Juan Fernando López Aguilar interview: A Union in Law

Migration, Rule of Law, the future of Europe and reshaping the Council. There weren’t many top-line EU issues that Juan Fernando López Aguilar didn’t discuss with Ana Gallego Solana.
Juan Fernando López Aguilar | Photo credit: Natalie Hill

By Ana Gallego

Ana Gallego is a reporter and audiovisual journalist at the Parliament Magazine

28 Sep 2021

Coming from a generation that passionately embraced democracy, a generation that was coming of age just as the Franco era was coming to a close, as a teenager Juan Fernando López Aguilar witnessed first-hand Spain’s transition to a multi-party constitutional parliamentary democracy.

The Chair of the Parliament’s Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE) Committee remembers feeling at the time that this was “an opportunity for modernisation and the fulfilment of an intergenerational dream.” Spain’s transition to democracy marked him in ways that would shape his career. A Law professor at the University of Granada for 30 years, López Aguilar eventually became Spain’s Minister of Justice and then a member of the Parliament of the Canary Islands before finally arriving at the European Parliament in 2009. 

The Socialist deputy confesses that he dabbled in the arts before becoming an MEP. Tucked away among his many volumes of legal texts there’s a book of political caricatures that he published. He explains, “My first vocation was an artistic one; I made my living as a comic book and portrait artist and cartoonist until I went to college. I chose to study law and political science as I was passionate about the public space, about collective affairs.”

“As a 17-year-old comic book artist, I attended a conference of cartoonists in Granada organised by the Ministry of Culture, and I stayed there until I became a university professor.” He continues, “As I developed professionally, I was offered the opportunity - on more than one occasion - to earn more money in the private sector. At the time it was an appealing prospect, but I never really felt tempted to deviate from my commitment to the public, from my passion for democratic state and for the opportunities that democracy can bring to improving the lives of the majority and particularly those who have had it worse. Those who - as we say in Spain - were ‘born on the wrong side of the tortilla’”.

So, what challenges has the 60-year-old faced during his career? Without hesitation, he says “The common challenge surely is to be true to my values and ideas while at the same time being aware of the limitations of politics. While it represents collective action, politics provides a daily lesson in humility for individual ambitions and individual aspirations, including justice, social justice, the greatest freedom and equality”. 

“In Spain, most of the many important legislative policies bear the signature and seal of the Ministry of Justice, where I was minister of during the era of Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero. Justice is by far the most hostile Ministry for a socialist government in Spain because above all it’s an institution that is incredibly resistant to change.”

“However, I can think of many examples - same-sex marriage (which Spain become the third country in the world to legalise in 2005); express divorce by mutual consent; to gender violence laws and penal code reforms - that made history because of the legislative changes they introduced at the time. I served as Minister of Justice in a government that didn’t have an absolute majority, therefore, compromises had to be negotiated daily, and boy, did we push on them.”

Regarding the European Parliament’s working procedures, he says it was a challenge adjusting to “the political and legislative methods of the European Parliament particularly the open-ended negotiation process”, which he says still provides him with a “daily lesson in humility”.

“The European Union is not an ethnic, linguistic or religious union, it is a union in law and that law is the democratically legitimised right of open societies”

Moving into more LIBE-related matters, López Aguilar reflects on the conclusions of the recent Home Affairs Council on the potential immigration crisis that the situation in Afghanistan could generate as well as European Parliament President David Sassoli’s outspoken remarks on the issue. “Sassoli expressed disappointment and disgust on 1 September, and I share that bitter taste. There was an opportunity for an institution of the European Union, such as the Council, to be decisive and to live up to the ideals of the Lisbon Treaty.”

“The Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan is a crushing blow to the equality and dignity of the country’s women, and proof of the collective failure of a strategy which - despite all the financial and human economic resources of several EU Member States that participated in the operation - saw the sudden, chaotic and disorderly evacuation of people in desperate need of help.” 

He continues, “So what does the Council do? It stresses the importance of preventing the predictable flow of irregular immigrants and closes borders with the help of Frontex, avoiding a remotely uncontrolled ‘new flow’ of irregular arrivals. Reducing the Afghan catastrophe to a so-called ‘new migration crisis’ is an approach that’s not only unfair and petty but also very wrong.”

He believes it’s immaterial whether the EU currently has the power to do more; “First, the EU must assert its strategic autonomy, particularly if it wants to be the globally relevant actor that European citizens expect it to be. Second, it needs to incorporate some diplomatic muscle by establishing a rapid intervention force that doesn’t rely on the uncoordinated and asymmetric efforts of Member States. And third, I think what is needed is for the EU to develop a humanitarian aid strategy that focuses on those people likely to suffer the most from the tyranny of the Taliban; women, human rights activists, media professionals and all those who believed a democratic experiment could be built in Afghanistan.” 

