Pedro Solbes the quiet wise man who piloted the transition

Pedro Solbes, the quiet wise man who piloted the transition to the euro

The personal and political career of Pedro Solbes, who died today at the age of 80, was always linked to the economy, Europe and the city of Brussels, where many today remember the serious, calm and affable commissioner who contributed to the different phases of construction of the single currency and enthusiastically piloted the final phase of the transition, that New Year’s Eve in 2002 when the ATMs in twelve European countries stopped giving out pesetas, francs, liras or marks to distribute shiny euro-denominated bills.

Born in Pinoso (Alicante) in 1942, after graduating in Law and Political Science, Solbes moved to Belgium to study European Economics at the Institute of European Studies of the Free University of Brussels, a course that determined the profile of his career. Ten years after his entry into the public administration, in 1978 he returned to Brussels to work as trade adviser for the Spanish Mission to the European Communities. Post-Franco Spain was clear that its objective was Europe and Solbes, who in 1982, as technical secretary general of the Ministry of Economy, was part of the negotiating team for accession to the European Community, participated in many of the meetings and political battles that made possible entry in 1986.

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

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 the 1996 elections, which gave victory to the Popular Party, Solbes was elected deputy and was assigned the presidency of the Mixed Congress-Senate Commission for the EU. But his return to Brussels was close. 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 Commissioner for the Economy at the team chaired 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, coordinated from Brussels and Frankfurt with a dozen countries, 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.”

Solbes clashed with Berlin and Paris over their refusal to accommodate the application of the stability pact to his needs

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.

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 peak, but the bursting of the real estate bubble did not take long to cloud the outlook. In 2008 the international financial crisis dealt a blow to the world economy that at first was not only difficult to gauge but also to communicate. Now, in Brussels, he sat on the other side of the table, among the representatives of countries suspected of causing further damage to the euro.

Sánchez, who came to Congress when Solbes retired, evokes his “example of commitment to Spain and the European project

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, after not a few moments of tension, in his second legislature he was succeeded by Elena Salgado. In September 2009, he resigned from the act of deputy 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”.