Zapatero: what next?

With a good international image and a key position in Europe, Latin America and the Mediterranean, there is an opportunity for Spain to play a more prominent global role which the new government should explore

Zapatero’s clear victory on 9 March 2008 will help to consolidate his political leadership, both domestically and internationally. For the last four years, Spain’s politics have been dominated by the extraordinary tension brought about by the unexpected victory of the Socialists in March 2004 which followed the Al-Qaeda Madrid bombings killing 198 people. In the extremely polarised political context of the last four years, where many right voters attributed Zapatero’s victory to the bombings, and thus considered it illegitimate, Zapatero’s leadership has been frequently put into question. Having now won a second term and having extended his majority in Parliament to a point where he can almost govern without a stable coalition partner (he is only 7 seats away from the absolute majority), Zapatero can confidently look to the future.

Back in 2004, Al-Qaeda threatened the democratic process in Spain, but the citizenry replied by going to the polling stations en masse. The same has happened now, when two days before the elections, an ETA gunman shot a Socialist councilman and trade unionist in Amorebieta (Basque Country). The killing of this grass-roots Socialist and father of three sends a very clear signal: the hardliners in ETA are back in command and they want to make sure that the government will not consider facilitating ETA gunmen abandoning violence. In any case, the persistence of ETA terrorist activity in the Basque County implies that bilateral relations with France will be priority number one in the next Cabinet external relations’ agenda, and that counter-terrorism and intelligence gathering issues will also occupy a central part of Spain’s European agenda.

With a new term in La Moncloa, Zapatero has a chance to re-examine what his foreign policy has achieved in the last four years and to set up new goals for Spain’s foreign policy. Whereas his first mandate can be interpreted as a sort of U-turn with respect to Aznar’s policies (visible in the troop withdrawal from Iraq and the affinity with the Franco-German engine), his second mandate gives him the chance to define his own vision of Spain’s place in regional, European and international affairs. With a GDP that ranks eighth in the world, one of the most widely-spoken languages, a good international image and culture, and a key position in Europe, Latin American and the Mediterranean, there is an opportunity for Spain to play a more prominent global role which the new government should explore and exhaust.

This more influential role has been demanded for many years, but it has not yet been fully realised. But the potential is there. With a large macroeconomic consensus between right, centre, business associations and unions, an excellent growth, good fiscal and employment record, and with a population which still leads the way when it comes to Europeanism, Spain can complement the Franco-German axis, which shows important signs of fatigue, it can help Italy not to lose pace, it can reach out to Poland and even put a bit of pressure on the UK to get involved in European policies which are key for the British national interest (for example the Hampton Court and Lisbon Agendas). Similarly, in Latin America and the Mediterranean, Spain could also be a spokesman and catalyst for European engagement if it helps mobilise both sides to explore common interests.

This path will not however be without problems. In Europe, Spain has become one of the most ardent defenders of Turkey’s accession, which sets Madrid in collision course with Sarkozy and Merkel. Besides, despite not being quite visible yet, there is a large potential for contradiction between Spain’s support for Turkish membership and the strategic partnership between Zapatero-Erdogan on the Alliance of Civilisations, which highlights Turkey’s differences with Europe rather than its Europeanism. The same can be said about Kosovo, where Spain broke ranks with its main European partners and deemed its newly declared independence an “illegal” act. In addition, Spain’s desire to play a more visible global role can hardly be done solely by means of “soft power” instruments such as development aid, language or culture. Both within the EU and NATO, its partners will not let Spain’s very low defence expenditure and troop deployment capabilities go unnoticed.

As things stand now there may be an imbalance between Spain’s willingness to participate more actively in shaping global issues, and its capacity to commit itself to contribute to areas, such as Afghanistan, where soft power alone will not be enough.  The truth is that, other than Aznar’s decisions to support the US on the Iraq war, global affairs have been absent from his campaign. For some time, there will be more questions than answers concerning how Spain’s foreign policy will shape up over the next four years. Yet, the basic instincts of Zapatero concerning international legality as the bedrock of all of his actions, and Europe as the horizon of all his policies, will still hold.

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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