Spain’s new-found European destiny

Two views from our Council members on Spain’s new foreign policy direction under the new Socialist government

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Last month, Spain swore in a new Socialist government headed by Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, who now has the political momentum on his side to regain control of its foreign policy, its place in the European Union, and as a leader on the issue of migration. In two views on the foreign policy priorities of the new government, Council Members Cristina Manzano and Javi Lopez, illustrate the importance of an active Spain in the European project.

Spain’s about-face: The new cabinet

After years of punching below its weight, Spain is ready to retake the lead in the European project

by Cristina Manzano

It has been hardly a month since Pedro Sánchez and the Socialist Party (PSOE) came to power in Spain, but the country’s political environment has already completely changed.

After the first moment of incredulity and uncertainty, given the speed and the unexpected victory of the no-confidence vote in Mariano Rajoy, a generally positive mood arose. The appointment of a remarkably competent, modern, European, and female cabinet – with more women (11) than men (7) – showed that another way was possible. Seven years of Popular Party (PP) rule, the last two with a fragile situation in Congress, had led to a general sense of stalemate. The fight against unemployment, the economic crisis, and the Catalan crisis absorbed all the government’s energy, leaving almost every other issue untouched.

Rajoy was not a firm believer in the power of foreign and European policy. He could have used such policy to improve Spain’s position during its bank bailout negotiations or to explain the country’s arguments against the Catalan separatists – who have been very active and effective promoting their cause – but he preferred to keep a low international profile.

Sánchez, in contrast, has appointed Josep Borrell as foreign minister. An experienced politician, former president of the European Parliament, former president of the Istituto Universitario Europeo di Firenze, and a Catalan himself, Borrell publicly opposes independence for Catalonia. 

As minister of the economy, the new premier has brought Nadia Calviño back to Spain after she served as director-general for the European Union’s budget – in another very clear signal to Brussels of the government’s wish to fulfil its commitments to Europe.

The appointment of a remarkably competent, modern, European, and female cabinet – with more women than men – showed that another way was possible.

The new administration’s first foreign policy steps represent a total break with the past. The offer to accept Aquarius rescue-ship migrants in Spain to avert a “humanitarian catastrophe” generally contrasts with the xenophobic actions of the new Italian government. It also moves away from the migration policy of Sánchez’s predecessor. Although migration issues are not among the major concerns of Spain’s population, the PP never fulfilled the refugee quota arranged with Brussels. 

Sánchez’s decision thus opened a new phase in Spain’s involvement in the migration debate – a debate that moved to the top of the agenda during the last European Council meeting. As a result, Madrid has committed to taking on more migrants, for which it will receive specific financial aid. Sánchez has also been eager to support French President Emmanuel Macron and his (so far frustrated) plan to strengthen the eurozone.  

In a frenetic tour to forge new alliances, Sánchez has visited Paris, Brussels, Berlin, and Lisbon in the last ten days. His command of English and French has surely been very useful. It may seem like a minor detail, but it is the first time since the country joined the EU that Spain has had a premier able to speak both languages fluently. 

The meeting with António Costa, the Portuguese prime minister, has a special relevance. At a time when the left seems to have completely lost the future, Portugal has become a role model. Its coalition government – formed by the Socialist Party, the Communist Party, and the Leftist Bloc – has achieved maintained a strong economy, advanced progressive social policies, transformed Portugal’s energy system, and kept its nationals in key international positions, including the UN Secretariat and the presidency of the Eurogroup, among others. And Portugal is also important in the creation, together with Spain, of a new Southern front – in the absence of Italy – that can join the Franco-German axis in the defence of a stronger Europe.

The reality is that the Spanish government has very limited room for manoeuvre. Its extreme fragility in Congress – with barely 85 of 350 seats – and the fragmentation of the political landscape will force the PSOE to find a few social issues on which it can maintain the support of Podemos, the party to its left, and to try to present itself as a strong option before calling elections (due in 2020).

