This article was first published in Spain in El País on August 31, 2015. Translation by Carla Hobbs.
In the 1980s, after its difficult transition to democracy, Spain returned to the world stage. In a few years, she ended decades of isolation and not only assumed a role on the international scene, but gained the respect of her partners and friends, embarking on intense diplomatic activity in Europe, Latin America and in North Africa and launching a large number of initiatives to strengthen peace, security, cooperation, integration and development. The ten years between 1986 and 1996 represent a prodigious decade in Spanish foreign policy, a period in which the political, economic and social achievements of the young democracy, combined with the international orientation of the governments of Felipe González, placed the ‘Spain well above its weight.
This return to the world, initiated by Felipe González, was encouraged by José María Aznar. While one may disagree with Aznar’s vision, there is no denying that he had a vision. Highly suspicious of federalism and the Franco-German axis, Aznar’s foreign policy succeeded by the standards it set for itself. If he contributed to the division of Europe into two blocks on the Iraqi question, he succeeded in situating Madrid on the Atlantic axis with Washington and London and gave new impetus to the international influence of Spain.
It is common to attribute the past successes of Spanish foreign policy to a strong consensus between the two established parties. This consensus, however, is a myth that ignores the huge differences between the positions held by the socialists and the conservative People’s Party. Based on faulty reasoning, this conventional interpretation overlooks the truth of the matter which is that the successful foreign policy of the two was simply due to the level of activity.
Gonzalez and Aznar, unlike José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero and Mariano Rajoy, devoted more time, people, resources and interest to international affairs. They may have made mistakes but never by default. Zapatero and Rajoy, on the other hand, have been presidents with little vision and interest in international issues. They failed to hide their discomfort in international meetings, nor did they manage to cultivate the personal relationships with their colleagues that are so crucial today. Instead, they preferred to take refuge in rhetoric and platitudes rather than choosing to actively participate in solving problems abroad.
It is true that Zapatero, unlike Rajoy, has had greater international visibility through initiatives such as the withdrawal from Iraq and the dramatic increase in funding for development cooperation. Yet despite Zapatero’s pro-European rhetoric, it’s hard to remember a European initiative bearing his mark or a European problem he solved. In fact, its positive international image was more due to internal initiatives like same-sex marriage or the defense of women’s rights. During this time, he ruled out the opportunity to project Spain internationally, especially in Latin America where a big impact could have been had.
Distrustful of the United States and reluctant to deal with security and defense issues, Foreign Minister Moratino allowed Spanish foreign policy to increasingly flirt with non-alignment. Initiatives such as the Alliance of Civilizations (a meager measure lacking the support of European leaders), affinity with the Castro brothers, servility towards China, sympathies with Russia or efforts to align Spain with the Milosevic’s Serbia on the Kosovo issue have been carried out to the detriment of Spain’s relations with the EU and NATO. This has led some analysts to speak of a “de-Europeanization” of Spanish foreign policy under Zapatero, undoing Gonzalez’s work.
Building on the Zapatero years, Rajoy’s approach to foreign policy cements Spain as a country remote from the international stage, underperforming in areas where it was traditionally strong. Neither in the Atlantic, nor in Europe, nor in Latin America, nor in the Mediterranean, is Spain an actor to which we can attribute visibility, leeway or vision. Certainly, the crisis provides a good excuse for this withdrawal, but it is an easy excuse that does not explain inefficient and ill-conceived initiatives such as the ‘marca España’, the excessive importance given to economic diplomacy or the non-existent international presence. by Rajoy.
The fundamental problems underlying Rajoy’s foreign policy go back to those present during Zapatero’s tenure: the combination of an absent and disinterested prime minister with a foreign minister – Moratinos then, García-Margallo now – who operates from independently without governmental, parliamentary or partisan directives. In García-Margallo’s case, this has prompted frequent and counterproductive attempts to discuss Catalonia when he is in fact the least qualified in the Cabinet to do so. It also allowed him to connect Catalonia, Kosovo and Crimea, a feat that not only gives Putin international validation and weakens the European position, but paints Spain again as an eccentric ally. Finally, and for the final touch, Margallo advised Russia to refer its annexation of Crimea to the International Court of Justice, convinced that this would nullify the transfer of the territory to Ukraine by Khrushchev in 1954 and thus validate its subsequent annexation. . by Putin.
But it is perhaps Spain’s reaction to the immigration crisis that best highlights the government’s lack of vision, with Rajoy completely out of touch with the matter while his European counterparts are deeply embroiled. The fact that the Minister of the Interior can talk shamelessly about the pull factor of sea rescues and the Minister of Foreign Affairs can ridiculously claim that unemployment rates in Spain are preventing an increase in the number of asylum seekers asylum not only causes embarrassment, but will have repercussions when it is Spain that needs the solidarity of its EU partners.
This egocentric and selfish Spain is hard to see. It has no commitment to promoting democracy and human rights abroad and focuses myopically on promoting its own well-being while ignoring the interdependencies on which its well-being really depends. . Moreover, the worst may be yet to come, as electoral fragmentation could lead to even greater navel-gazing after the year-end elections. In recent years, Spanish politics have become accustomed to keeping a low profile and closing too many doors. It is time to open them and return to the world.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take a collective position. ECFR publications represent the views of its individual authors only.