‘What are European values, you ask me?’ Cayetana takes a sip from her tea. ‘Well if we talk about the essentials, the basics, they are democracy, political pluralism, open markets, freedom of expression, religious conscience, and speech. And they have become universal values. They aren’t good because they are ours, but they are good because they’re good.’
Cayetana Álvarez de Toledo, in full Cayetana Álvarez de Toledo y Peralta-Ramos (the long name is her punishment for being a marquise), is that rare thing among politicians: someone with avery clear point of view. And she is highly intelligent. Now 39, she is a member of parliament, but she has also worked as a journalist, political analyst and radio commentator.
‘It was not a vocation to become a politician; I wasn’t active on school boards or anything. The terrorist attacks on the Atocha station were a key moment; that was when I decided to choose politics. I did it because my boss, the editor in chief of El Mundo, strongly advised me not to do it; according to him “journalism is politics without responsibility”. I found that… funny,’ she says, diplomatically. ‘It is what journalism can become, but I wanted responsibility, and I was ready to take it.’ She ends her short story nicely: ‘Let’s say that as a student I was studying the past, as a journalist I was working in the present and now, as a politician, I can hopefully help shape the future.’
‘Do you want to become a minister?’
‘Well no, not necessarily. What I find most important is to have an impact in the fields I’m now active in.’ Her answer sounds a bit obligatory, probably because it’s never wise to be too open about one’s ambitions. But Cayetana’s political talent is widely recognised. A protégé of the prime minister, she is in the party’s think tank, so the thought of her becoming minister one day is not too far-fetched.
‘Why did you choose the PP?’ The Partido Popular is a right-wing political party. I tell her that in the Netherlands journalists, or intellectuals in general, are almost automatically left-wing.
‘Here, no I didn’t have to justify myself. And also: the PP is very broad. I’m liberal in the European sense of the word, and if you want to see it from a left-right perspective, I consider myself centre-right. I’m liberal in my view of the state, of society, of responsibility. So that’s why I’m not with the socialist party, the other big party.’
We are in the lobby of the five-star Palace Hotel, around the corner from the parliament. Here politicians rub elbows journalists and lobbyists while Japanese tourists nibble on expensive tapas, and a group of officials from the Italian football team Juventus, due to play Real Madrid tonight, are waiting to leave for the stadium.
‘Let’s talk about Europe.’ Cayetana is vice-president of the commission for the EU in parliament, so I don’t expect her to be very anti-Europe.
‘Spain is very pro-European,’ she says. ‘In the collective consciousness, Europe is associated with democracy; we were able to become a member of the EU as a consequence of the fact that we managed to embrace democracy after 40 years of dictatorship; it made the Spanish transition possible. We still don’t have anti-European parties in Spain.’
‘Still there’s some criticism, also in Spain, of the EU, that it is too bureaucratic, costs too much money, etc. What’s your response to that?’
‘They are very much the consequence of the present economic crisis, high unemployment rates and the feeling that the European institutions are not in touch with what’s going on, a lack of clarity – all these things have of course affected the high popularity rates of the EU.’
‘Do you understand that?’
‘I think that Europe certainly needs a new impulse, a new narrative in a way: for the younger generations the European Union is no longer automatically associated with peace and prosperity, that’s taken for granted. We have to ask again: “Why is Europe worthwhile?”
And there are very good answers! We wouldn’t do well on the map without the union to ensure prosperity in a very competitive world, but that doesn’t mean some important reforms are not needed. More transparency, more accountability, much less bureaucracy, more union in our markets, a better economic union. People need to feel more represented. Of course the question of European leadership arises, and of national leadership as well, because these things go hand in hand.‘
Don’t get her started: Cayetana could defend the EU for days if needed.
‘Talking about leadership: many feel that the current boss, Van Rompuy, was appointed only because he’s not a threat. Having an Obama in Brussels, for example, would make a difference.’
‘Obama? Mmm, I’m not too sure that many people in the US would agree with you… Well, there are strong personalities like Mrs. Ashton, the representative for foreign affairs. And Van Rompuy is doing a relatively good job. But you don’t go into a factory and buy a leader.’
‘Well, maybe you should become the new leader. I’d vote for you,’ I know this is shameless flattery, but I do mean it.
‘I don’t think so,’ she laughs, as she does whenever the conversation touches on her future plans and ambitions.
‘But I can’t vote for you, because you’re still in Madrid. Why don’t countries send the best and brightest to Brussels?’
‘That has traditionally been the case in Spain, I agree. Of course we’ve sent very good people, but the European lists have become a place of, well, we call it a place where old elephants go to die. People at the end of their career. Presidents of regional governments. People who used to be important in the party and no longer are: a way out. This should change of course; we should send the best, the pro-Europe, the most motivated.’
Two women at a table are looking at us – at Cayetana – from time to time, talking about her.
‘You are a local celebrity, that’s the category you’re in for my project.’
‘Well, you’re in public office.’
‘I was better known when I was working for television. Now no one asks me “where are you, what are you doing?” She laughs.
‘Is it important, to be recognised?’
‘No, for me all that counts is to have an impact.’
‘And do you think it helps that you’re pretty?’
‘No,’ she says, almost insulted. ‘I’m not that profiled, I’m still a backbencher.’
Still, but not for long, I think.