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Press briefing by President of the Government following extraordinary European Council

Brussels (Belgium), Friday 21 February 2020

PEDRO SÁNCHEZ, President of the Government.

If you agree, I will make a brief statement about this long day and a half we have spent at this European Council and you can then ask me any questions you may have.

Spain has come to this Council aware that the debate that has begun on the Multiannual Financial Framework, that is, the European Union Budget for the next five years, will be a complex negotiation. And it is complex as a result, firstly, of trying to match up the interests of 27 Member States and also of trying to boost the European project through policies, which is a complex issue in itself. But on top of that, there is a net contributor that is leaving the European Union, in this case the United Kingdom, which thus exponentially multiplies the difficulty and complexity of the negotiations.

Hence, what we have done over the course of the last few weeks has been to negotiate at a technical level, at the level of COREPER, at the level of the different ministerial departments involved, and I would like to express my deep gratitude for the work you have been doing over these past intense weeks, with a constructive attitude, aware of what the principles were and what the goals were that Spain wanted to propose to our European partners and also to the main EU institutions.

What we want is to defend Spain's interests in a strong Europe. That is a little by way of summary of the primary goal of the Government of Spain; to defend Spain's interests as part of a strong Europe.

So, aware of this complexity in the negotiation, what we have found ourselves facing, as I said in the briefing prior to the European Council, is that the proposal brought to the table, the third proposal brought to the table, because we should remember that there was a first proposal which was made by the European Commission, and then there was a second proposal, and now a third proposal, which comes from the current President of the European Council, and then over the course of today we have also been presented with a sort of a draft from the two main institutions based on the different exercises carried out on the different alternatives made by the different Member States.

So, what have we seen? What I said in this brief speech, that the proposal was a disappointment to Spain. And it was firstly in terms of the volume, the size of the Budget as a whole. Just look, the European Parliament proposed 1.3% of the European Gross Domestic Product. The European Commission proposed 1.114% of the European Gross Domestic Product. The proposal made by the President of the Council amounted to about 1.074% if I remember rightly. And hence, what we have seen has been a gradual reduction by the different leaders in each of the proposals in relation to the total amount of the Multiannual Financial Framework. Of course, it is true that we must do things much better, and we have always argued that we must do things better. They are already done well, but they could be done better. There are many things that we won't be able to do due to a lack of financial resources.

Hence, we have always argued that we must listen to the European Parliament, and we also have to see the figures from the European Commission because, in the end, the European Commission knows what the programmes are, the needs under each of these policies, and consequently we understood that the proposal to be negotiated would be based on these two institutions, the proposals on the size of the resources proposed by both the European Parliament and the European Commission.

So, firstly, we were not satisfied and we considered that the total size of the Multiannual Financial Framework was disappointing, and secondly we also considered it disappointing because we felt this was a digression, a quite deceitful digression away from good and flowing policies in the European Union, far short of what is good is new and what is old is bad. And we believed and we believe that policies such as the cohesion policy and the Common Agricultural Policy are policies that reach our citizens, policies that strengthen the Single European Market, which is one of the main assets of the European Union at this time and that, consequently, any reduction in these two key policies would be harmful to the functioning of our Single European Market.

And not only this, but also, if we want to achieve a completely carbon-free economy by the year 2050 in Europe, then it is clear that we need to incorporate these environmental criteria in such important policies as the Common Agricultural Policy.

So, cuts have also been made to traditional policies and even stigmatised to some extent, which we feel is a grave error.

And this reduction as well to the size of the pie, which was used for policies that were very important not just for the Government of Spain, but also for other governments, such as the youth guarantee, the child guarantee, which has been abolished, and questions like Erasmus and many other such important programmes for building Europe from the point of view of its citizens have also been diminished.

Finally, there was another question that makes us describe this proposal as disappointing, which is that the system of cheques will still continue, a regressive system that principally benefitted the wealthiest countries and which made more sense when the United Kingdom was still a member of the European Union. But since the United Kingdom is no longer a member of the European Union, the Government of Spain always proposed that we should revise whether to abolish this system of cheques.

