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"Brexit must not call into question the coherence of the European project"
After occupying other high-ranking positions, Tarragona native Xavier Prats is now Director-General for Health and Food Safety at the European Commission. On 4 May he spoke about the European project with students of the Faculty of Law.
Xavier Prats, Director-General for Health and Food Safety at the European Commission, offered a conference at the Faculty of Law on 4 May. The faculty's students were able to share their ideas and questions on the future of the European project with Prats, who has a broad experience in institutions of the European Union. The event was organised by the faculty and by the UAB Institute of European Studies, and moderated by Gregorio Garzón, emeritus professor at the Department of Public Law and Legal History Studies.
Is there a better image of the European Union outside the EU?
Yes, if by image we understand the potential of the European Union and its reason for existing, as well as the importance of having a regional power in the continent. The farther you go, the clearer it is that the rest of the world wants the EU to have an influence on international politics. That does not mean that everyone is impressed. It is very difficult, for example, to understand the lack of unity in some issues in which, seen from a global perspective, the whole European Union should have an interest in. However, the logic of a European government is obvious: in Latin America, all countries look to us and see something they would also like to create.
Maybe what we still need to create is a European identity.
The error is thinking that one must choose between a European identity and a national one. We must see how a European identity can be added to the others, to complement them and improve them. That depends on the issues and the distance: for me it is much easier to see myself as a European when I am in Shanghai than when I am in Barcelona, because from there I can see that the differences between Europeans is actually very small.
Are young people distancing themselves from the European project?
It is difficult to talk about the young people of Europe in general. In the end, there are more similarities between a young person and an older person living in one of Europe's large cities than there are between two young people, one from a city and the other from a small town. Or between a young person with a university degree and another without one. There are countries,mostly in southern Europe, where youth unemployment is a drastic problem; in contrast Germany has other problems. Therefore, it is difficult to generalise, but I would say that yes, there are young people living in social exclusion and naturally they feel distant from Europe; but not because they do not like the EU but because they feel separated from their own society.
The Erasmus programme is said to promote Europeanism. What is your opinion about it?
It has promoted it a great deal, for different reasons. Travelling is a good thing and for a young person it is a highly positive experience. However, the programme promote Europeanism for a lesser known reason: Erasmus is not only a mobility programme for students, it is also a programme for lecturers and a means of collaboration between institutions.
Maybe there needs to be more similar initiatives outside of the university sector.
In 2020, the Erasmus programme will have included the participation of five million people; that is a lot, but it is not everybody. There is a need for more clear examples of what a Europe of citizens would be like. I am now working on health issues and we do have something called the European networks of reference for rare diseases. There are 7,000 rare diseases in Europe affecting 30 million people and there is no one discipline, hospital or country which can solve the problem by itself. We have created 24 networks of reference for rare cancers, complex epilepsy, etc. Therefore, if someone in your family has a rare disease, Europe can do something for you: all the existing knowledge is looked up for you so you don't have to go anywhere. This is a very tangible example.
You mentioned in the conference that Spain was the only country in the EU to not have a Eurosceptic party. What do you think is the reason for that?
Many people are not happy with Europe, but there are also reasons for not rejecting it, either. One of the reasons is that Spain part of a group of countries which has received a lot of funding. That makes it be seen as a compensation for being part of the EU; in contrast to Denmark, where people must be told that part of their taxes, albeit a small part, goes to helping another country. In addition, for Spain Europe has always represented a legitimate return to the club of democratic and civilised nations. And another important factor is that for many years Spain sent people to other European countries: it was an emigration country up until two generations ago. It is much easier to understand solidarity, accepting people who come from elsewhere. This set of ideas make it difficult for Spain to envision a future without Europe.
What impact do you think Brexit will have on the European project in the long term?
It is clear that it will not be positive for the British or for the other 27. The United Kingdom is probably the country which has remained, for the longest and most consistently, in doubt about its participation in the European project; but Brexit does not question the coherence of the project itself. There is also a positive aspect: the difficulties of Brexit will give more importance to things we take for granted, such as free circulation. Nobody under the age of 50 even thinks about taking out their passport when they travel around Europe. Now, for example, Brexit will mean that we will need a building in Calais to control food products coming from the United Kingdom.
What role can universities play in strengthening the European project?
It is difficult to imagine that as the society of knowledge becomes stronger, the role played by the main distributors of knowledge would not grow as well. And this means universities and education systems in general. Education, as other sectors, is experiencing the impacts of globalisation and technological and demographical transformations. Education institutions must face the challenge of adapting themselves to changing needs. It means not being at the service of companies, but of citizens. For me, universities should have a more important role in the public debate about the future of our societies.
What about research?
Based on my daily work, both in health and food safety matters, I am shocked to see how science advances and at the same time how there is a growing scepticism about science. Let's take vaccines for example: there is no other public policy as simple, clear, inexpensive and efficient as this. But it is questioned, nonetheless. The scepticism of citizens regarding constituted powers is also applied to science and that is very dangerous because we lose opportunities and because, although not everything can be solved with scientific evidence, we do not have a better tool. The university plays an essential role in the dissemination of science as a pillar of democracy. There is freedom of opinion, but if you think the Earth is flat, your opinion is wrong and we cannot offer the same amount of space or credibility as we do an opinion that is supported by science.