station that would be very good to be able to find out what is happening in the institutions or in the different countries  

Without the European Union, it would be extremely difficult to deal with this pandemic, despite the fact that it had difficulty in reacting and that at first we complained a lot about it not taking the initiative, about things not being well coordinated, about each state going its own way... But little by little the situation has been straightened out a little and in those areas in which Europe does have competence it has made a great leap forward. The action of the European Central Bank, all the funds released by the Commission, has put the golden rule on hold so that indebtedness is not harmful and the complementary funds that have been approved, apart from this fund for the rehabilitation and relaunch of Europe which is extremely important, if we know how to use it well.  You mentioned the European Central Bank, which has increased by 500 billion euros the fund to buy bonds, debts and allow banks in member countries to have more capacity to give credit to families and companies in order to revive the economy. This is very important too.   

That is, Europe does it, but then it is the Member States, i.e. their administrations, that have to manage all that. This is a tremendous challenge, because all of this cannot serve to dilapidate the Union; it must serve to relaunch this modern, active Europe of citizenship, work and business. In order to do this, the European Union has already said how it should be done, based on reform projects in those areas in which each state needs better economic support, because the reforms are going to be carried out by the state administrations together with the citizens, whether they are natural or legal persons, companies, etc. This is a very important fact and it must be very well managed, because European money never goes without any kind of control. You mentioned the European Central Bank, which has increased by 500 billion euros the fund to buy bonds, debts and allow banks in member countries to have more capacity to give credit to families and companies in order to revive the economy. This is very important too.   

Finally, what do you think of the agreement reached by the Spanish government with the pro-independence forces, so that the Spanish language loses its status as a vehicle for education in any community in the country that so decides?  

I think it is tremendously absurd, apart from being contrary to the jurisprudence of the Constitutional Court, the Supreme Court and the High Court of Justice of Catalonia itself, which already had a very marked line to try to guarantee, I say try because it was not possible in practice, that Spanish would be a vehicle language in education in Catalonia as well. Trying to break this common link that we could have with Spanish is absurd because it means cutting up the language issue within the framework of a policy that is not appropriate for what we are talking about, that Europe means Union, if it turns out that here internally we are going to disunite what we already had united. With the added bonus that we are harming the citizens, especially the young people and children of these autonomous communities who would lose this facility of professionally acquiring Spanish. Because it is not the same to study it as not to study it, and it is not the same to study in one language as in another. Many people are being linguistically de-capitalised, and this will put them in a worse position in their own autonomous community, outside it and in the world, because they would be de-capitalising a language that is not only used here, but is spoken by more than 600 million people.  

It's a path to ignorance, because I don't really think that Catalan is the language that will help you get a good job in Berlin, London or Miami...  

Yes, and I say this with all due respect and affection for the Catalan language, because what we must encourage is a good command of as many languages as possible, and of course Catalan in Catalonia, but Spanish or Castilian as well.