“We need to establish a principle of citizenship”

Article published on June 30, 2003
community published
Article published on June 30, 2003

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

Interview with Victorino Mayoral, President of the European Federation for Education and Popular Culture.

In a little over twenty years, Spain has turned from being a nation of emigrants into a nation of immigrants. Spain’s geopolitical location as a traditional stopover between North Africa and Latin America and the old continent makes it a hot spot for immigration problems. Unstable working conditions, illegal immigration, a mix of cultures and delinquency are just some of the issues that have been combining due to the impact immigration has had on Spain in recent years.

Victorino Mayoral is a socialist MP in the lower house and is on the Parliament’s Justice and Interior Committee. He also chairs the NGO Spanish League of Education and Popular Culture (see link) as well as its European equivalent, the European Federation of Education and Culture, which co-ordinates and develops education and cultural orientation for disadvantaged groups which is particularly the case for immigrants.

café babel. How would you describe the immigration situation in Spain at the moment? What stage are we at?

Victorino Mayoral. At the moment we’re reeling from a considerable wave of immigration. Never before have we seen what we’re seeing now. This is a very important change for Spanish society which, in my opinion, hasn’t taken it in. We’ve had some negative reactions, some racism. Meanwhile things are drifting at the political level. The Partido Popular [ruling right-wing party] is disunited in its approach. The only instrument at their disposal is legislation based on the negative elements of immigration.

Do you believe it to be essential to fully develop EU legislation on immigration or are you more in favour of Member States sharing some common core elements and having their own laws according to their “specificities”?

I think it’s essential. We have a single market, a single currency and we share common values that should unite us. I think we should have a common policy. But it won’t be easy, as each Member State does its own thing and then hides behind the EU so as not to admit its inefficiencies. On that point I would blame the others for their own inefficiency, something this government is a past master at.

The bulk of today’s immigration has been given impetus by right-wing neo-liberal development policies, and yet right-wing governments are the first ones to toughen up the immigrants’ legal conditions. What do you attribute this contradiction to?

To a deeply immoral and hypocritical policy. We all know that we need immigrants, that certain areas of the economy need manpower, that most of the work they do does not enjoy much job security and is poorly paid. You have to remember that Spain currently has half a million illegal immigrants who are exploited. They are needed, exploited but also criminalized. And this all happens because of the make-up of the right in Spain. There’s no far right here, as there is in other European countries, where small parties take up the far right’s cause. That’s why the government carries out token policies to keep the far right onside.

So how can this xenophobia and the rise of the far right be contained in Europe ?

Clearly a tough policy, such as the one that leads to this emphasis on development, this totally egotistical neo-liberal approach and the lack of social and integration policies all create a poor set of circumstances for immigrants. They are like second-class citizens and that’s how it’s perceived. This feeling of fear is generated from within the right. There are citizens who see this development with trepidation because even the government has projected this image. People have not been able to differentiate between “immigrant” and “foreign petty criminal”. While this policy of manipulating fear continues, no right-wing party will emerge because the Partido Popular caters for this. If the Partido Popular were a party of the centre, this kind of [far right] party would come into being.

How far does the social perception of the immigrant, that is the perception of the citizen who fears for his security and fears losing national identity, influence the development of immigration policies?

I would distinguish between two types of perception. The first is the perception of the typical nationalist, the Catalans, the Spain-firsters, the Basques. Those who are trying to protect the sociological, cultural and racial environment of their country are fearful of the arrival of immigrants. There have been demonstrations along these lines, in Catalonia for example. Then there is the average citizen who has seen his sense of security drop with the arrival of more immigrants, while the government links the two phenomena. This creates a vicious circle which, in the absence of social immigration policies, means that we have the worst of all situations.

Do you think that the work of raising awareness and of integrating immigrants into society hardly scratches the surface and is almost exclusively done by NGOs and other social organisations? What can an NGO do today in the terms of immigration?

NGOs are doing voluntary work. There is a feeling that these aspects have been forgotten and left to the NGOs, to the voluntary sector. We must remember that organisations like this support immigrants. Immigrants approach us and see Spanish citizens as people to work with in a constructive, positive way and see something else. But this is only the minority. Any future immigration policy will need the NGOs’ help as they play an important role in this area. It’s all about civil society within working with civil society from outside.

The new law comes down very hard on illegal immigration, but this also affects the person in this situation who is suffering from a lack of rights by comparison with the “legal immigrant”. How much attention do you think should be paid to this clear-cut definition between “legal” and “illegal”?

The illegal immigrant is left to his own devices. I don’t know if there is a deliberate interest on the part of business sectors for there to be illegal immigration without any kind of guarantees or rights and therefore with the lowest level of job security. This is a phenomenon which has been becoming more prevalent. Two or three years ago there were 30 or 50,000 illegal immigrants and now there are half a million. I am concerned about these 500,000 people. They are in Spain because, amongst other things, the government has been unable to control the flow whatever it says. Much is made of the strait and the boats but a lot of illegal immigrants come into Spain via Barajas airport. It’s pretty irresponsible having a country with so many people in this situation of such low job security. It’s been allowed to happen because, in Marxist terms, they are a large “reserve army”, which is there and which can be ruthlessly exploited by the system. And they are also easy to be point the finger at. It’s a backward step in terms of rights and one that takes us back into the 19th century.

Do you agree with the “knock-on effect” according to which the previous PSOE’s [left-wing party and current opposition party] law on aliens encouraged immigration through the benefits and legal facilities they enjoyed in this country?

This is not true. The bulk of illegal immigrants have flooded in right now. The PP has undertaken three reforms. In the first one they accused the socialists of provoking this “knock-on effect” with the previous law, when there were 20,000 immigrants in Spain. Now there are 500,000.

Do you think that we are ready as a society to confront a multicultural future?

Nothing is being done by the powers-that-be. All that is happening is happening through the free play of social processes. There is no guidance, just a repressive and negative reaction, but not a constructive vision. Spanish society has always been more generous and understanding than its governments but there is no guidance. Our saving grace is that the process is not so far advanced here as in other countries. I think we have to put the emphasis on mixing cultures. A cosmopolitan type of society, made up of a jigsaw of different elements. We need to establish a principle of citizenship, of a secular state, which we all enjoy in this country and that everyone feels like a citizen regardless of their ethnic, religious, cultural specificities. This is the model of Enlightenment, of universal human rights and not that of communities, races or cultures. The latter model is based on fantasies which imprison people and hamper their personal development.