Referendum not a good way to decide on Brexit: Spain foreign minister to WION

The Interview: Exclusive conversation with Josep Borrell

WION New Delhi, Delhi, India Jan 10, 2019, 05.34 PM (IST) Ramesh Ramachandran

In an exclusive interview to WION, Spain's foreign minister Josep Borrell said that India is a remarkable example of unity in diversity and that it has an important role to play together with the western democracies in combating terrorism.

He also spoke on Brexit and called for a moratorium on redrawing of borders in order to prevent separatist movements from carving out new countries around the world.

Here is the full transcript of the interview:

WION: We are meeting just hours after Trump gave a televised speech about border wall. He spoke about fears of uncontrolled illegal migration and described it as a crisis of the soul. Now, this is the same president who told you last year that the European Union can build a wall across the Sahara to stop people from entering Europe. Do you agree with him? Or do you think good fences make good neighbours?

Josep Borrell: I don't think so. Walls do not solve any problems, we do not need to build a wall. We already have a big wall, that is the Mediterranean Sea; people are dying every year trying to enter Europe. It is problem of relationship, the problem between Europe and Africa, or US and South America, will never be solved by putting a wall. It is a matter of cooperation and development.

WION: Lawmakers in the UK are debating about Brexit, they might vote on it next week. There are calls for a second referendum. Do you support the second referendum? Or do you think we are way past the point of no return - that this is it, take it or leave it?

Josep Borrell: Well, the Britishers said ‘Brexit is Brexit’. They repeated it many times. But what does Brexit mean? It is upto them to decide, we are waiting, we will like to know their final decision. There is a deal on the table, they can accept it or refuse it. If they refuse it, they have to decide what to do. An abrupt, hard Brexit will be very damaging for both the EU and the UK. They have to decide whether to postpone the decision, or to take longer time to discuss the deal. But we have EU elections in May. What are we going to do?

WION: About the second referendum, you said and I quote, "I don't like second referendums, it's something that doesn't look very democratic". What is undemocratic about a second referendum?

Josep Borrell: People expressed their will (with the referendum) and (now) you (want to) tell them that you made the bad choice, (that) you have to repeat the vote. Until when? Until you make the good choice. And what is the good choice? Who decides about the good choices? You know, we’ve had repeated referendums several times - in Ireland, in Denmark - where they voted (for) something, the elite did not like it and told them to vote again. I think the idea that people have to vote and re-vote until someone says this is a good answer is not a good thing.

WION: You support referendums, don't you? Be it Brexit or Catalonia or anywhere else in the world? Or are you against referendums?

Josep Borrell: I think referendum is not a good way of making a decision, it is too binary, black or white, one or zero. The world is much more complex. And I think it is impossible for the British people to be aware of the consequences of deciding to leave. It is too complex and there were a lot of lies told to them: ‘If you leave, you will have a lot of money’, ‘if you leave, we will manage better’, ‘if you leave, we will again be the big empire in the world’. Here in India you know something about it. Well, you cannot make people decide with a fake news, with incapacity of providing a good understanding of what is at stake. I think parliaments, public discussion, is a better way of taking this kind of difficult and complex decision.

WION: So, what you are saying is that referendums, be it in Catalonia or Brexit, do not necessarily solve the problem?

Josep Borrell: No, I do not think it is the best way of solving a problem. In Catalonia, additionally, it is again the Spanish constitution, as it is in France, Germany, Italy or the United States. So, I do not think it is the best way of making this kind of decision that splits the country, divides the society and confronts, in equal proportion, people.

WION: Let’s talk a bit about separatism. Countries around the world, including Spain and India, are faced with separatism, separatist tendencies, separatist elements. Do you think there is a need for a moratorium on redrawing of borders - be it Catalonia or Brexit or anything else?

Josep Borrell: In Europe, we have a moratorium after the end of World War that borders are the way they are and can only be modified by a common understanding and agreement. Brexit is not a modification of borders, in fact it has nothing to do with borders. Separatism in north of Italy or half of Belgium or Scotland or Catalonia is a different thing. And there is a big consensus in Europe to not go to redefinition of borders.

WION: Do you think it should apply to all conflict areas around the world? That there should be no new state created out of this separatist tendency?

Josep Borrell: Separatism is one thing, decolonisation is another thing. Decolonisation created new states, for sure, because it was a colonial domination. But who can believe that Catalonia is a colony of Spain?

WION: I want to come back to the issue of immigration. You have been quoted as saying that "European societies are not structured to absorb more than a certain percentage of migrants, especially if they are Muslims". What did you mean by that? And what might be the solution?

Josep Borrell: I don’t know if I said that exactly. I said especially if they are culturally and religiously different. For example, in Spain, it is easy for us to absorb migrants coming from Latin America because they speak the same language, they have the same religion - if they have one. For a Spanish coming from Argentina or Peru or Mexico, it is a kind of a member of the family. If there are people coming from other cultures, other religions without historical ties, it is much more difficult to integrate and there is a certain limit in societies above which tensions start, especially if there are no good policies to prevent this kind of things from happening and to push and to help in integration.

WION: Would you favour Muslims coming to Europe? Are Muslims welcome in Europe today and going forward?

Josep Borrell: Look, one of the pillars of European Union is no discrimination by religion. You cannot discriminate by saying ‘you, yes’ because you are a Christian, ‘you, no’ because you are a Hindu or Muslim. No discrimination by gender, no discrimination by religion so the question would not be accepted in Europe.

