Spanish Foreign Minister Alfonso Dastis is an experienced diplomat, choosing his words deliberately and speaking calmly in the Palacio de Santa Cruz in the heart of Madrid. But when it comes to the conflict in Catalonia, the time for restraint is over.
German politicians have offered to mediate in the independence dispute. But Mr. Dastis quickly dismissed the idea, telling Handelsblatt: “That's frankly nonsense.”
“Catalonia is part of Spain,” the 62-year-old said in an exclusive interview. “A mediation by third parties would be a victory for [Carles] Puigdemont, which he did not win at the polls.” The former Catalan leader was arrested in Germany in late March. Earlier this month, a German court refused to extradite the Catalan separatist leader to Spain for a rebellion charge.
However, he is still facing extradition to Spain under an international arrest warrant. The court in Schleswig-Holstein is determining whether Mr. Puigdemont can be sent to Spain over possible misuse of public funds.
A mediation by third parties would be a victory for Puigdemont. Alfonso Dastis, Spanish Foreign Minister
Meanwhile, the Spanish government is ready to negotiate with Catalonia as long as the terms of the Spanish Constitution are upheld, Mr. Dastis said. But the former Catalan regional president Mr. Puigdemont will not have any part in the talks, Mr. Dastis stressed.
“He violated the law, he abused the Catalan society for his own purposes and fled justice,” said the foreign minister. “And now he prevents his own followers from forming a new government because he only proposes presidential candidates who are legally biased and cannot take office. This is not someone you can bargain with.”
Nonetheless, he is convinced that the European Union stands behind Spain in the matter: “We protect the values on which the EU is founded - democracy and the rule of law.”
Spain has been through turbulent times in recent years. During the economic crisis, Spain turned its focus to national issues. “As a result, we have lost political influence in the EU,” the longtime diplomat added. "But now we are back in the top league - we are clearly ahead in initiatives for security and defense policy or immigration.”
Mr. Dastis has an ambitious vision for the union's future. “We want to complete the banking union, a common EU budget and a transfer union. In the end, all members should create jobs, grow and be globally competitive.”
He already has an opportunity to prove his country’s new responsibility in Europe. Spain has a veto right in Brexit negotiations for all decisions that affect Gibraltar. The peninsula is a British territory, but Spain claims sovereignty over the territory on its southern coast. In the 2016 referendum, 96 percent of Gibraltar’s population voted to remain in the EU.
However, Mr. Dastis does not want to stall Brexit talks: “If we cannot solve the problem quickly, we will isolate it from the remaining Brexit negotiations so that they can be concluded without Gibraltar,” he added.
Meanwhile, Mr. Dastis, like many of his European counterparts, has also followed the growing trade dispute between the US and Europe with growing concern. Talking about looming tariffs imposed on Europe, he said of US president Donald Trump, “We hope that he will maintain the grace period for the EU.”
But the minister, who studied law, showed resolve should it come to an escalation. “We are convinced that all would be lost in a trade war. But sometimes you have no choice but to react. The EU will ask the World Trade Organization (WTO) to investigate the legality of US punitive tariffs and, if necessary, retaliate.”
Sandra Louven is a Handelsblatt correspondent based in Madrid. Stephanie Ott is a writer and editor for Handelsblatt Global based in New York. To contact the authors: [email protected] and [email protected].