Foreign policy needs a rethink above and beyond Europe

At the end of June Spain reaches the end of its rotating presidency of the EU. Spain’s economic woes and the implementation of the Lisbon Treaty have made it a difficult presidency to handle. But there’s more at stake: the decreasing influence of the EU on the international stage puts Spain in a difficult position. Should it move away from Europe, and if yes, how?

This month, Spain will reach the end of itsrotating presidency of the European Union. It will do so with mixed feelings.On the one hand, as a deeply Europeanist country, it will be proud to havefacilitated the transition to the new system of powers envisaged by the LisbonTreaty. On the other hand, it has been the first country to swallow the bittermedicine of accepting the secondary role the treaty gave national capitals.

The uncertainties over the treaty required Spain toprepare for a traditional rotating presidency in which both José Luis RodríguezZapatero, the prime minister, and Miguel AngelMoratinos, the foreign minister, would take on central roles.That was a well-known path that Spanish diplomacy had already travelledsuccessfully during the presidencies of 1989, 1995 and 2002.This time it hasbeen very different. The arrival of Herman Van Rompuy and Lady Ashton as theEU’s president and foreign affairs chief respectively meant that Spain wasobliged to hand over the helm on the two most visible issues: the handling ofthe financial crisis and foreign policy.

The economic crisis has had a very negative impact onboth Spain’simage abroad and its room for political manoeuvre in the EU. The country has a20 per cent unemployment rate, unmatched among large EU economies, and anexplosive accumulation of debt. Mr Zapatero’s initial promise to lead atransformative presidency and not merely an administrative one has had to beshelved. But there are deeper structural factors that explain the particularproblems of this six-month stint.

Spain is a country whose national and European interests have convenientlycoincided for many years. Despite the economic crisis, the almost 25 years thathave passed since it joined the EU have been the best in its history.However,those comfortable times now lie in the past. Just as the euro has plunged intocrisis, so too has Spain’spolicy on Europe. Perhaps only Germany has surpassed Spainin fusing so intensely its national identity with that of Europe,an important reason why Helmut Kohl and Felipe González were able to worktogether in such harmony. The Germanyof Mr Kohl – he was chancellor from 1982 until 1998 – has changed into acountry that looks to the future much more than the past, and that is as globalas it is European.

Spain has yet to complete a similar transformation that might allow it to bringits past to a close and forge its own vision of Europe,the world and its role on the international stage. Its foreign policy has hadthree priorities since the onset of democracy: Europe, Latin America and the Mediterranean. It is not difficult to see that thisforeign policy agenda has been exhausted.

Latin America no longer requires Spain or the EUto achieve its global goals, and it does not seek political or economic inspirationfrom either. As for the Mediterranean, 15years after the launch of the Barcelona Process, the “Europeanisation” of theMediterranean region remains unfinished business rather than a reality. InEurope, Spain’s objectivehas been twofold; integration into the EU and, at the same time, theintegration of Europe.

Under the slogan devised by José Ortega y Gasset, theessayist and philosopher – “Spainis the problem, Europe the solution” – SpanishEuropeanism has been not only a policy aimed at satisfying the nationalinterest, but an instinct, a reflex. For every problem, there has been onesolution: “more Europe”. But the EU is now a27-member entity that has reached the limits of political integration, is wornout by successive enlargements and disorientated in its global role. In otherwords, Europe has become a problem in itself,which forces Spaniards to question their most deeply held beliefs.

As the struggle about participation in the G20 shows,Europe’s lack of international will leaves Spain in a difficult position.Without a European Union that talks and behaves like a real global actor, Spainfeels obliged to behave like other big EU economies and fight for its share ofpower in international organisations, satisfying its national interests bilaterallyand establishing strategic agreements with the biggest powers.Now, the countryknows it has to look beyond Europe, Latin America and the Mediterranean, but ithas doubts about how and when to do this, and whether with Europe or on itsown.

Spain has grown up, but it has not found a coherent foreign policy language.

This piece was published in the Financial Times on 9 June 2010. 

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Head, ECFR Madrid
Senior Policy Fellow

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