Without law, there is no democracy, says Spain’s Felipe Gonzalez


It’s not every day you get to sit down with a living legend of European politics. Felipe Gonzalez, prime minister of Spain for four consecutive terms (1982-96), was in the Greek capital last week to receive the City of Athens Democracy Award in the context of the annual Athens Democracy Forum. Before the ceremony, Kathimerini had the opportunity to interview him on a wide range of topics.

A large part of the discussion was devoted to the left – its internal debates, its achievements and its blind spots. The emblematic leader of the Spanish social democrats spoke of the “visible” difference between Alexis Tsipras as opposition leader and as prime minister. His fans from the first period, in Greece as well as in Spain, “have now distanced themselves” from him, Gonzalez said.

“I was not a friend of Tsipras and his choices” up to the referendum in the summer of 2015, Gonzalez explained, adding however that “I respect the adjustment he made when he found himself faced with reality, and I stand in solidarity with the Greek people for their sacrifices.”

How does he view the leftward turn made by the Spanish Socialists (PSOE) under the leadership – in his second term – of Pedro Sanchez? “The discussion within the PSOE is the same as in all European social democratic parties,” said Gonzalez. “The problem is not self-definition, to the right, center or left. It is defining a political project that will have the support of the majority, through which we can regain the ability to meet the challenges of the future, of globalization and the inequalities it generates. This is the fundamental problem.”

“Sometimes purely ideological rhetoric, whether from the right or the left, is like a protective cover hiding the absence of practical solutions to society’s problems,” he added.

Gonzalez does not believe that his country’s conservative government deserves credit for Spain’s economic rebound. “Their contribution has been questionable,” he said.

Given that eurozone member-states do not have the option of devaluation, he explained, the government’s main contribution to economic policy was “reducing salaries and expanding precarious and flexible forms of labor.”

Other than that, he noted, the economic rebound was driven by external factors, such as the European Central Bank’s decision to slash interest rates – “we’ll see how long that lasts” – a significant reduction in energy costs and the large increase in tourism, due in part to the problems faced by competing destinations in the Southern and Eastern Mediterranean.

Didn’t the reduction in labor costs also contribute to the increase in tourism, by making services more competitive? Gonzalez said he doesn’t see a significant connection between the two. What matters to him is that the contraction of salaries, coupled with major reductions in health and education spending and pension reform, have resulted in “citizens losing their purchasing power, something that you are very well acquainted with here in Greece.”

Gonzalez, however, admitted that macroeconomic adjustment was necessary for Spain. “Something needed to be done, even in Spain, which was one of the countries that complied with the terms of the Stability and Growth Pact (SGP) when the crisis began. There was a significant balance of payments deficit, which resulted in the increase of public debt, etc. There was an imbalance.”

The policy error, he stressed, was “Europe-wide.” “We implemented a policy of brutal austerity, without any counter-cyclical measures [to mitigate the recession]. We did the exact opposite of what the Americans did under [Barack] Obama. Obama’s policy was much more positive and a lot less painful on the people.”

In Spain

On the crucial issue of Catalonian independence, Gonzalez said he blames Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy for “appearing incapable of responding to the seriousness” of possible secession. That said, he added, the referendum being planned is “completely illegal,” violating both the regional autonomy statute and the Spanish Constitution. “Democracy, in the form of a referendum, cannot function outside the bounds of the law,” he said. “The only correct reaction, therefore, is to defend the law and the constitution.”

The former prime minister of Spain has been intimately involved with the crisis in Venezuela, trying to support the democratic opposition, among which is his persecuted friend, Caracas Mayor Antonio Ledezma. He offered a detailed account of the descent of Nicolas Maduro’s regime into authoritarianism and a “savage” kleptocracy, calling it a “arbitrary tyranny.” He said it is in a way worse than a dictatorship, because “dictatorships at least tend to function on the basis of certain rules.”

“Venezuela is the richest country in Latin America in natural resources. In my 75 years I have never witnessed another case of such a rapid and profound destruction of state institutions, civil liberties and economic and social prosperity,” said Gonzalez. “The humanitarian crisis in the country is beyond belief, and the number of dead protesters and political prisoners just keeps multiplying.”

As a leftist himself, how does he view the non-critical stance toward Maduro of parties like Greece’s SYRIZA and Spain’s Podemos?

“The left has always has trouble condemning autocratic or dictatorial regimes flying a left-wing flag. There is a tendency to justify them, to make references to imperialism and far-right forces – I know all this well. Just as the right tends to justify right-wing authoritarianism as necessary to prevent a revolution, defend order and so on,” Gonzalez said. “Even today in Spain, the governing party refuse to characterize what Franco did in 1936 as a military coup. The real democrat, in my view, is the person who defends the fundamental freedoms of people who think differently to him. Any deviations from that principle, from whatever part of the political spectrum, constitute a dissolution of democracy.”

Ignoring the present

As we neared the end of our talk, we turned to the past, to his political heyday.

“The Anglo-Saxons hailed me as ‘pragmatist’ and the leftists accused me of exactly the same thing,” he recalled. “The problem of a big part of the left in Southern Europe, and often in Latin America as well, is that they prefer to invent the future and let the conservatives govern the present,” said Gonzalez. “In Northern Europe, in contrast, the Swedish, Norwegian and German social democrats decided to step up and govern the present so as to change it. We can and we must imagine the future, but we must also have the ability to conquer the majority so that we can bring about change now.”

The left, he added “has a tendency to obsess over the means even if these don’t help achieve the ends they represent. Willy Brandt told me this very thing in 1992, a little before he died: The world has changed and we must change with it.”

Having grown up in the shadow of a dictatorship and having played a crucial role in the transition to democracy, is Gonzalez worried about the growing attraction of demagoguery and authoritarianism in many Western countries?

He spoke about the “crisis of representative democracy” and the dangers of populism, but stressed: “Before we condemn nationalist populist movements, let us first think seriously about what we did wrong to create the political space for them to evolve.”