Strategic Europe continues its series devoted to explaining the foreign and security policy ambitions of the 28 EU member states. We have asked our contributors from each capital to give a candid assessment of their country’s perception of security and strategy, with a ranking on a scale from 0 (the laggards) to 5 (the ambitious). This week, the spotlight is on Spain.
Analysts in Madrid generally believe that Spain is punching below its weight in terms of its contribution to EU foreign policy. This may be a natural consequence of successive EU enlargements and the union’s increasingly heterogeneous character. Some, however, attribute this loss of influence to the fact that Spain has largely fulfilled the goals it set out to achieve on rejoining the European mainstream in the mid-1980s and urgently needs to identify new ones.
Overall, the Spanish government has had to operate in an extremely difficult economic and political environment in recent years. Given that context, Madrid’s current level of foreign policy ambition deserves to be ranked 3 out of 5.
To his credit, Spanish Foreign Minister José Manuel García-Margallo has attempted to tackle this deficit. In late 2014, he produced the first national foreign policy strategy ever submitted to the Spanish parliament. He was also one of four EU foreign ministers to commission a new European Global Strategy from a group of think tanks to mark the tenth anniversary of the EU’s European Security Strategy in 2013.
Most analysts would also point to the impact of the severe double-dip recession that Spain has endured since 2008 and from which it is only gradually recovering. Since coming to office in early 2011, Mariano Rajoy’s center-right Popular Party government has had to focus its attention almost exclusively on dealing with this unprecedented economic downturn.
Furthermore, the austerity measures implemented to tackle the crisis have had a significant impact on Madrid’s ability to exercise influence abroad: Spain’s defense budget has been cut by over 30 percent since 2008, and international aid has been slashed by 70 percent. Similarly, pressure on the foreign ministry’s budget has led to the closure of several embassies and consulates.
To cap it all, the crisis has generated unprecedented political tensions and a serious secessionist challenge from the Catalan regional government. Clearly, it is no easy task to advance an ambitious foreign policy agenda in this climate.
At a time of severe economic hardship—and, in particular, extremely high unemployment—it is not surprising that the Spanish government should be an enthusiastic advocate of the proposed Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). According to one study, only three other EU states would benefit more than Spain from an ambitious TTIP agreement, which could result in a long-term increase in GDP of 6.6 percent and the creation of 140,000 new jobs.
Opposition to the deal has been quite muted to date, but it is uncertain whether there will still be a comfortable parliamentary majority in favor of TTIP after the next general election, to be held no later than December 2015.
Economic considerations have also largely dictated Spanish policy toward Latin America. Madrid has been frustrated by the behavior of unreliable populists in Argentina, Venezuela, Ecuador, and Bolivia who have succeeded in stalling biregional negotiations such as those between the EU and Mercosur or the Andean Community. Instead, Spain is investing heavily in its bilateral economic relationship with the more business-friendly governments of the Pacific Alliance of Mexico, Chile, Colombia, and Peru, which have all concluded free-trade agreements with Brussels.
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Madrid is a strong supporter of the Transpacific Partnership (TPP) currently being discussed by several of its closest Latin American allies and the United States, among others, not least because a successful TPP may help pave the way for an ambitious TTIP agreement. Spain is also cultivating its bilateral relationship with the region’s economic giant, Brazil, which entered into a strategic partnership with the EU in 2007.
Spain’s special relationship with Cuba should enable Madrid to contribute to strengthening the island’s ties with the EU, which will no doubt improve thanks to the recent agreement to restore diplomatic relations between Havana and Washington. Overall, however, Spain’s economic difficulties and developments in Latin America itself have somewhat undermined Madrid’s ability to encourage the EU to play a more prominent role in the region.
In the past, the EU looked to Spain for leadership in North Africa and the Middle East as well. Here again, the underwhelming performance of the Union for the Mediterranean, a partnership of 43 EU and Mediterranean countries, has forced Madrid to shift to a more bilateral approach. Economic considerations have led Spain to focus primarily on Morocco, its major trading partner in the region, and Algeria, its foremost supplier of natural gas. However, the conflict over the disputed territory of Western (formerly Spanish) Sahara continues to undermine relations with both.
The Spanish government has also backed the cause of democratization in Egypt and Tunisia, largely by holding up Spain’s own transition as a useful model. This has allowed Madrid to raise its profile in both North African countries.
More importantly, Spain’s election to a hotly contested nonpermanent seat in the UN Security Council for the period 2015–2016, which the government sees as its major foreign policy success, has encouraged Madrid to seek a more active diplomatic role in the current conflicts in Syria and Iraq. In the meantime, at NATO’s request, Madrid has sent a Patriot missile battery to help protect Turkey’s southern border.
Madrid has also become increasingly aware of the need to play a greater security role in the Sahel and beyond. It has recently made significant contributions to the EU military training mission in Mali (currently under Spanish command), the EU missions deployed in Somalia and Djibouti to help fight maritime piracy, and the EU peacekeeping force in the Central African Republic. Understandably, the recent appointment of a Spaniard to head the European Defense Agency has been seen as a reward for this long-standing commitment to EU missions abroad.
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Madrid’s reaction to crises in the EU’s Southern neighborhood has been entirely predictable, but the same cannot be said of Spain’s surprisingly accommodating attitude to Russia’s behavior in Ukraine. This is particularly remarkable in light of Spanish diplomacy’s traditional respect for international law and its almost obsessive concern with territorial integrity.
Given that Russia is not a significant economic partner (though it did supply Spain with 14 percent of its oil before the crisis), Spain’s attitude is perhaps best attributed to an atavistic sympathy for Moscow’s geopolitical ambitions. This stance leads Spanish diplomats to claim they can act as a bridge between Russia and the West.
Nevertheless, it should be noted that Madrid has fully supported the EU sanctions imposed against Russia, in spite of their negative impact on the Spanish economy. Furthermore, Spain is contributing to NATO’s Baltic Air Policing mission to protect the airspace over in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, and plans to take part in the alliance’s high-readiness Spearhead Force, created in response to the Ukraine crisis.
Paradoxically, the EU’s spat with Russia has given Madrid fresh arguments with which to promote its ongoing campaign for better cross-border energy interconnections with France (which has sought to protect its nuclear industry from Spanish renewables), and hence with the rest of Europe.
The European Council’s October 2014 decision to ensure that countries such as Spain should enjoy a 10 percent electricity interconnection rate by 2020 is not binding, but Madrid greeted it as a significant achievement. The Iberian Peninsula has long been an energy island, and removing this bottleneck could contribute decisively to Spain’s long-term prosperity. At the same time, it would represent a significant step toward the creation of a genuine European energy market.
In sum, Spain has faced some daunting political and economic challenges that have limited the country’s ability to contribute to EU foreign policy. Looking ahead, the question is whether Madrid will be in a position to play a greater role on the EU scene in the foreseeable future.
Charles Powell is the director of the Elcano Royal Institute for International and Strategic Studies in Madrid.