“I am quite pessimistic (about where the EU will be in the short-term future) because I think that the crisis to come are bigger than this one, and that we are not any more a ‘global player’ as our leaders like to say.”
Alfonso Alcolea, since 2009, is an Administrator at the Committee of the Regions (the voice of regions and cities in the European Union), in Brussels. Obviously, his answers don’t represent the institution: they are merely personal views.
-Could you tell us something about your previous background? What are your studies?
I got a scholarship to study in EU Politics and Administration in the College of Europe in Bruges. Unfortunately my Region cancelled those scholarships a couple of years ago.
Previously, I always dreamt of being a diplomat, but in my city (Murcia, Spain) there were no IR, so I studied Law. Then I tried to do the competition of the Spanish Foreign Service, but in the second try (not bad) there was no more money to pay such expensive preparation. Then I recycled into the environmental policy, and finally Bruges.
–Before getting the post as an Administrator in the Committee of the Regions, where did you work and how were those experiences?
I think that in our environment, careers are not pre-determined and each of us determines his or her own profile.
I owe my career to a lot of factors: For example, working in youth and students associations paved me the way to become what I am, and also to get all my jobs. Being a member of the scout movement made me get engaged in international affairs, and raised my concerns about the environment. Later, I created students associations in my high school and in the University. When I got the offer to be the manager and policy officer of the association of Environment Companies of the Region of Murcia (www.aema-rm.org), the job was tailor-made just for me. The same when I got the offer to be a MEP assistant, and above all when I had the honor of serving the Valencian Region working in its office in Brussels.
-How did you get your job in the Committee of the Regions?
I passed a competition in 2004 and got the job only in 2009. It was not easy at all. My passport (EU15) was a problem. My experience in the Regional Office of Valencia in Brussels helped a lot.
-What’s the role of the Committee of the Regions in the EU?
Some people think that we are the musicians of the Titanic. But the orchestra is a part of the crew and we have to play… even if it seems that we are sinking. Why? Simply because we involve the people at home much more that can be believed at a first glance.
The CoR is a consultative body of the EU representing regions and cities. The power of decision-making corresponds to the MEPs and… to Ms Merkel? or let’s rather say to the Member States. The voice of those who are responsible of implementing the EU legislation and policies has to be heard somewhere. The CoR is their house and I am proud of working for these people.
For example: Do you know what the Strategy Europe 2020 is? Nobody does! Europe 2020 is the roadmap that is supposed to bring us all out of the crisis. Thanks to the Committee of the Regions, most of the regional Presidents and Mayors are involved in making Europe 2020 happen. Not only presidents and mayors, but also their staff, and their citizens.
Local and regional policy-makers have the skills. They exchange solutions and formulas to do their job better, and they can also interact with the EU explaining which are their “recipes”, their ideas, and their concerns. They bring Europe closer to the citizens: Some time ago, an Irish mayor said: “When a referendum comes, it is me who goes to the people’s houses explaining them the EU and why to vote yes”. He was right.
-In overall, which one of your labor experiences in Brussels did you like the most?
I have had wonderful experiences, but I think that the nicest ones are those that “grey away” the apparently boring EU. If I had to choose something, I’d take my experience as TAIEX expert.
TAIEX is the programme of assistance to countries that are going to become EU Members. Instead of sending “eurocrats” from Brussels, the European Commission sends experts from the ground. I organized several amazing study visits in Spain. And my own trips were really pleasant experiences: I explained the EU environmental policy in seminars in Turkey, Cyprus, Bulgaria and Romania, going to the furthest corners of Europe. I must admit that I learnt more than I could ever teach. Now I don’t travel. I speak in TAIEX seminars only in Brussels, but I love it too.
-What’s the most important thing you’ve learned in your years in Brussels?
Euh… that’s a difficult question indeed. I would say that you learn to make everything somehow relative and to get into the shoes of the others. Talking to people with different backgrounds is so enriching: Think about Croatians, they suffered a war just yesterday! Think about Poles, their experience of communism and occupation, and so on and so on.
-If you could start over, would you do the same?
Yes because I made my life here. But probably I would have searched for a job in my country related to Europe, closer to my family. I miss them too much. And the food!
-In the years you’ve been working in Brussels, would you say things have changed? If so, how? For good?
The EU has changed for better since 2002: We are now 27, soon 28, and we have the Euro.
However, these progresses bring difficulties with them: The euro and the enlargement have changed the rules of the game inside the Union. We see it now, in times of crisis.
In my opinion, the supranational institutions, such as the European Commission and the European Parliament, are somehow fading face to the power of the Member States. Every commissioner seems to wait for the green light of the Member States to undertake any initiative, and there is a tendency to re-nationalize the spending of the EU budget.