Interestingly, after years of Spain punching under its weight, Sánchez seems to be willing to give foreign policy the role it should have. He also seems to understand the critical moment the EU is going through, and the importance of Spain actively revitalising the European project. Whether he will have enough resources and political support to achieve this remains to be seen.

Southern Europe has a new leader: Spain

Spain’s new government shows its commitment to leading the way in Southern Europe

by Javi López

Spain’s new socialist government under Pedro Sánchez is – perhaps like none other before it – fully committed to the European project. This is most likely due to a combination of good timing and the arrival of the country’s first polyglot president with experience in Brussels. As a full member of the European Council, the country can now have a greater say in the ongoing reforms of the European Union. But what is the new Spanish government’s agenda for the Union?

Maintaining a good relationship with Germany

Most importantly, Sánchez will try to preserve the good relationship that his predecessor, Mariano Rajoy, fostered with Germany, Europe’s most powerful country. The greatest legacy of the outgoing government consists of considerable diplomatic assets that should be protected – a process that will be made easier by Spain’s appointment of new ministers of economy and foreign affairs who all of Europe has accepted with unanimous approval. These appointments serve to smooth Madrid’s relationship with a German government obsessed with budgetary orthodoxy and moral hazard. But, undoubtedly, it is the long-standing and special relationship between Germany’s Social Democratic Party and Spain’s ruling Socialist Party – created in the likeness of its German friend – that plays a key role in the relationship.

Taking Italy’s crown

The new government has a responsibility to be the great interlocutor for southern Europe. It has always competed for this role with Italy, since this other Mediterranean power has had important demographic weight and the privilege of being a founding EU member. Until now, Mattarella’s Italy has enjoyed great influence within the EU, maintaining access to high-ranking positions. But Spain can now take advantage of the calamitous shift in Italian politics to regain power. A high-risk experiment is taking place in Rome with the ascent of a populist, xenophobic, and Eurosceptic cabinet that poses a real threat to European stability. The new Italian government increases the risk of fluctuations in financial markets (of a kind seen following the no-confidence vote that toppled Rajoy), but it also represents an opportunity for Spain to become the key southern interlocutor on euro reforms.

The Spanish government, shaped within the European framework, is set to regain the prominence it lost over the last decade.

Supporting Macron’s reform agenda

Sánchez’s government should support Emmanuel Macron’s reform agenda on the single currency and the EU. The French president has put forward the most viable proposal for EU reforms of any European leader, in an effort that could benefit Spain and other countries adversely affected by the shortcomings of the single currency. His agenda will face a lot of resistance and deserves Madrid’s full support.

With Brexit looming, Spain should use its political and economic weight to reinforce the French agenda in Brussels. At the same time, the Spanish socialist government will have to be careful not to get too close to Macron’s agenda, since all signs point to him drawing closer to a competitor of the socialist party and his alter ego in Spain, Albert Rivera.

Counterbalancing illiberal democracies in Eastern Europe

Spain has the largest social democratic government in Europe. Working alongside its Portuguese counterpart, the government has the potential to lead their political family in Brussels and the discussions on European reforms. Spain can reform and unite the Iberian alliance, becoming a driver for social democracy and for the European left as a whole. European parliamentary elections in 2019 and the subsequent reallocation of seats in the European institutions could reinforce this growing influence.

At the same time, Spain can and should counterbalance the increasingly illiberal democracies of Eastern Europe. Spain is a pro-European country with an open and immigration-friendly political system and society. It is important to note that there is no extreme right in the Spanish Parliament – a genuine anomaly in the European context. Spain should emphasise this context and use it to reinforce the position of social democratic parties within the EU. The Spanish government, shaped within the European framework, is set to regain the prominence it lost over the last decade. There is no reason why the ruling socialists’ parliamentary weakness should have an impact in this field, since the EU is the only road ahead for Sánchez’s cabinet. European policy is the area in which Spain’s future is at stake, and in which it has always longed to find its destiny.

This article originally appeared in Spanish on 10 June in El Periódico de Catalunya.

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


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