A selection of experts answer a new question from Judy Dempsey on the foreign and security policy challenges shaping Europe’s role in the world.


Francisco de Borja LasherasHead of the Madrid Office and policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations

It depends. In times of Brexit or the Syrian war, Spanish foreign policy underperforms—beyond some initiatives and the behind-the-scenes diplomatic brinkmanship that Spanish diplomats are proud of. When what matters is nurturing close personal relationships with key power holders—aside from one-off summitry—Spanish leaders of late have demurred. The country has a visibility problem: it is not seen, even when it is there.

Yet this status is commensurate with a country that is emerging from an economic crisis and engulfed in deep political turmoil. The current situation also reflects the limited foreign policy ambitions of Spain’s parochial elites nowadays (although this is an EU trend): a minimalist and managerial foreign policy focused on geo-economics and security and, lately, a penchant for strongmen and a neglect of democracy promotion. Here, Spain has performed amply.

To be fair, the country has new foreign policy and security strategies and has sent its army to placate the Sahel wastelands and patrol the Baltic skies. When having brawls with the EU or blocking initiatives has become the norm, Madrid has generally remained a pro-EU, if at times fickle, stronghold. Yet bar a rejuvenated leadership to propel a democratic foreign policy vision fit for the twenty-first century, Spain will remain wanting. In the words of the epic poem about the Spanish medieval knight El Cid, “what a good vassal [he would be], if he only had a good lord!”


Laia MestresPostdoctoral researcher at the Barcelona Institute of International Studies

Spain is definitely underperforming in the European and international arenas, because of the sum of three crises. Since 2008, an economic crisis has weakened Spain’s material and diplomatic resources abroad. A territorial crisis involving separatist regions has diverted attention toward domestic issues. And a political crisis after more than three hundred days without an elected government has reduced Spain’s voice in key global forums.

This is paradoxical, because the international agenda would seem to favor Spanish engagement. Spain is a member of the UN Security Council for 2015–2016 but has remained silent in that role. Meanwhile, Brexit is already perceived as a missed opportunity for Spain to become a key EU actor. Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy was not invited to an informal summit on the Italian island of Ventotene in August 2016 with Italy’s Matteo Renzi, Germany’s Angela Merkel, and France’s François Hollande; and he refused to attend a September summit of Mediterranean EU countries in Athens, where leaders informally discussed the union’s post-Brexit future. Finally, the Mediterranean and the Middle East—previously one of the foremost issues in Spain’s foreign policy agenda—is more than ever a hot topic, but Spaniards have nothing to say.

The political crisis will disappear once Rajoy is reelected prime minister, as now seems likely, but the other two crises will persist. Madrid will have to take new measures to meet the deficit reduction targets imposed by the European Commission, and Catalan aspirations for independence will remain. The more urgent domestic policies are, the less foreign policy performs.


Charles PowellDirector of the Elcano Royal Institute

Most independent observers feel Spain has been punching below its weight in Europe and beyond in recent years. For some, this is the inevitable consequence of the Great Recession, which has had dire economic, political, and social ramifications. Others would argue that this deficit has deeper roots, such as the successive enlargements of the EU, which relegated Spain to a more peripheral role.

After two inconclusive general elections in December 2015 and June 2016 and ten months of uncertainty, the leader of Spain’s People’s Party, Mariano Rajoy, is about to be sworn in as prime minister for a second term. His will be a minority government facing daunting challenges at home, such as the need to shrink the budget deficit to 3.1 percent of GDP in 2017 and the threat posed by Catalan secessionism.

However, Rajoy needs to look beyond his country’s borders, not least to prepare for a possible hard Brexit, which would harm Spain more than most. If it does not falter, Spain’s economic recovery might even allow him to prove that the country that remains the most staunchly committed member of the European family can provide some badly needed impetus in these difficult times.


Giles TremlettContributing editor at the Guardian and fellow at the Cañada Blanch Center of the London School of Economics

Spain has many friends, but few allies. Take the European Union as an example. Spain naturally belongs to what Brussels diplomats condescendingly call Club Med—the Southern countries that border the Mediterranean. But who wants to be associated with bailout basket cases like Greece, Portugal, or—in its moments of political wildness—Italy? Neither does Spain wish to be bundled together with Eastern European countries, which it sees as poor EU newcomers, rather than with core old Europe. Spain cannot, however, aspire to belong to the group of wealthy Scandinavian and other nations with highly developed welfare states. Nor is Spain as statist as, say, France, or as free market oriented as Britain or the Netherlands. Spain has spent the past seven years trying to avoid EU bailouts or fines for missing deficit targets.

Little surprise, then, that Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has shown such little energy beyond his borders. The government of Felipe González, one of Rajoy’s predecessors, embraced Europe and worked hard to expand Spanish business power in Latin America. José María Aznar wanted to be part of a muscular Atlantic alliance with the United States and the UK. José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero concentrated on Spain’s relationship with the Arab world—a source of both terrorism and migration—with some success.

Rajoy’s Spain has specialized in damage limitation. It knows only that it is madly pro-European. But without allies, it has had little to say even there.


Paweł ZerkaHead of research for foreign policy and international relations at WiseEuropa

Spain’s economic crisis and prolonged negotiations over forming a new government after two inconclusive elections have inevitably limited Madrid’s capacity to remain fully engaged in European and foreign affairs. Despite these obstacles, Spain managed to remain active on several crucial fronts. In March 2016, the country became a member of the International Syria Support Group. Together with France, Spain prepared a resolution on Syria, which was however vetoed by Russia at the UN Security Council. Spanish Foreign Minister José García-Margallo has been the one to constantly remind other Europeans of the necessity to engage in resolving the economic crisis in Venezuela. And earlier in October, Spain (together with Italy) joined Germany and France in their proposal for an EU defense union.

The results of these actions are either mixed or still to be seen. Either way, the benchmark lies elsewhere, as Spain has previously shown a capacity to exercise more substantial foreign policy leadership. The current geopolitical context demands far more Spanish attention. Madrid, if it wished, could play a much stronger role in the resolution of the refugee crisis, eurozone reform, or the security of sub-Saharan Africa. Spain should also prove its value in keeping the transatlantic bonds together and fostering the EU’s much-awaited rapprochement with Latin America.

It is to be hoped that political stabilization at home will enable Spain to face the music and demonstrate its foreign policy potential to the fullest. Just enough will no longer be enough.