And as well as that of course, the debate on own resources in this eternal debate in the European Union, but which is now more necessary than ever, because there is clearly a need to increase resources and for these to be our own resources. And there are also more proposals on the table. For example, we have proposed the creation of this tax on coal at borders, which, among other issues, would foster the industry on our continent a great deal to be more competitive against other major economic blocs that are proposing protectionist policies to the detriment of industry in Europe. All of these debates have been held in this day and a half of this first proper and thorough European Council on the Multiannual Financial Framework, and practically no progress has been made and hence, logically, we cannot be pleased at the result of the negotiations and of the dialogue opened up between the different Member States and also with the different EU institutions. So, this is the result, a result which, in short, I would say is insufficient, disappointing, and we hope that over the coming weeks we will meet up again with a much more ambitious proposal, which is what Spain needs and what Europe demands. Of course, the position we have always held is constructive and with the goal I mentioned to you before. What we want is to defend Spain's interests in a strong Europe, because we also consider that both things go hand-in-hand. If we have a strong Europe, then Spain will be strong and vice versa. I will now take any questions.

Q: Thank you very much, President of the Government. During this whole debate, four countries have played a leading role, the so-called frugal countries, which have somehow set the agenda for the discussions which, to my way of thinking, have at least influenced the debate well above the weight they hold in the European Union. Don't you think that since you head up the cohesion countries you should have offered a stronger reaction in dictating this agenda rather than leaving it in the hands of those who precisely operate against your interests?

President of the Government: Well, in reality Jaume, what does it matter if they are 4, 1, 2, 3 or 17, if in the end the Multiannual Financial Framework has to be approved by all 27 Member States. If just one State votes against then it won't be approved, and hence it's not so much a case of talking about blocs of countries, of whether they are 3, 4 or 17, we simply need to be aware of the approach we want the Budget to take. Over these last few months since the appointment of the main leaders of the institutions, we agreed in the European Parliament, also in the Council, and also with the European Commission a strategic agenda for the five years of action of the main EU institutions. There we spoke about climate change, about the digitalisation of small- and medium-sized enterprises, about education, the Common Agricultural Policy, the cohesion funds, foreign policy, defence policy, immigration policy, which of course then need to be put into numbers and these numbers are not in line with the great ambitious targets we agreed with the three main institutions. What's more, the four main groups in the European Parliament sent a letter to the Council, reminding us of this strategic agenda and clearly urging us to be more ambitious in the approach to the Budget on the table. Hence, it is not a question of whether this is one group of countries or another; in this type of debate on the Multiannual Financial Framework at a Council level, any country, however big or small it may be, can veto the deal and its approval. So, I believe it is important for us to be aware of the magnitude of the debate ahead of us, of its complexity, and act generously and that between us all over the weeks to come we can find a path that balances the national interests of all the countries with the interests of the European Union.

Q: Regarding the fact that all these proposals you mentioned from the Commission to the Parliament have been rejected and that the only proposal made with figures and brought to the table by the institutions today is along the same line that you have considered unacceptable from the start, does this lead us to think that the results in the future will have a ceiling that won't go much further whereby funds are diverted that may make Spain more comfortable with the CAP and the cohesion funds or is there truly any hope among this group in favour of cohesion, of the friends of ambition, that this ceiling may be raised? As regards President Michel, he has said that there is no concrete date, that informal consultations must be held before you meet up again. Are you concerned that this delay, that these confrontations, that we are already seeing, may mean that the situation worsens and that this spreads to such negotiations such as those related to Brexit?

President of the Government: I wouldn't mix the two things. Those are two completely different debates. Here we are talking about policies and their budgetary backing. They can operate perfectly well in parallel. In fact, they are already taking place in parallel, because we are negotiating at an EU level with the United Kingdom and hence I believe that the two things are not mutually exclusive. I stress, they are two different negotiations. And then of course you also have migratory policy; we will need to speak about that. And we will also have to speak about the enlargement policy towards the Balkans countries. What I mean by this is that it doesn't matter since any debate we have at a European level will be sufficiently important to not play it off against the debate on the EU Budget. Aside from that, I repeat that I feel it is important to show ambition, for us to show ambition. It makes no sense to agree on a roadmap that doesn't then translate into numbers and a Budget. In short, the European Commission proposed 1.114% to us, and the European Parliament 1.3%. You cannot propose 1% to implement all these policies that are so necessary if we want to be, firstly, a global player of importance and a benchmark. And secondly, if we want to provide a response to the urgent needs of the EU, from a social perspective, from a sectoral perspective such as agriculture or from the perspective of cohesion.