On the need to create a European military corps, he declares himself to have been a decided supporter for many years. He explains, “My personal position is that of a European federalist. I am well aware that we are very far from this ambition reflecting the majority view, and that we are currently reflecting on the EU’s decision-making processes. However, we must - at minimum - move in the direction of avoiding the mistakes of the past and of living up to that global vocation - so often proclaimed and so many times disappointing - in our external actions.”

He adds, “It is hugely disappointing to see the EU fail to realise its potential; if it combined its defensive efforts, it would surely be a major actor. We could speak face-to-face with other global actors, such as China or Russia. The fragmented way we use our operational capacity is as saddening as it is embarrassing. 

“It’s not easy for me, as a socialist, to agree with the EPP on certain matters; to pull together a majority, but we are capable of doing so. The question is, can the Council also do it?”

On the topic of migration - an issue he has hands-on experience of as a member of the Canary Islands Parliament - he is disappointed by the current blockade in Council on the New Migration and Asylum Pack. The problem lies, he thinks, in “the Council’s inability to begin honouring the commitment they made when they signed the Lisbon Treaty, which mandated a system founded on the principles of binding solidarity and shared responsibility. In practice, these are being denied by a growing number of Member States”.

He also blames the Council for its “inability to change its negative and denialist views on immigration”. This needs to change to its view to one where migration ceases to be viewed as a crisis or a threat and becomes a fact that can be reasonably managed according to European law. However, this will not happen until there is the political will to do so.”

He explains that “It’s not easy for me, as a socialist, to agree with the EPP on certain matters; to pull together a majority, but we are capable of doing so. The question is, can the Council also do it?”

“For a long time, the enormity of the European process justified this lack of visibility and communication of local affairs towards the European institutions and vice versa. But that argument is no longer valid. We now live in a networked, connected society where we can all find out - through technologies and social networks - what is happening anywhere in Europe. Our capacity for analysis is more effective and precise than ever before. There is therefore no excuse to say we don’t know what is happening in, for example, the Canary Islands -the data is there and available to everyone.”

“However, I wonder how many people in Europe actually want to know? How many want to know that increasing numbers of small boats are found adrift in the Caribbean with dozens of bodies on board, each corpse testament to an unimaginable tragedy. Each one of them, women and children included, died a nightmare death that we cannot begin to imagine.”

“The last to die has seen all the others go one-by-one, knowing that their time will also come. The solution requires a European rescue strategy, a strategy for action at source, a strategy to combat traffickers, a strategy to incentivise regular and humanitarian migration – yet none of these currently exist. Therefore, I cannot give up on efforts to achieve these goals”, adding “There is nothing more existentially challenging for the EU than the gap between the European promise and its achievements”.

On the tension around the Rule of Law issue in some EU Member States, López Aguilar says that “There are people who believe that the Article 7 sanction process consists of depriving a Member State of its voting rights in Council by unanimous vote of the Council members. This is not true; in the Article 7 procedure the Council can identify systemic and serious violation of the common values by a qualified majority, but it has not been able to do that so far. It is particularly alarming, and perhaps a sign of the level of deterioration in the European project, that certain EU Member States have already distanced themselves from the European Court of Justice sentence. As a jurist, and as a professor of European law, I know this is the final frontier.”

“The European Union is not an ethnic, linguistic or religious union, it is a union in law and that law is the democratically legitimised right of open societies. This seems especially serious to me. It is happening. We are still waiting for Hungary and Poland to correct the legislation that the Court of Justice has declared as incompatible with European law. Surely this is what is expected of a Member State that has signed the treaties and has committed to being part of the EU club.”


“There is nothing more existentially challenging for the EU than the gap between the European promise and its achievements”

Commenting on the delayed Conference on the Future of Europe, he is clear on what he thinks the debates should achieve. “First of all, this Conference is an extraordinary opportunity to check and improve the EU’s health and to revitalise it via a bottom-up approach.”

He also hopes the discussions will also look at revalidating the Spitzenkandidat process of selecting the European Commission President, and change the requirement for unanimity on common defence, security and foreign policy. “Europe should be able to advance diplomatically on its global actions by a qualified majority and that binding solidarity and shared responsibility in the area of freedom, justice, and security become real and fulfilled”.

He also wants better coordination on the EU’s budget and spending rounds, “to link the Multiannual Financial Framework to the mandate of the Parliament and the Commission and ensure it matches the financial perspective and spending ceilings, providing a clear political, and even ideological, component that is linked to the mandate of the voters.”

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