“Spain is back”: An interview with Arancha González Laya

In an interview with the head of ECFR’s Madrid office, the Spanish foreign minister discusses how her country is adapting to the global challenges of the twenty-first century

José Ignacio Torreblanca (JIT): One of the things that has struck a lot of people was that when you took office, you said in English, “Spain is back”. What did you mean by that and why did you think it was necessary to convey that strong message in English?

Arancha González Laya (AGL): Well, the reality is that, after the 2008 economic crisis, Spain had gone into a phase of introspection. It was too preoccupied with solving the crisis, understandably so. It had to spend a lot of political energy trying to respond to the problems that the crisis had generated for the citizens in the country, and in a way it had less energy to devote to foreign policy.

When coming into office, I wanted to say, “hey, we feel confident. This is 2020. The 2008 crisis is behind us and we want it to be fully associated with foreign policy and with action around the world.” That that was what I meant by “Spain is back”. Also coupled with “Spain is here to stay”. It’s not just something; it’s not just a fashion to say this; we mean it profoundly. We want to be associated with shaping the responses to international affairs. That’s what I meant.

JIT: To what extent has the agenda that you had in mind before taking office changed because of the pandemic?

AGL: Well, it’s sharpened the need for public policy, and this is what foreign policy is. It’s about public policy and a pandemic, which certainly was not expected and is not what I meant when I said “Spain is back” at the beginning of 2020. This has become also a Spain that can shape the response to covid, and it has sharpened our desire to shape the response to covid. It has maybe altered a bit the order of priorities, but it has certainly also sharpened our determination to be part of the solution and not just to passively wait for others to build a solution, but to be there crafting the solution.

Something that was incredible was the crafting of the European Union’s response to the crisis, crafting the EU recovery fund, or crafting in the World Health Organization, the response in terms of vaccines, equipment, treatment, to ensure equitable access for all countries. Yes, we changed a bit the order of priorities, but we were more determined than ever to play a role in crafting the response to the crisis.

JIT: Despite the economic crisis and the pandemic, you found the time and the energy to engage in the massive exercise of producing a new foreign policy strategy. What would you say is the main message of this strategy or the essential element that you would want others, when they read it, to retain?

AGL: Firstly, I would want them to think that this is the product of consultations, bottom-up discussions with all stakeholders in Spain. This not the strategy of the foreign ministry; this is the foreign policy strategy of Spain, not even the government of Spain; it’s Spain. All its actors, all its forces, governmental forces at the national level, at the regional level, at the local level, but also of businesses, of NGOs, of civil society and the broadest arms of universities, think-tanks. I want them to think that this is the product of a deep reflection on the side of all these forces in Spain, which it is.

I also would want them to retain one central message in this strategy; we want a globalised world. Globalisation has been good for Spain but we want this globalisation to also have Spanish footprints. Not just any globalisation; we want this globalisation to have the footprints – the think notes; the specificities – that Spain wants in this globalisation. Certainly fairer; certainly more inclusive; certainly most sustainable; certainly for a country like Spain, with a premium given to the European Union integration; certainly based on our multilateralism that is attuned to today’s needs that is no longer nineteenth century, but twenty-first century.

What we wanted through this exercise is to relate to globalisation but to ensure globalisation also has the specificities that we wanted it to have; the values that Spain wants globalisation to represent.

JIT: It seems in my reading of this strategy that the headline could be the rescue of multilateralism. Why is multilateralism so important for the average Spaniard, who has maybe not heard about this word and will now hear about this word when the strategy is approved?

AGL: It’s summarised in one word, which is ‘interdependence’. The twenty-first century is the century of interdependence. It’s not independence; it’s interdependence. Whatever we do will shape the life of others. Whatever others do will shape our lives. This is why the only possible means, the most effective means, to respond to the interdependence that’s the name of the game of the twenty-first century is multilateralism. Now, if multilateralism is too convoluted a word, let’s call it international cooperation. It’s reinventing international cooperation that we need to think about in this twenty-first century.

If there was one experience that brought interdependence back to all of us, it was the pandemic. The pandemic is the biggest expression that the world has been hit with in terms of interdependence. It didn’t matter: we could not erect the wall high enough to prevent the virus from penetrating our countries, and we will never be safe just by vaccinating our citizens. What the pandemic has brought to us in a very sharp way, maybe in too sharp a way, is that we need to provide a response that goes beyond the national response; that goes beyond the unilateral response that used to be a bit more prevalent just a few months ago.