WION: I want to talk about India and Spain. We have seen that separatism affects both countries. Do you think India and Spain can learn together from each other's experiences of separatism? In Spain, you say talks only within the constitution. So, is there scope for learning between India and Spain when it comes to separatism?

Josep Borrell: Well, I do not know history of India and the political situation in the country as much as I should in order to answer your question. But India is a special case because you built a political union before building an economic union. In Europe, we are doing just the contrary, we are building an economic union before building a political union because we have too much history behind us and in order to build political union, you have to share markets, goods, economic relationships, to create what Jacques Delors (French politician) called solidarity of the fact. And on this solidarity of the fact, you can construct a bigger union, a stronger union, a deeper union. India is a remarkable example of how you can be united in diversity. In Europe, we say, united in diversity but when I come to India I say ‘my god, here is diversity!’

WION: Some people say that a thin line separates separatism from terrorism. Some countries around the world are afflicted by this phenomenon. Is there scope for EU and India to collaborate for combating this menace?

Josep Borrell: For combating terrorism, all democratic countries have to cooperate.

WION: ...especially in South Asia...

Josep Borrell: The south of the world, all this band going from the Mediterranean and sub-Saharan Africa to the Indian peninsula, all this part of the world - West Asia, Syria, the Horn of Africa, the Spanish navy is patrolling the Horn of Africa to prevent terrorist attacks against ships, and India as a big, democratic country the biggest democracy in the world - has an important role to play together with western nations to fight terrorism.

WION: I want to talk about regional and global issues like what’s happening in Iran and Venezuela. President Maduro will take the oath on January 10. What are your views on impositions of sanctions against Venezuela? I am told that you do not want to see more sanctions imposed on Venezuela?

Josep Borrell: History says that sanctions do not bring a solution. Look at what happened with Cuba. The US has been blockading Cuba for decades, but the regime is still there. You have to sanction when you have to sanction, do not sanction the people, do not sanction the Venezuelan people. If you have to impose sanctions, impose it on the leaders, the ones who are guilty of doing something bad. But at the same time, try to push through a democratic dialogue, you have to put both things together, just the politics of punishing, history says, is not very effective.

WION: I want to talk about China. The Prime Minister of Norway said at the Raisina Dialogue in New Delhi that might is not right, that countries must play by the rules-based world order. She spoke about ocean management and was hinting at China. How do you see China's Belt and Road Initiative?

Josep Borrell: It is an important initiative. China is projecting out of its borders. China is coming back to the history. It was out of the history, it saw colonial domination, an awful war with Japan, years of communist domination, poverty and now it is a giant. Economical, technological, political and even a military power. The important thing is to be able to build, as you have said, a world ruled by rules not by power because if it is only power. If it is in the hands of the Chinese, or it is in the hands of the US, Russia or whoever, the power is being used and it needs counter powers. A multilateral world, a world based on rules accepted by the humankind, by international community is something that we have to fight for.

WION: And it applies equally to China?

Josep Borrell: Of course, for sure, why not? You cannot imagine a world where one part of humanity as important as China cannot be taken into consideration or not participating.

WION: I want to shift our focus to West Asia. Saudi Arabia has lately been in the news for the wrong reasons, for the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Yet, the Spanish government insists on selling arms to Saudi Arabia. Why?

Josep Borrell: The number of arms (being sent) to Saudi Arabia is a tiny part of what Saudi Arabia is buying. Since this (Spanish) government has been in place, we have not signed any new contract, but we will honour the contract signed by the previous government.

WION: Israel is another country in the region. What do you make of the trend of some countries shifting their embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem? Do you think it is part of the solution?

Josep Borrell: For sure it is not a part of the solution, it is creating more tensions.

WION: Why do you say that?

Josep Borrell: Because one of the part feels attacked. If you were a Palestinian, you wanted Jerusalem to be the capital of imaginary country that some day will come. And people say no, this is the capital of another country. You will not be very happy and I think we have to calm down the situation which could become explosive. I think it was a wrong decision by the Americans and it is a wrong decision by anyone who is following it.

WION: In conclusion, Mr minister, you have studied and taught both mathematics and economics at universities and institutes in Europe. But what is your first love - mathematics or economics?

Josep Borrell: It is mathematics.

WION: What do you the most - academia or politics?

Josep Borrell: There is a lot of politics in academia, no? I have been engaged in politics for much longer than academia. But if you share both approaches, you could have at the same time the rationality of the academia (as well as) the scientific approach with social engagement of the politician. The world would be much better. You know the book by John Von Neumann about the science and the politics? I read it every time I can.

WION: FC Barcelona or Real Madrid?

Josep Borrell: I don't follow football very much.

WION: Pizza or Paella?

Josep Borrell: Pizza.

WION: Will Donald Trump get a second term as US President?

Josep Borrell: I'm afraid he could have to.

WION: What should the border wall be made of: Steel or concrete?

Josep Borrell: No wall.

WION: Who is a bigger challenge: Russia or China?

Josep Borrell: I would not say they are challenges, they are actors that have to be taken into consideration because both of them want to have its place in the history. They are big enough, powerful enough in order not to be neglected.

WION: On that note, thank you.

Josep Borrell: It has been a very intelligent interview.

WION: Thank you.

Josep Borrell: It does not happen often.

Story highlights

In an exclusive interview to WION, Spain's foreign minister Josep Borrell said that India is a remarkable example of unity in diversity.