With so much focus on Germany’s rising influence in the EU, it should not be forgotten that a vibrant and balanced set of European foreign policies depends on the EU’s small and medium-sized member states too.
In this vein, it is well known that for nearly a decade, Spain has punched below its weight on the international scene. A more curious question is whether Spain’s external policies might in fact be a signpost for the way that European strategies are likely to develop in years to come. There are many reasons to suspect that Spain’s policies are less of an exceptional deviation and more a harbinger of the future.
Spain’s reaction to the eurozone crisis and to global power shifts illustrates the way in which EU member states are now pulled in contradictory directions.
The Spanish government has introduced a series of formal changes designed to marshal scarce resources to better effect. A new law now going through parliament aims to improve the coordination of Spain’s external policy instruments vis-à-vis declared interests and results-oriented benchmarks. This builds on a comprehensive security strategy and a putative broader foreign policy doctrine. Due to the depth of the euro crisis and global shifts, Spanish policymakers are becoming serious about strategic planning and defending national interests in an unpredictable world.
Concerned with depleted resources, Spain has also signed up to a number of plans to deepen European cooperation on security matters, including the design of a possible new EU global strategy. Compared with the previous governments of José María Aznar and José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, the current administration of Mariano Rajoy more readily recognizes the pivotal value of European foreign policy coordination. Crisis has bred a more interest-rooted Europeanism.
While supporting EU initiatives, however, Spain now also seeks more room for distinctly national interests.
One example is Spain’s Marca España initiative, which sits at the heart of the incumbent center-right government’s foreign policy. Originally conceived as a broad umbrella for cohering external policies, Marca España has narrowed down to an initiative of economic diplomacy. Essentially, it harnesses the state’s diplomatic and financial resources far more tightly toward helping Spanish companies to win contracts. In doing so, the initiative works in direct competition with other European governments. There is nothing European or normative about this strategy.
Spanish firms have been late to show interest in Asia; the opportunities that multinationals have snapped up in Latin America have been a boon, but have also diverted attention from other rising powers. Madrid is slowly correcting this imbalance. Exports have surged to record highs—although economists differ on how firmly embedded this trend is.
While this new economic diplomacy has become more specific, action to combat longer-term challenges remains vague.
Spain’s military absence in the crises of the Sahel is conspicuous alongside France’s presence. Madrid maintains that jihadist groups in North Africa and the Sahel present a threat to Spanish security, but it is not evident that the government has given any priority to tackling the issue—beyond generic rhetorical commitments. It argues that stability in the Maghreb needs political modernization, but then acts in many ways that militate against such reforms.
Spain had risen from almost nowhere to be the world’s fourth-largest aid donor. Now, it has negligible resources to play any role in this field, thanks to aid cuts of over 70 percent since 2009. Madrid still cites poverty and climate change as the most serious underlying threats to Spanish interests, but does less and less to help resolve these problems.
Other contradictions are becoming more glaring too. Spain speaks of a more modern relationship with Latin America, but sticks to the culturally exclusive concept of Ibero-America, which is seen as outdated in the region itself—as was evident from the limited attendance of leaders at a recent Ibero-American summit in Panama.
In these trends, there are signs of the likely future, for Spain but also for other EU member states. A medium-sized country like Spain today wants the protective umbrella of stronger EU foreign policy, but contributes less and less to common European initiatives while pumping scarce resources into fiercely national geo-economic interests.
The irony is that the priority that certain EU members have attached to staying inside the eurozone has reduced the resources they have available to support external EU priorities.
States’ relative decline increases a desire for both European solidarity and national autonomy. That breeds a more selective Europeanism: states show an increased desire for the principles of the liberal world order to be defended, but also for someone else to do that defending.
Spain may well have been especially bad at pursuing a long-term and active foreign strategy in the last five years—certainly, medium-sized states like Poland have fared better. Spanish analysts rightly sing in chorus against the country’s new insularity. But their own perspectives and recommendations still tend to see the constellation of Spain’s external interests through a lens of exceptionalism.
Spain’s foreign policy shortcomings are not so unique, but may rather be a foretaste of the unsatisfactory balancing acts that will dominate the future of European foreign policy.
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