The only answer – the most effective one; the one that will protect our citizens – is one based on international cooperation. Whether this is to help us recover from the economic crisis; whether it’s to ensure we are protected, that we protect our health; whether it is to protect our life on this planet – irrespective of the area we choose, international cooperation is the most efficient and the most effective means.

This is why, for Spain – which is profoundly connected with the rest of the world, economically, socially: we are home to the second-most-spoken language in the world; we are the second-largest recipient of tourists in the world; our companies are highly internationalised – the most effective response for us is a stronger multilateral response. That’s the heart of it.

JIT: Let’s leave Europe aside for a moment to look at two very sensitive areas, Latin America and North Africa, in which Spain is deeply engaged historically, culturally, economically. How do you balance the need to sustain multilateralism globally but, at the same time, the need to focus on these regions – to which we also want to call attention to their problems and solutions?

AGL: Well, it’s not incompatible. The first thing to say is that you can very well articulate the multilateral response that has a specific view to regions where your bilateral relations have a value-add. This is why we’ll concentrate it bilaterally on regions or on issues where Spain has a value-add.

We have value-add in the southern neighbourhood of the European Union by our proximity, by our history, and by the connections that our businesses and our societies and our universities and think-tanks have. We are very connected with finding a strategy, a policy response, that works for both sides of the Mediterranean realm – works for Europe, but also works for our southern neighbours.

This is why since I took office as foreign minister; I’ve devoted a lot of efforts with my European foreign ministers, my colleagues, but also with my counterparts in the southern neighbourhood, to craft a response or strategy that works for both sides – that is built on the basis of core responsibility; that helps us address climate change; that helps us boost youth employment; that helps us manage the energy transition; that helps us manage migrations; that helps us protect and promote human rights; but that does this from the basis of core responsibility. On the side of the Latin American continent, it needs no explanation. Spain and Latin America is one and the same thing. We were born together, we live together, and we breathe together. So it’s just natural that Spain, like Portugal, are always this bridge in the European Union that connects Europe to Latin America – a continent which, in a way, shares enormous similarities with the European Union, and to which we feel particularly attached.

JIT: The strategy devotes a lot of time and energy to the promotion of democracy and human rights. Isn’t it difficult to try and promote democracy abroad when sometimes our problems are at home? Isn’t democracy a problem when trying to approach international relations or foreign policy these days?

AGL: No, I think we have to do this with conviction, but also with humility. With conviction because, especially in Spain, we have seen also a past where there was no democracy, so we know the value of democracy and we have to defend it with conviction and we have to give it value. We have to be clear about promoting it. Again, to do this from the position of a country that has in the not-so-distant past not known democracy, but also to do this with humility. I don’t think this is about preaching; this is about convincing, and we can only convince others when we are convinced ourselves.

It’s accepting that we also have to work to make our democracy work better. Spain is a full democracy. We are one of the 23 full democracies in this world, but full democracy doesn’t mean we are a perfect democracy. We need to continue to work to improve the way democracy works in Spain. This is why, from this position of humility, we can work with others. We can promote this dialogue with others. We can share with others. We can help each other understand how we can advance better together.

This is why in our relations, for example, with Latin America, we will soon be launching a series of dialogues on democracy with our sister nations, from this position of conviction, but also humility. We are not here to preach. We are all here to learn to make democracy the bedrock of our societies and to do this in the most solid way possible.

JIT: There is substantial space dedicated to the idea of feminist foreign policy and gender issues, and so on. Does this come from the fact that we are a normative or gender superpower, minister?

AGL: No, I think it comes from the conviction that foreign policy has to be based on defending interests, the interests of our country, but also defending values. Spanish society is very attached to equality and to diversity. This is who we are. If you ask Spanish citizens, they feel profoundly attached to the idea of equality between men and women, but also to the values of diversity, to the defence of LGBTIs in Spain, but we’re not perfect. What we want to do is improve the defence of values like equality, like diversity in our country. This is why, internally, we are putting a premium on policies that promote diversity and promote equality.