-If you could change (somehow improving) anything in your work or even in the way the EU works, what would it be?
I am personally afraid about the current tendency: the EU rules on the neo-liberal aspects, such as free-movement of goods and of capitals, but has less power in re-distributive policies that involve public expenditure. That goes against the objectives of economic, social and territorial cohesion, and therefore all the unpopular decisions come “from Brussels” more than ever.
We should support a stronger EU budget, and I think that this bigger EU budget should be spent even in current expenditures of Member States (oh scandal!). If we want a good and competent education all over Europe, maybe the EU money should help to pay the salaries of the Romanian teachers, why not (oh double scandal!)? And we should pool other expenditure such as the military: why should Greece buy ships to France and Germany? Let’s increase the NATO military assets and reduce the national ones to liberate national budgets.
Maybe that’s utopia, but the European integration was utopia too and here we are.
-After France’s elections and Greece’s ones, do you think there’s going to be a change in the debate of the EU? Is austerity going to be accompanied with growth measures? How?
The debate has already changed, not only because of the election of Mr. Hollande, but also because Ms Merkel is facing serious difficulties among her voters. Anyway, Germany is not alone in its position: The Netherlands, Finland, Austria and others support the austerity. But I perceive a general state of mind in favor of growth measures to increase the productivity and gradually recover.
I honestly think that this disastrous crisis has a shared responsibility. Why did the German banks and investment funds contribute to the Spanish bubble? Why did the ECB keep a low interest rate for the euro against the interests of the Southern countries, used to high interest rates to avoid economic overheating? Why the Commission did not deter Spain from building useless airports? Etc. etc.
-Do you think that a ‘no’ in the Irish Referendum would have been dramatic for the Fiscal Compact?
I do not have an opinion about this issue. I am not specialized in everything. I always say that ‘Vox populi, vox Dei’. In all cases. The EU must be imaginative to find alternative solutions able to satisfy the Member States and mainly the citizens.
In general, the EU decision-making is complicated and gets blocked too often, not to mention the problems of implementation. It is very difficult to simplify this, although I believe in a smaller and stronger College of Commissioners and probably a unified Presidency, which would allow a genuine leadership.
-Is Spain going to be rescued? Could the EU rescue it?
The bailout of Spain is a fact already. The EU has been really quick to set up the financial mechanisms, and this expression of solidarity is a clear sign to the markets. Spain is not going to fall.
With this bailout the banks will be paid but they are not punished for lending money to disastrous investments, and nobody assures that the economy will be reactivated. I would personally prefer to rescue the families and the companies, so the banks can get their loans back (except the irresponsible ones like empty urbanizations and ruined airports) and the economy can be re-activated.
Once that the bailout has been decided, the choice is where to pump the money. Aren’t we giving direct subsidies to farmers in exchange of nothing? Then why do we not give it to unemployed families and to SMEs and start-ups?
-Where do you think the EU will be in 5 years? And in 10?
I am quite pessimistic because I think that the crisis to come are bigger than this one, and that we are not any more a ‘global player’ as our leaders like to say.
Look at the landscape: We have to get out of the financial crisis, but do we have a real say in the regulation of the global markets? We intend to be a competitive economy, but the BRICs spend more in R&D than us; what’s this? In the future, we will face a crisis generated by the climate; , where has the EU been in the last climate negotiations, especially if compared with Kyoto? We will face other crisis linked to the energy; but why our topics of discussion are not in the agenda of the big powers and of the multinationals? Our markets are flooded with products of emerging countries whose footprint on the natural resources is unbearable; do we still remember our commitment with the sustainable development, to begin with sustainable production and consumption standards?
-Do you think that this crisis is going to be overcome within a few months/years?
Europe is getting older and poorer. The future generation risks of living worse than their parents did. Face to this, if we have to keep our standards of living (universal health, education, environment, social services), this means more cohesion, and more Europe. So, will the EU give a bold step to preserve its identity features? I think yes. Even if we assume that we will make part of the periphery of a new planet. We will be strong enough only if we defend those social assets and if we do it together. I am here to work for it.
-Opinion polls show us recently that Europeanism is losing ground. Do you think it will be recovered in a short period of time?
What is ‘Europeanism’? I think that people do not agree with certain current neo-liberal policies of the EU, which seem to benefit only the big companies. In my opinion, those critics want a change, but the ‘Europeanism’ remains there because nobody wants to come back to the 20th century inter-war nation state. To be against a policy does not mean to be against the polity.
Thank you for your time. It’s been a pleasure.