‘Spain is back’: Top EU post goes to outspoken Spanish diplomat

The nomination of Spain's outspoken top diplomat Josep Borrell as EU foreign policy chief marks a return for the 72-year-old to the frontline of European politics after a first stint over a decade ago.

'Spain is back': Top EU post goes to outspoken Spanish diplomat
Photo: AFP

Known not to mince his words and prone to the occasional outburst, Borrell has led efforts to revive Spain's reputation after a failed secession attempt in Catalonia. He has been active over the crisis in Venezuela and has not hidden his criticism of US President Donald Trump.

It marks the first time in ten years that Spain has held a top post in EU institutions and was welcome by Prime Minsiter Pedro Sanchez with a tweet: “Spain is back with a vengeance”.



Borrell's appointment, which needs rubber stamping by the European Parliament, marks a meteoric political rebirth for the man who in 1999 renounced leading the Socialist Party — and thus stand for election the following year — over a financial 

That prompted Borrell to turn to European politics, serving as president of the European Parliament between 2004 and 2007.   

Then followed a period largely out of the public eye until Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez picked the Catalan last year to be Spain's top diplomat.   

Staunchly pro-EU and against Catalonia's secession movement which culminated in a failed declaration of independence in October 2017, Borrell set about defending Spain's judiciary and democracy after nine Catalan separatist leaders were jailed pending a trial for rebellion.

“It is a war in which we can't use weapons but propaganda is key. They use it very well and the Spanish government very badly,” Borrell has said.   

In March, he stormed out of an interview with a German television station after being asked about the treatment of jailed Catalan independence leaders.   

He has also been active over Venezuela, helping Spain take the lead in Europe on its dealings with the economically-strapped Latin American country that is going through a major political and humanitarian crisis.

And on more than one occasion, Borrell has hit out at Trump.

In September last year, he revealed that the US president had suggested building a wall along the Sahara desert to stem the arrival of migrants, as he plans to do on the Mexican border.

“'But do you know how big the Sahara is?',” Borrell said he responded.   

He has also accused Trump's administration of acting like “a cowboy” for its implicit threat of military intervention in Venezuela.

Insider trading

Photo: AFP

Born on April 24, 1947 in a tiny village in the Catalan Pyrenees, Borrell is the son of a baker who used to accompany his father to deliver bread in villages by donkey.

A bright student, he won several scholarships which allowed him to obtain a degree in aeronautical engineering in Madrid, then a masters degree at Stanford University in the United States and another masters in Paris. He also has a doctorate degree in economics.

A father of two children from a first marriage with a French woman he met while working at a kibbutz in Israel, Borrell has been in a relationship for the past two decades with Cristina Narbona, president of the Socialist Party.   

He served as deputy finance minister and then public works minister under former Socialist prime minister Felipe Gonzalez, who was in power between 1982 and 1996.

Borrell was elected leader of the party in 1998 but he renounced the position the following year before a 2000 general election due to a financial scandal involving two of his former co-workers when he was deputy finance minister.

Before returning to the frontline of national politics last year, Borrell was a member of the board of renewable energy group Abengoa.   

Last year, he was fined €30,000 ($34,000) for insider trading after selling shares in the group in 2015 shortly before it announced it was on the verge of bankruptcy.

READ ALSO: VIDEO: Spain's foreign minister storms out of TV interview over Catalan questions 

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The Euro celebrates its 20th anniversary

The euro on Saturday marked 20 years since people began to use the single European currency, overcoming initial doubts, price concerns and a debt crisis to spread across the region.

The Euro celebrates its 20th anniversary
The Euro is projected onto the walls of the European Central Bank in Brussels. Photo: Daniel Rolund/AFP

European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen called the euro “a true symbol for the strength of Europe” while European Central Bank President Christine Lagarde described it as “a beacon of stability and solidity around the world”.

Euro banknotes and coins came into circulation in 12 countries on January 1, 2002, greeted by a mix of enthusiasm and scepticism from citizens who had to trade in their Deutsche marks, French francs, pesetas and liras.

The euro is now used by 340 million people in 19 nations, from Ireland to Germany to Slovakia. Bulgaria, Croatia and Romania are next in line to join the eurozone — though people are divided over the benefits of abandoning their national currencies.

European Council President Charles Michel argued it was necessary to leverage the euro to back up the EU’s goals of fighting climate change and leading on digital innovation. He added that it was “vital” work on a banking union and a capital markets
union be completed.

The idea of creating the euro first emerged in the 1970s as a way to deepen European integration, make trade simpler between member nations and give the continent a currency to compete with the mighty US dollar.

Officials credit the euro with helping Europe avoid economic catastrophe during the coronavirus pandemic.

“Clearly, Europe and the euro have become inseparable,” Lagarde wrote in a blog post. “For young Europeans… it must be almost impossible to imagine Europe without it.”

In the euro’s initial days, consumers were concerned it caused prices to rise as countries converted to the new currency. Though some products — such as coffee at cafes — slightly increased as businesses rounded up their conversions, official statistics have shown that the euro has brought more stable inflation.

Dearer goods have not increased in price, and even dropped in some cases. Nevertheless, the belief that the euro has made everything more expensive persists.

New look

The red, blue and orange banknotes were designed to look the same everywhere, with illustrations of generic Gothic, Romanesque and Renaissance architecture to ensure no country was represented over the others.

In December, the ECB said the bills were ready for a makeover, announcing a design and consultation process with help from the public. A decision is expected in 2024.

“After 20 years, it’s time to review the look of our banknotes to make them more relatable to Europeans of all ages and backgrounds,” Lagarde said.

Euro banknotes are “here to stay”, she said, although the ECB is also considering creating a digital euro in step with other central banks around the globe.

While the dollar still reigns supreme across the globe, the euro is now the world’s second most-used currency, accounting for 20 percent of global foreign exchange reserves compared to 60 percent for the US greenback.

Von der Leyen, in a video statement, said: “We are the biggest player in the world trade and nearly half of this trade takes place in euros.”

‘Valuable lessons’

The eurozone faced an existential threat a decade ago when it was rocked by a debt crisis that began in Greece and spread to other countries. Greece, Ireland, Portugal, Spain and Cyprus were saved through bailouts in return for austerity measures, and the euro stepped back from the brink.

Members of the Eurogroup of finance ministers said in a joint article they learned “valuable lessons” from that experience that enabled their euro-using nations to swiftly respond to fall-out from the coronavirus pandemic.

As the Covid crisis savaged economies, EU countries rolled out huge stimulus programmes while the ECB deployed a huge bond-buying scheme to keep borrowing costs low.

Yanis Varoufakis, now leader of the DiEM 25 party who resigned as Greek finance minister during the debt crisis, remains a sharp critic of the euro. Varoufakis told the Democracy in Europe Movement 25 website that the euro may seem to make sense in calm periods because borrowing costs are lower and there are no exchange rates.

But retaining a nation’s currency is like “automobile assurance,” he said, as people do not know its value until there is a road accident. In fact, he charged, the euro increases the risk of having an accident.