Here you have quite an interesting graph because it was drawn up with figures from the European Commission on who wins, on who benefits the most from the smooth functioning of the single market. And what you can see in this single market is that it is precisely those countries that contribute the most that benefit the most from the functioning of the single market. The cohesion policies, policies like the Common Agricultural Policy, help strengthen the single market and hence the debate on who contributes more and on who receives more under the EU Budget is an incomplete debate. This is not a debate that truly reflects the extent of the consequences of a better or a worse Budget, for example in such a fundamental, transcendental aspect for the EU as the single market. This is something we have passed on to those countries that are net contributors and which are currently quite unreceptive to increasing their share in the EU Budget, but I stress, we shouldn't only be speaking about them but also about own resources at an EU level. And we must also speak about the need or not for the cheques once the United Kingdom leaves the European Union. Does it make any sense to maintain this type of system that is so regressive for the European Union? Our country has its position; other countries have theirs and I believe that what politics should do now is find common ground so that we can achieve the fundamental goal of agreeing on a Budget as quickly as possible.

Q: Good day, Mr President of the Government, given the way you think, I wanted to ask you two questions, one is more technical, as to how you think it is possible to combine these two things - maintaining the funding for the cohesion policy and the Common Agricultural Policy - in the knowledge that the Budget will be smaller and that the European Union cannot go into debt. That is, if you pull one way, the other is exposed.

And my other question is a little more personal. I would like to know if you are intellectually or morally uncomfortable when you hear all those accusations that are always being heard as to whether you are telling the truth or lying about when you wrote your thesis.

President of the Government: No, I am not uncomfortable; I am used to this type of debate. As regards the first point, Enrique, I truly believe that what I said at the beginning is key. What we mustn't do is convey politically, at the level of the institutions, that the Common Agricultural Policy or the cohesion policy are policies that don't work, that they are old policies that are no longer valid. I believe that there are traditional policies that have precisely been the basis of the success of the European Union, policies that reach our citizens, not only in sectors such as the agricultural sector in our country, which is out demonstrating as a result of lower prices, as a result of unilateral action being taken by the United States on customs duties, and also as a result of rural depopulation in some regions. Or even also as a result of the need to modernise their agricultural productions to be able to address the environmental criteria being imposed or demanded, or, better said by the EU institutions, to tackle climate change. All of this obviously requires financial resources. Hence, is there room to manoeuvre to increase the total volume of the Budget under the financial framework? Of course there is.

Is there also any room for the European Union to increase its own resources? Of course there is. And there is clearly also room for the Common Agricultural Policy and the cohesion policy to be more fairly funded. When we talk about cohesion we are talking about justice. There is nothing fairer than cohesion; cohesion means equality, guaranteeing a living opportunity wherever you may live. And it seems to me that in such important countries as Spain at a European level it should be taken into account. And not only Spain, you also have Poland and Italy. And there you also have small countries like Slovenia and large countries like Spain and Italy. So I believe that in the end, you have to be patient; this is a complex negotiation but we will clearly attend in the most constructive of spirits. What I can say to you is that the Government of Spain wants to defend Spain's interests, and defending Spain's interests means building a stronger Europe. And we will obviously invest every effort possible in that.

Q: What size of Budget would Spain be happy with in the next proposal and, what approximate figure would Spain accept in terms of cuts to agriculture and cohesion? Remember that any country can block the agreement since it requires unanimity.

Under what conditions would Spain be prepared to block this agreement? And I wanted to know whether you have any clues as to when you may get together again to agree on the Budget.

President of the Government: I don't know when we will meet again. I imagine that we will begin informal contacts with the Presidency of the Council, here you have the ambassador, the State Secretary for the EU, and the technical staff from the Treasury, in the coming days.

And in relation to the first question, the bigger the Budget, the better. Much better. And if we get even closer to the proposal from the European Parliament, then so much the better. And if we get closer to the proposal from the European Commission, then that is also better.

One of the things we said is that those proposals that reduce the size of the pie more and more, colloquially put, will make a fair distribution of important policies for Spain such as the CAP and the cohesion policies more difficult.

What is important is, as I said before, to approach the negotiations with a constructive spirit.

Q: Thank you, President of the Government. I wanted to ask you about this case of coronavirus detected today in the north of Italy. I wanted to know if it concerns you that the increase in those affected may knock on to close countries like Spain and whether you have discussed this with the Italian Prime Minister. Thank you.

President of the Government: Yes, the Italian Prime Minister and I have spoken, but fortunately I believe we have an extraordinary public health system in Spain that is performing its basic work, which is monitoring this disease from a scientific point of view, and also from the point of view of communication we are conveying certain guarantees, certainties and calm to the Spanish public.

Q: Yes, President of the Government, after all these hours we have spent talking about cuts, I wanted to ask you in general whether you believe that the EU, after Brexit, is clearly regressing.

I also wanted to ask you about the countryside, which you have said is on fire. There have been fresh incidents today. Do you believe that the countryside can withstand strong cuts to the CAP? Do you believe this would be the final blow to the tensions we are witnessing?

