Pedro Solbes the quiet wise man who piloted the transition

Pedro Solbes, former economic vice president and architect of the transition to the euro, dies at the age of 80

Pedro Solbes, Vice President of the Government of José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero and European Commissioner for the Economy, has died today at the age of 80, according to sources close to him and the PSOE, the formation in which he developed a long political career. Party comrades and friends remember him today, above all, as a good person and a calm man who had to deal with some of the most troubled times in the recent economic history of Spain and the European Union.

Born in Pinoso (Alicante) in 1942, married and father of three children, Solbes’s career was always linked to the European construction. With a PhD in Political Science and a degree in Law, Solbes also graduated in European Economics from the Institute of European Studies of the Free University of Brussels. His career in the administration began as a commercial technician for the State. Between 1968 and 1973 he held the posts of sub-delegate and regional delegate for Commerce in Valencia. He returned to Brussels to work as commercial adviser to the Spanish Mission to the European Communities until 1978, in Brussels and, after his return, he was adviser for Community Relations during the Government of Leopoldo Calvo Sotelo.

Although he had a reputation for being rigorous, it was surprising that in 1999 a Spaniard held the portfolio of Economics in the EC

In 1982, as technical secretary general of the Ministry of Economy and Finance, he was part of the negotiating team for the accession of Spain to the European Community, and from there he went to the Secretary of State for the European Communities.

Between 1985 and 1991, he was Secretary of State for the European Communities with the Governments of Felipe González, with whom he also held the portfolios of Agriculture (1991-1993) and Economy (1993-1996). In 1996, after being elected deputy for the Alicante socialist list, he was appointed president of the Mixed Congress-Senate Commission for the EU. In those years, before the Nice Treaty came into force, the largest EU countries had the right to two commissioners and in 1999, at the same time as Loyola de Palacio (PP), Solbes was appointed head of the portfolio of Economics in the college of commissioners directed by Romano Prodi.

Although he had a reputation for being rigorous due to his work in the last stage as Economy Minister with González, when Spain managed to be among the first countries authorized to adopt the euro, the assignment of this portfolio to a Spaniard caused surprise at a time when it had been coined the contemptuous term Club Med, precursor of the PIGS, to refer to the southern countries that should remain outside the monetary union for a while”, recalls the journalist Bernardo de Miguel in the book ‘What is happening?’.

Despite its complexity, the transition operation to the physical euro was a success

From Brussels, with his eternal air of wisdom and extremely affable character, Solbes captained the final stretch of the transition to the euro, the farewell to the peseta coins and bills and other centuries-old currencies. Weeks before the milestone, on January 1, 2002, during the Laeken summit, the commissioner excitedly showed European correspondents the first euro banknotes together with his spokesman and faithful squire, the Greek Gerassimos Thomas, who joked that he had obtained thanks to smugglers from Piraeus.

Although it was a major logistical challenge, the operation was a success. Everything went smoothly. The Europeans turned out to be less nostalgic than expected and long before the end of the transition period in which the national and European currencies could coexist, they had already left behind the pesetas, liras and francs in favor of the euro. “He was a great man, and very kind, a great commissioner who contributed to the construction of the economic and monetary union” and the foundations of the European budgetary policy, he recalls in conversation with The vanguard Gerassimos Thomas, who worked with him in 1993 during the Spanish presidency of the EU when the final agreement for the adoption of the euro was closed and he convinced the United Kingdom to sign it. “Beyond his contribution to Europe, he was a great reformer in Spain.”

It turned out that the reputation of orthodox that preceded Solbes when he arrived in Brussels was well deserved: his refusal to make the application of the stability pact more flexible in 2003 because, alas, it was Germany that registered a public deficit higher than the sacrosanct -and arbitrary- figure of 3% confronted him with the Government of Germany. The Spanish commissioner refused to accommodate it to the needs of the greats and defended tooth and nail the rigorous application of this instrument. Berlin and Paris got away with it: Ecofin bowed to his wishes and put the pact’s application on hold in an atmosphere of disdain for Brussels’ budgetary recipes. Despite the fact that a watered-down version of the pact was agreed upon shortly afterwards, the political signal that remained was that budgetary discipline was a very relative concept, the source of many subsequent problems for the euro.

He returned to Spain in 2004 with the economy at its peak, but the situation soon deteriorated.

In 2004, with the return of the PSOE to power, a few months before the end of its European mandate, Rodríguez Zapatero claimed it in Madrid and Solbes repeated as Economy Minister, but with the rank of Vice President. He arrived in Spain with the economy at its best, but the bursting of the housing bubble did not take long to cloud the outlook at the worst possible moment. In 2008 the international financial crisis in 2008 dealt a blow to the world economy that at first was not only difficult to gauge but also difficult to communicate. After having been an economic benchmark for the Zapatero government, his perception of the crisis was not the same as that of the president and in his second legislature he was succeeded by Elena Salgado. In September 2009, he resigned from the act of deputy, as former ministers such as Jordi Sevilla did on the same dates, and said goodbye forever to public responsibilities and politics.

The circumstance occurs that the departure of Solbes made the PSOE list run to Congress, which allowed the entry of a young deputy named Pedro Sánchez, current president of the Government. “Today is a sad day for the socialist family,” Sánchez lamented after learning of the death of Solbes, whom he has defined as a “statesman dedicated to serving his country and defending social democratic values” as well as “an example of commitment with Spain and the European project”. The news of the death of the Alicante politician has been known in the middle of a meeting of the Federal Committee of the PSOE and Sánchez has taken the opportunity to remember his figure. Zapatero, for his part, lamented the loss in a statement in which he stated that Solbes “had the best qualities that can be attributed to a public servant: seriousness, rigor, reliability and honesty”.