Southern Europe’s underrated player – European Council on Foreign Relations

In the 30 years of its membership in the EU, Spain has changed profoundly. Although largely disconnected from the rest of Europe at the end of the Franco period, Spanish democracy has more recently transformed to embrace Europe. In the last decade alone, Spain’s gross national income per capita has increased by almost 100%, which has had a huge impact on the lives of Spaniards. USDA data also shows that Spain’s real GDP has nearly doubled in its three decades of EU membership. By comparison, according to the same sources, Italy’s GDP in 1986 exceeded Spain’s in 2014, but while Spain’s wealth doubled, Italy’s GDP grew by less than 15%.

From being on the margins of EU policy-making, Spain has established itself since the mid-1990s as an active EU policy maker with an active stance on policy issues facing the EU faces. Today’s Spain seeks to play a central role in political negotiations and agreements rather than waiting on the fringes for a time when it can trade consent on certain issues for additional benefits. At times, it looked like the country was actually taking Italy’s place as the most integration-minded country in the South, as Italy’s EU policies changed with successive Berlusconi governments.

The 2008 financial crisis hit the country hard. It ended the housing bubble and exposed the patronage structures still in place behind the facade of a modern economy and generally efficient public administration. As Spain’s financial sectors received much-needed help from the EU, the government sought to avoid becoming a “program country” under the eurozone bailout mechanism. However, the crisis has changed the perception of Spain in Europe. From being considered by many to be the most “Nordic” country in the South, the crisis has seen Spain’s public image reduced to the more stereotypical “Club Med” aspects.

Given these developments, a comparison of the views of Spanish foreign policy professionals with their counterparts in other EU countries provides surprising insights. Among officials and think tank scholars, Spain is viewed more critically than one might think in light of the alignment of Spanish economic and fiscal policy with northern preferences and practices. ‘Europe. ECFR’s survey of political actors and EU experts, conducted in the summer of 2015, indicates that Spain occupies a relatively marginal position among the six largest EU member states. Spain is rarely listed as a “like-minded partner” by other EU Member States and is also absent from the top positions in lists of countries that Member States contact first and/or most, or the lists of Member States which are considered to be the most responsive or the easiest to use.

Spain is at the bottom of the list of priority member states for Germany and Poland – a surprising result given the strong orientation of Spanish policy towards Germany, or in the light of joint Spanish-Polish attempts to consolidate their positions in the group of “big states”. since the controversial negotiations on the weighting of votes in Nice in 2000. On the other hand, the opinions of the Italian political elite reflect a very different appreciation of Spain. After France, Italian respondents consider Spain the second most like-minded country and the second most responsive or easy to work with among EU members, far ahead of vision Italian from Germany. Spain is also fourth on Italy’s list of countries contacted first or most.

A north-south divide becomes clearly visible in the data regarding Spain’s assessment of its interaction with other EU partners. Despite the strong focus of Spanish decision-makers on the role of Germany, the Spanish political class shows a typically “southern” profile: Asked which other countries are the most like-minded, responsive and easy to work with partners and partners contacted first or more, France tops the list on all three questions – same result as for Italy. For Spanish and Italian political professionals, Germany comes second only when asked which country was contacted first or most often. Italy is ranked third by Spanish respondents on all three questions.

Regarding the Spanish self-assessment of their impact on European affairs in general, fiscal policy or foreign, security and defense policy, Spanish respondents rank their country between Italy and Poland in fifth place for all indicators, with the exception of fiscal policy where the Spaniards see themselves almost on par with the United Kingdom which is ranked fourth. Italy comes third here, a view shared equally by Italian and British respondents.

Overall, however, foreign policy professionals participating in the survey ranked Poland ahead of Spain, meaning that Poland is generally considered to have a stronger impact on European affairs than Spain. – a striking contrast with the Spanish self-assessment. This also seems counterfactual. After all, Spain has not only been a member since 1986, but its population exceeds that of Poland by 8 million and its GDP is 2.5 times higher.

Only in the area of ​​fiscal policy does Spain rank above Poland. This corresponds to the ranking of Spain by the Polish political elite: Spain is perceived as having a little less impact compared to the big picture, and this applies to all dimensions (European affairs in general; budgetary policy; foreign, security and defense policy), the Polish deviation from the average being most visible in budgetary policy. This is also consistent with Italy’s political elite, who have slightly more positive views of Spain’s overall impact than the average, although they are somewhat more critical of Spain’s impact. Spain on Foreign, Security and Defense Policy.

Respondents from the three largest EU Member States have different opinions on Spain’s impact, although the deviation from the average is quite small. While French respondents rank Spain slightly higher on European affairs and on foreign, security and defense policy, but significantly lower on fiscal policy, the German political elite takes the opposite view. German respondents rank Spain slightly lower on the first two dimensions but slightly higher on fiscal policy. Among the ‘Big Three’, the UK’s position stands out: British respondents rank Spain significantly higher on EU affairs in general and on fiscal policy and slightly more positive on foreign, security and defense. This assessment partly corresponds to the opinion of the Spanish elite on the impact of the United Kingdom. The UK’s Spanish ranking is more positive than average, except for fiscal policy where the UK is ranked significantly lower than is the case by all respondents.

In sum, a gap appears between the political aspirations of Spanish policy makers and the political community. As leaders seek to bring the country closer to German or northern European governance and politics, the preferences and patterns of interaction as reported by the political elite in government and the community of experts testify to Spain’s southern orientation and network. In short, neighborhood matters. However, the orientation is not reciprocal: neither the German vision of Spain, nor that of the Benelux or the Nordic countries corresponds to the supposed Nordic orientation of Spanish policy. In its southern neighborhood, the Spanish vision is reflected by that of the Italian political elite, but much less by that of the French.

Given its demographic and economic weight and its location at the crossroads of Europe and North Africa, Spain seems to be underestimated in the current alignment of large EU member states. Its appreciation among EU governments appears to be shaped by an “Eastern bias” among many EU governments and limited by the fallout from the financial crisis. Over time, these two factors will need to be reassessed, otherwise European politics will be locked into misperceptions. In particular, a strategy focused on strengthening the political center of the EU must pay attention to Spain’s European policy. If and when the new balance of Spain’s party system consolidates and the financial crisis is brought under control, Madrid could be a key player in shaping Europe as part of a coalition of pro-integration member states.


The data referred to here was collected as part of the Rethink:Europe project, an initiative of ECFR, supported by Stiftung Mercator. To assess the interaction between EU member states, the ECFR conducted its own elite EU-wide survey of foreign and EU policy professionals in government, think tanks, research institutes and specialized media, collecting data between May and August 2015. The Spanish sample consisted of 23 participants, of which approximately half were from think tanks and research institutions, one third from government and 9% from the media. Aggregate data was made available to participants in fall 2015; full data and analysis will be released alongside the second call for the survey in summer 2016.

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