Spain’s new foreign minister Borrell, a fierce Catalan independence critic

Josep Borrell served as president of the European parliament between 2004 and 2007

Madrid (AFP) – Former European parliament president Josep Borrell, who was nominated Wednesday Spain’s new foreign minister, has been an outspoken critic of Catalan secessionism in recent years and is staunchly pro-European Union.

The appointment marks a return to the frontline of politics of the white-haired 71-year-old Catalan who in 1999 had to renounce leading Spain’s Socialists over a financial scandal.

He served as deputy finance minister, and then public works minister, under former Socialist prime minister Felipe Gonzalez, who was in power between 1982 and 1996.

Borrell was elected leader of the party in 1998 but he renounced the position the following year before a 2000 general election due to a financial scandal involving two of his former co-workers when he was deputy finance minister.

A keen hiker who has often described himself as a “long distance runner”, Borrell bounced back by dedicating himself to European affairs.

He served as president of the European parliament between 2004 and 2007.

In recent years he has been one of the most prominent voices against Catalan independence, delivering a speech at a rally in favour of the unity of Spain in Barcelona in October where he dismissed the rhetoric being used by some in the secessionist movement.

“It is a war in which we can’t use weapons but propaganda is key. They use it very well and the Spanish government very badly,” Borrell said in October during a meeting with the foreign press, in a reference to Catalan separatists.

“They refer to the other side as a stranger who is belittled. They talk of a ‘revolution of smiles’ but on social networks the violence is terrible,” he added.

That same month, he caused controversy when he said Catalan society, deeply divided over independence, had to be healed “and for that you need to pile on disinfectant.”

– Bright student –

Borrell also co-authored a book in 2015 which criticised the political and economic arguments used by Catalan separatists.

Catalan separatist parties, which backed new Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez’s no-confidence motion against conservative Mariano Rajoy last week which ousted him from power, reacted coolly to Borrell’s nomination.

“This is the gesture you thought of to send us a message of de-escalation?”, Catalonia’s ousted president Carles Puigdemont wrote Monday on Twitter, accusing him of fomenting “hate” for Catalans.

Born on April 24, 1947 in a tiny village in the Catalan Pyrenees, Pobla de Segur, Borrell is the son of a baker who used to accompany his father to deliver bread in villages by donkey.

A bright student, he won several scholarships which allowed him to obtain a degree in aeronautical engineering in Madrid, then a masters degree at Stanford University in the United States and another masters in Paris. He also has a doctorate degree in economics. 

A father of two children from a first marriage with a French woman he met while working at a kibbutz in Israel, Borrell has been in a relationship for the past two decades with former Socialist environment minister Cristina Narbona.