Commissioner Hahn on Catalonia’s EU membership: “the question can be resolved in a more relaxed way”
CATALAN NEWS AGENCY – In an interview with the Catalan News Agency, the European Commissioner for Regional Policy, the Austrian Johannes Hahn, nuanced previous statements made by other Commissioners and opened the door to debating Catalonia’s EU membership “in a more relaxed manner”.
Hahn “rejected” the idea that the Commission “is ignoring Catalonia’s independence movement”; “we are watching it carefully”, he said. On the question of automatic expulsion from the EU in the event of Catalonia becoming independent, the Commissioner emphasised that “of course there is no provision in the Treaty [about what to do in this event] and that’s why legal experts have the opinion that then Catalonia should ask for membership”. However he immediately added that “we should resolve this issue in a more relaxed manner”, since “if there is independence, it would not happen from one day to the next”. In this way, Hahn was nuancing the message of automatic expulsion from the EU given in September by the Spanish Government, the Spanish Commissioner Joaquín Almunía and the French Commissioner Michel Barnier – who is a candidate to become the next President of the institution. On other matters, the Austrian politician explained how the European Union is changing its regional policy, moving from funding infrastructures to promoting the economy and supporting SMEs as its main priority for the coming years.
Within the framework of the European Commission’s Open Days, which take place each year in Brussels to explain the cohesion policy in the regions and cities of the EU, Commissioner for Regional Policy, Johannes Hahn, held an interview with the CNA.
From funding large infrastructure to support SMEs
The European Commission is in the final rounds of negotiation with the Member States , the European Parliament and the Committee of the Regions to adopt a new regional cohesion policy for the next seven years (2014-2020). Commissioner Hahn summed it up by saying that “we are changing the policy, from focusing on infrastructure investments to focusing on promoting the economy”. Asked if Spain’s oversized infrastructures and highest unemployment rate in Europe after Greece were considered a failure of the previous cohesion policy, and if there were reasons for changing the policy, the Austrian Christian-Democrat explained that a few years ago the Commission was “only checking that the money was used correctly from the financial point of view” but not “how it was being used”. Hahn carried on by saying that in recent years they “have begun to look at it”, and he emphasised that in the next policy this will be strengthened.
In addition, the new regional policy will ask the Member States and regions “to make strategies in different areas”. The Commission’s focus and say “will not be on individual projects”, but on “comprehensive strategies”, which will be presented by the territories asking for funding for each sector. “For example, on the money for SMEs , we will ask for a smart specialization strategy” explained Hahn. This “means that each region should identify its business opportunities, their potential and their strengths , what can be strengthened and what are the existing assets in the region” he added. This logic also applies to the other sectors, such as transportation.
Supporting the SMEs
The Commissioner emphasised that they are working “to align cohesion policy with the 2020 strategy and meet its objectives”. This strategy focuses on promoting growth and competitiveness and creating jobs. The new strategy will change from funding major infrastructure to supporting small and medium-sized enterprises, which are the largest creators of jobs in Europe. Hahn pointed out that the Commission has already “begun to offer in the current period financial instruments, funds, dedicated to the support of SMEs, particularly by offering loans, guarantees and things like that”.
However, the Austrian People’s Party member emphasized that the major problem of European SMEs, “and not just the Spanish ones, is that in many cases they are under-capitalised”. Therefore, “the objective will be to increase the equity capital of SMEs to strengthen them in order to access to liabilities”. However, Hahn noted that the majority of small and medium enterprises “are the property of families or individuals, who do not like to have banks in their decision-making processes”. The Commissioner warned that this is also “a psychological problem” which mush be tackled and overcome, to make SMEs less reluctant to work with financial institutions. Therefore, Hahn said that the new policy “will have to find creative solutions to provide not only money but also offering ways and channels on how to use the money”.
“National populism is growing throughout Europe”
Asked about the next European elections and a hypothetical rise of the extreme-right, populism and Euro-scepticism in Europe, particularly in rich countries such as Commissioner Hahn’s home country, the Austrian politician said that “there is a growing national populism throughout Europe” and “probably the idea of solidarity has stretched for a lot of people due to the economic situation in some Member States”. For Hahn, the solution is for politicians “to explain [the situation] better to their people, their voters”. The Commissioner argued that “we have interdependence, not only in terms of solidarity , but also expressed in the economic interest of the member states to help and assist each other”.
“I reject the idea that the Commission [ …] is ignoring this independence movement”
Asked if he believed that the European Commission’s attitude of officially ignoring the Catalan independence demand can account for the rise in Euro-scepticism in Catalonia, the Austrian politician stressed that he “rejected [the idea] that the Commission and other European institutions are ignoring the independence movement”. He added that “we are watching it carefully”. Regarding what would happen to their EU membership if Catalonia became an independent state, Hahn said that “of course there is no provision in the Treaty [about what to do in this event] and that’s why legal experts have the opinion that then Catalonia should ask for membership”. However, the Austrian Commissioner stressed that he is “not a lawyer” and that he believed “this has to be resolved in a more relaxed manner”. He pointed out that “in the event that there is independence, it will not“happen from one day to the next, so I think this issue can be resolved in more relaxed manner, I would say”.
It is “certainly something for further explorations”
More in line with the Commission’s pronouncements of recent months, Hahn affirmed that “the EU should not be the decisive one” but “it’s up to Spanish and Catalonia’s people to decide on their future”. “It is not the task of the European Union to comment on that” he added. The Commissioner justified the action taken by Brussels so far by simply saying that they “have answered legal questions”. However he emphasized that Catalonia’s EU membership “is certainly something for further explorations”. Finally, the Regional Policy Commissioner concluded that “in terms of time-table, etc, I think one could be more relaxed than it is”.