Former Spanish Prime Minister examines European future

As Spain continues its slow economic recovery, former Spanish Prime Minister José María Aznar spoke on Tuesday about the future political, economic and social challenges faced by his country and the rest of Southern Europe.

In a Sterling Memorial Library lecture hall, Aznar — who served as Prime Minister from 1996 to 2004 — defended the importance of preserving the central position of the European Union, despite the recent economic crisis. Aznar pointed out five crucial areas for European leaders to address: consolidation of the EU, the welfare state, relations with the U.S., political structure, and foreign and defense policies.

“I do not think Europe is condemned to decline and failure — it’s proven the capacity to surmount the deepest crises and has the potential of making extraordinary achievements,” Aznar said. “All it needs is a clear and good plan of [action], and leaders who are in power with courage and determination to see it through.”

If Europe can recover a sense of purpose and not succumb to crisis, confusion and uncertainty, the 21st century need not be the Pacific Century, as many regard it, he said.

The former Prime Minister acknowledged that compared with India and China, the EU has stalled in its rate of economic development. Ensuring the future of the EU — and prosperity for its millions — depends on the EU’s commitment to fiscal discipline, financial union between member countries and structural reform to ensure that all European economies are open and competitive, he added.

Attributing part of Europe’s present economic crisis to the “excess commitment of the welfare state,” Aznar advocated reevaluating social assistance in Europe — an issue he said all modern societies will need to rethink.

“We have to find a more reasonable balance between rights and responsibilities, between the state and the individual,” Aznar said. “Europe needs less government intervention and more economic freedom.”

Aznar also spoke of the need for more representative, efficient and accountable political institutions in Europe, as well as cooperation between EU states in the face of increasing competition.

A renewed commitment to foreign and defense policies is necessary in order to “defend and express [the EU’s] position in the world,” Aznar said. Though European armies have been shrinking in budget, personnel and professional capabilities, Aznar said the prolonged inaction can be reversed, as it is a product of a lack of attention to defense and a lack of courage.

Though precise, Aznar’s plan for Spain and Europe at large seemed abstract to many audience members.

“I believe the five problems are relevant to [Spain’s situation],” said Martin Urdapilleta ’17, “But he did not mention how Europe would gain that role and leadership he rightly sees as paramount for the continent.”

Following his presentation, Aznar answered questions about his stance on Catalonia, an autonomous community in Spain. Aznar said he did not support Catalonia’s protests for independence, citing nationalism as both an important threat and value in Southern Europe. Still, he defended constitutional respect for plurality.

With regard to concerns about inequality in Spain, Aznar said it is not the most important problem in Spain. But he added that the source of inequality lies in the destruction of the middle class.

Nazanin Sullivan GRD ’15 said she felt a disconnect between Aznar and the youth she encountered when living in Spain for two years.

“The rhetoric [Aznar] proposed contrasted with what young people are saying — they’re almost opposites,” she said, recalling sentiments among the youth that the EU took away flexibility and that inequality is a significant problem.

Likewise, Dee Hamilton, a Spanish teacher at James Hillhouse High School in New Haven who taught in Spain for 13 years during Aznar’s term, said she was struck by Aznar’s proposal to limit welfare. After teaching “privileged” children, Hamilton said, she saw Spain is still “classist” and requires government support and protection.

Aznar said Spain’s high level of unemployment should compel it to create jobs and establish control over the public sector, particularly in administration.

His two terms as Prime Minster lasted from 1996-2000 and 2000-2004.

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