The recently approved EU Spanish recovery plan has as one of the horizontal axis equality between men and women. It’s a demonstration that we take it seriously internally. It’s only coherent if you do it internally, that you also have a feminist foreign policy. That is what we just launched, a feminist foreign policy, which is no more and no less than ensuring that our foreign policy actions incorporate, as a compass, the value of equality between men and women – to make sure that the compass, the pole, is gender equality.

JIT: What position should Spain seek in Europe in terms of influence? Who should we side with or promote alliances with?

AGL: I think we have to have ambition. We have to have the ambition of shaping the European Union, not just letting others shape and following, but we have to have the ambition of shaping European integration. We are one of the countries in the European Union where our citizens feel closer and more attached to Europe. We are convinced we came late, but we are very convinced because we have seen it work. Let’s use this force to be ambitious. My view – my vision – is ambition and also Spain as a nodal country, as a country that should strive at driving forces in Europe towards consensus. That’s my vision.

Now, of course, in Europe, there is a big heart that beats for the European integration, and that is the Franco-German Alliance. This is good and we want to be part of this heart that beats for Europe – but, today, this is not enough. You also have to be an articulator of consensus within the wider European family. Take the example of the migration compact or the southern neighbourhood. Spain has to also ensure that it builds a bridge with the northern European countries or with the eastern European countries. The eastern European countries have to feel the same affinity to the southern neighbourhood that Spain feels to the Eastern neighbourhood. That’s the vision: ambition and a nodal role in creating consensus in the European Union.

JIT: WithItaly, for example, there is always this kind of rivalry about whether there is a sorpasso, whether there isn’t a sorpasso; whether we should be happy for the Italians to do well or not, or whether we should do better than them. What do you make of these kinds of rivalries in southern Europe between Spain and Italy?

AGL: Obviously, we should want every country in the European Union to do well – including Italy, of course – but I think the European Union works better when Italy and Spain work well. When we are aligned, when we are a force, that is when the European Union works better. This is where the consensus – that is the name of the game in building European integration – works better.

I don’t see this in terms of either/or; I think it works well and it works better when Spain and Italy work together, and that’s my vision. Working together means, obviously, understanding where there’s going to be a little bit of rivalry; that’s fine. Competition is always good but, fundamentally, it’s working together – that’s when we produce better results for the European Union.

JIT: Are you going to miss something from Britain not being a member of the EU? What is the thing that you will miss most, the thing that makes you want them to come back? Or do you prefer for them stay out for a while?

AGL: No, I miss British pragmatism. They’ve always been ultra-pragmatists in international relations, and I will miss that. I will also miss this ability they had to look at the world as a globalised country that they are in. In a way, Spain would feel a close affinity to the UK on that in that we have a history where we’ve looked at the world, traditionally.

Of course, not in the most recent past, but if you look at Spain in history, like Britain in history, we were nations that were looking at the world. I miss that – but I guess that’s what British citizens have decided so we’ll try to, in any event, from this new position of the UK being a third country to the European Union, continue to have a close alliance and extremely close relationships with the UK. That’s what we want, not only because this is what’s in our interest – given the big interdependence on trade, on investments, on citizens – but also because we are tremendously connected by citizens and by our people, but also by our history.

JIT: Do you envisage that the transatlantic relationship, despite not being as tormented as in the past, will still be a bit bumpy on issues that we are not going to be fully aligned with the Americans on? What is your vision of how this transatlantic relationship is going to evolve

AGL: Well, there have always been bumps on the roads, on the transatlantic relationship; there’ve always been bumps – this is the anecdote. What we are missing and what we were missing sorely last year is a project, a joint project. Why were we together solely for the transatlantic relationship? This is what we were missing in the last years. The anecdote became the rule. There was no real compass in the relationship, and this is what we need to build together.

We have to build this from shared interests – also bearing in mind that there will be issues on which we have different interests but, most importantly, on shared values. This is why I have appreciated enormously the initial steps taken by the Biden administration to signal a commitment, a recommitment, to multilateralism; a recommitment to international cooperation; a desire to work together on climate change; a desire to work together to address the pandemic. All of this goes in the direction of building the basics for a new transatlantic relationship.