And lastly, a key week is now beginning, with the meeting of the dialogue board, the vote on Thursday on the ceiling on spending…, do you believe that your majority will end this week stronger or weaker and that we will be closer or further away from having a Budget?

President of the Government: Well, as regards Brexit, I have never been in favour of it. In fact, I have made many statements speaking about this being a collective travesty because the European Union will not be the same without the United Kingdom. The United Kingdom and the contribution it has historically made to the European project have been essential in my opinion. And hence we are in a new phase now regarding how relations are in our divorce. That will also have its own relevance.

But anyway, given that this is how things are, I believe that Brexit may also give a fresh impetus to the European Union. That is, there are many matters that we have had to put to one side as a result of having to devote a great many European Councils to speaking about Brexit, and now to the Withdrawal Agreements, etc.

So, I feel that this may precisely be something that enhances the integration and strength of the European Union. But for that to be the case, we not only need good roadmaps that are exciting and encouraging, but also budgetary backing that makes the affairs approved by the three institutions viable.

As regards the Common Agricultural Policy, we have said this on many occasions, Carlos. The countryside in Spain is not plagued by just one problem. When I say this, and you, the media, have also said this, farmers do not only mention the Common Agricultural Policy. They talk, above all, about pricing policies, and consequently about transparency, about the profit margins of the large distributors, about rural depopulation, about the lack of young people to take over these agricultural holdings, about the levels of competition that certain areas of the agricultural sector may have…

In short, we are talking about a problem with a great many perspectives. Or a challenge rather than a mere problem. A challenge because the countryside can never be a problem; it is a very positive reality for our country that our public institutions must care for.

This government, and the Minister for Agriculture said this at the press briefing following the Council of Ministers, the minister, and he himself said this, Luis Planas, the minister who deals with crop and livestock farming in this country, and he has demonstrated this in his dealings with all the sectors and we will show this now after speaking with all the sectors next Tuesday, will approve a Royal Decree-Law that will start to incorporate solutions from the point of view of transparency and price control in the food chain.

But this will only be the start of many things that we will start to set in motion once we have spoken with the sector over the coming month. But clearly, the Common Agricultural Policy is an important matter, not just for the sector, but for the whole of Spain. And of course, we are defending the interests of the sector because these are Spain's interests.

And as regards the issues we face over the coming week, I believe that what is important is for dialogue to commence. And this dialogue should commence despite those who don't believe in dialogue and who seek to place obstacles in its way. What's more, I am convinced that as this dialogue gets under way, and agreements are reached, these same agreements will pave the way for other agreements. That is why I said a few days ago when we spoke about the bilateral committee that what is important is to set this dialogue in motion, and try to forge agreements on those questions on which we have closer starting positions rather than issues we disagree on. Because I am convinced that this dynamic of forging agreements will pave the way for other fresh agreements.

It is true that we our positions are very different, that this will be a complex negotiation which will not bear fruit immediately. But I believe that this is good news, and it is something that the citizens of our country want, for us to resolve, through dialogue, conflicts that have prevailed for these last 10 years precisely as a result of a lack of dialogue, and which have brought us to absolute failure, with a territorial crisis that has not been see in our country for these last 40 years, with consequences from every point of view that you can see in the media, as you would expect.

What do we believe? That we must begin to employ an agenda for rapprochement. That this agenda for rapprochement represents a chance for dialogue and reconciliation. We put 44 measures on the table, 44 proposals which, by the way, mainly focus on the very issues that the pro-independence movement proposed to the Government of Spain without receiving a response.

Some of the issues will clearly be very difficult to resolve, but there are others which I am convinced that we can set in motion. And that is what the Government of Spain is going to do, and everything else I mentioned in the control session. We have four years ahead of us in which the Government of Spain wants to return a certain normality to the institutional and budgetary life of our country, under a working Budget. We want to have the most rational and normal institutional life possible; I believe this is necessary after these last seven years of disorder left to us by the previous government, and that is where we will make the greatest effort. I have always stretched my hand out to the opposition in this regard. I obviously understand that the opposition has to do two things: one, oppose the government in its political action, but there is also another question related to the renewal of institutional positions, of governing bodies that are established in the Constitution, that require a two-thirds parliamentary majority and hence the agreement of the opposition is essential.

And to this end, I have asked the main opposition party to oppose what it will, but not to block the smooth functioning of such important democratic institutions for our country. If it maintains these deadlocks and opposition, it will make these four years very long.

(Transcript edited by the State Secretariat for Communication)

Non official translation