- The European liberal family is going through difficult times. The loss of votes in Germany and the United Kingdom in the elections to the European Parliament left in a very weak situation a political force accustomed to being the third most powerful and benefiting from its role as a hinge in the political pacts of the institution. The response of its leader, Guy Verhofstadt, has been to open the doors to new training, including UPyD and Citizens, which has led to a crisis with its historical partners, CDC and, to a lesser extent, PNV. Even so, it has become the fourth group of the institution. Liberal Siim Kallas, European Transport Commissioner and former Prime Minister of Estonia, is sympathetic to Verhofstadt’s strategy.
Do you share the strategy of the European liberal group?
The European Parliament is different from the national ones. The groups are not so homogeneous. Liberals have always had a wide variety of parties, but always based on two principles: economic liberties and social liberals. The ideal is obviously to vote as close as possible, especially on important issues. But it is a difficult issue. If we wanted to have a very homogeneous group, then it would be a very small group. And so you can not do anything, because you have no influence to move the European agenda.
Convergència weighs accepting the offer of the ECR group, led by the British Eurosceptics, and leaving the liberal, how would you like that movement?
Politically it does not make a very good impression to change sides. In European politics those things are never forgotten, that’s what my experience tells me.
Do you advise against going out?
I do not want to pronounce the Spanish situation in particular. In general terms, people who think about leaving the group would say that there is no hurry. Leaving a group after so many years is a very important step. I think it’s better to wait and see. You can always change groups later, if you are very frustrated or disappointed, or if those parties are too problematic for you.
Are you worried about the political situation in Catalonia?
As a European Commissioner I do not want to speak, I know it can be a very sensitive issue. Some things may be so attached to the hearts of people that it is not smart for a foreigner to speak out about it. My readings on contemporary Spanish history, which I started as a child, advise me to stay out of the subject.
During its mandate, the EU has declared a priority to build the Mediterranean rail corridor. Can European financing compensate for the budgetary constraints that Spain is going through?
The corridor is part of a larger project, and we are very pleased that the trans-European networks have ceased to be a ‘power point’ and have become projects that are starting up. Its importance lies in its cross-border value. Now we have three times more money than before to support it. Your destination will depend on the specific projects. But co-financing is there and there is the possibility of borrowing, because they are infrastructures that will provide benefits. If there is a commitment to do so, it will be done, although it will depend a lot on the ability of officials, economists and engineers to prepare the project and mobilize the available means. If we fail, in the next European budgetary period can make other decisions, other priorities. So, among all, what has been agreed upon must be put into practice.
There are works of some stretches of the Mediterranean corridor that are awarded but that are not being built because the money does not arrive.
It is up to Spain to find solutions, from here it is difficult to say which is a lamedor option.
Why does it cost so much that at European level projects like this one go ahead?
In this case, I believe that technically and financially it is feasible. The main problem we face is conflicts between member states, France in the case of Spain. The key is to have the same vision, as now, and things will move forward.
In the medium term there are problems in France due to the lack of agreement on the works of the line in Montpellier and Persignan, or the bypass in Lyon.
France has declared that it is committed to the development of this railway corridor and that is what is important. When there have been problems in previous projects of the trans-European networks from here we have tried to solve them by appointing mediators. In the future they will still be more useful because they will have more functions and means to act.
Were you surprised that with the change of government Spain rethink the projects that Brussels wanted to declare priority?
In these negotiations there has been a lot of struggle with the governments of Spain, but at my level the fight was mostly over the inclusion of ports. No minister has come to me questioning the inclusion of the Mediterranean corridor.
The PP government did request the inclusion of the central crossing of the Pyrenees.
Yes, it has always been an idea that we have talked about for a long time. But with the resources that Spain and the European Union have right now, you have to make decisions, choose. Nobody is against that tunnel but you can imagine the means that suppose … Better let’s concentrate now on these two corridors, the Mediterranean and the Atlantic, let’s do that first. The central crossing of the Pyrenees is still in the future plans but today what I always tell the people who come with the idea of tunneling is that you have to think about money. Nowadays, building a tunnel has an astronomical cost, due to safety, environmental requirements … Even the La Mancha tunnel, which has around 100 million people, has always faced financial difficulties. So let’s be rational. Hopefully also that France and Spain improve the roads to facilitate cross-border traffic but let’s make the two corridors first.