If I had to give a name to this new transatlantic agenda, I think the name could be, or the theme could be, to rehumanise globalisation. We both know that globalisation works well for Europe. It works well for America. But we also know that globalisation needs to be rehumanised; that it needs to also address the vast inequalities that have been generated in the last decades; that it responds to the planetary boundaries; that it helps us decarbonise our economies; that it ensures that solidarity is the name of the game vis-à-vis other parts of the world that are less well off. Rehumanising globalisation is where we can build a new transatlantic relationship.

JIT: Where should we engage with China on multilateral affairs, and where should we draw a line and be firm on those things that we cannot accept because they undermine multilateralism or are incompatible with our principal interests or values?

AGL: Well, I think the world works better when we engage in a dialogue with China, when we engage with China in defining rules of the game; when we cooperate with China, it benefits everyone. This is why I think we need to define a space, but what I call a systemic space – a space where systemic issues like climate change, like global financial stability, where international development cooperation, where international trade are governed by rules that ensure fair benefits to both China, Europe, or America.

There needs to be, and we need to craft, those spaces of cooperation. I call them spaces that have a systemic impact. We will never be able to address climate change as a systemic issue unless we engage with China, given the amount of emissions that China is responsible for or that Europe or America are responsible for.

Of course, the second word is strategic. We need to look at China like China looks at us – not in political cycles of four or five years, but with a long-term view of what the relationship should look like. The third word, obviously, is ‘rivalry’. Yes, there are areas where we do not see eye to eye. We don’t see eye to eye often on human rights. We don’t see eye to eye sometimes on technology or on international trade.

Where we do not see eye to eye, we have to try, and where we cannot get results – well, we would have to agree to disagree with all the consequences that this would have, especially when it’s about values which are unrenounceable, at least for Spain are unrenounceable. But we should not renounce also the crafting of spaces for cooperation because, at the end of the day, it’s just a more efficient way of managing our international affairs.

JIT: What is the role that Europe should play should things get worse every now and then between China and the US, as they probably will, when they are competing for power in the next decade or so.

AGL: Well, this is a bit the idea behind the European Union’s strategic autonomy, or strategic resilience if you want, is ensuring we always try to work with partners to manage international issues where we can. We’d also be ready to act to defend our interests and our values when our partners don’t want to work with us. That’s a bit maybe the experience of recent years, but our first try should always be to work with others to advance our interests and our values.

We cannot be indifferent on values. We are not somewhere in the middle between China on the one side and the US on the other side. We stand for our values and we can’t be indifferent to our values. We also stand for our interest but, especially on values, we are not indifferent to values. We cannot be somewhere in the middle; we have to stand for those values. We have to put ourselves on the side of those who defend those values.

JIT: You had a tough exchange with Minister Lavrov in recent weeks on the situation in Spain, but more particularly, the situation of Navalny, the opposition leader.

Do you see – as it’s been said, for example, by High Representative Borrell – Russia detaching itself in an increasingly worrying way from Europe? What should be done in that case to contain or to prevent that rift from continuing?

AGL: Well, Russia is our neighbour. I personally think that we need to respect neighbours; we need to make sure that our neighbours respect us also. We need to try to find the spaces where our interests and our values converge. There are areas where they converge. If we want to fight against climate change, or protect Antarctica, or protect the Arctic, we need to work with Russia. We also have to be clear where the limits are for unilateral policies on the side of Russia. This is a bit what we have seen in these last months – maybe a deterioration in the relationship that Russia has with the European Union.

There, we also in a respectful way – because we always have to be respectful of others – but we also have to set clear the limits. We have to find the spaces for collaboration. This is certainly our desire in Spain, but there are areas, for example, on Crimea – there are areas on human rights or individuals’ rights – where we also will be firm.

JIT: What is the most important European or Spanish foreign policy success that you would particularly like to see achieved within the next year?

AGL: Well, I hope that, by then, we have crafted and put in place a solid, multilateral response to covid – one that leaves no one behind; one that ensures that whether you are a poorer country, or whether you’re not that poor, you’re a middle-income country, but you have lots of poor people within your boundaries within your country, you have been able to respond, both in terms of stimulating the economy or in terms of granting your citizens access to vaccines, or in terms of ensuring equality between men and women, reducing the gap, or in terms of protecting the planet, that we would have taken steps to craft the response to the crisis.

That it’s not like it was before, but it looks into a new future that is more equitable, that is more inclusive, and that is greener. This is what I would hope to see in one year: greater doses of international cooperation to build back better.

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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