Time For Spain To Get A Foreign Policy


The elections are over. The likely shape of the new government clear. The details remain to be decided, but that will await the outcome of the local elections at the end of the month. So given that Pedro Sánchez is all but certain to remain Prime Minister, attention switches to the main challenges facing the new Spanish government.

There was a curious omission from the electoral debates. There was no mention of either foreign or European policy. Perhaps, on reflection, this is not so surprising. It is many years since Spain has had a foreign policy, as opposed to an obsession with national brand, or adopted clear positions on Europe. I suspect that even the foreign affairs or European spokesmen of Spain’s political parties would have trouble in distinguishing their policies one from another. When asked about Europe, for example, the answer is invariably that Spain is in favour of Europe. If pressed, Spanish politicians of all stripes will affirm that they are in favour of more Europe. At no point does anyone explain what this means, or what kind of Europe Spain wants more of.

This position is no longer sustainable. Once the nonsense of Brexit is out the way, the European Union needs to confront a series of existential challenges: how to manage the differences between the Eurozone and the rest of the EU; how to develop coherent policies on China and Russia; what to do about transatlantic relations, especially if Trump gets re-elected; what to do about North Africa and the Middle East; what kind of relationship to develop with Turkey; how to reform the Eurozone to ensure that the Euro survives the next financial crisis; what kind of security architecture to construct in Europe. Where does Spain stand on these issues? In the election campaign not a word from any of the parties.

It is not as if there were common, or even majority, positions on these issues within the EU to which Spain could sign up. Germany undermines the EU’s position on Russia by constructing the Nordstream II gas pipe. France and Germany differ radically over Eurozone reform. The so-called Hanseatic league takes yet a different position. France and Italy support different sides in the Libyan civil war (each seeking to ensure their oil interests). Italy and Luxemburg join the Eastern European countries in signing up to China´s Belt Road Initiative, while the EU as a whole remains cautious. Germany calls for a European army, which it is unwilling to pay for, while France discreetly works to maintain its military collaboration with the UK post-Brexit. The only thing we know about Spain’s position on Europe is that it wants to use Brexit to advance its position on Gibraltar.

This is fair enough, but it is hardly an existential issue for the EU. The others are. Spanish politicians have oft expressed the ambition to increase Spain’s influence in the EU post-Brexit, perhaps even displacing the ill-behaved and unstable Italy as the third power of the Union. But it will not be able to achieve this if it does not have coherent policy positions on these existential issues. Just talking about your own problems and preoccupations does not win international influence. European partners will soon tire of hearing about Gibraltar and Catalonia.

In a party we soon stop listening to someone who talks only about themselves, instead looking for someone who will talk about our problems. International relations is the same. Spain does have an opportunity to increase its influence in Europe. It looks likely to have a stable government for some time, and other European powers are passing through complicated transitions. But simply appearing in the same photo as the leading European leader of the moment (Rajoy with Merkel, Sánchez with Macrón) no longer cuts the mustard. If Spain wants to take advantage of the opportunities it must develop real foreign and European policies. It is a shame that none of this was discussed in the election campaign.

About the Author

Shaun Riordan
Shaun Riordan is Director of the Department for Diplomacy and Cyberspace in the European Institute of International Studies and a senior visiting fellow of the Netherlands Institute of International Relations, “Clingendael”. He is also an independent geopolitical risk consultant. A former British diplomat, he served in New York, Taiwan, Beijing and Madrid, as well as the departments of counter-terrorism and the Eastern Adriatic in the Foreign Office. Shaun has taught at diplomatic academies in the Dominican Republic, Spain, Armenia and Bulgaria. He is the author of “Cyberdiplomacy: Managing Security and Governance Online” (Polity, 2019), “Adios a la Diplomacia” (Siglo XXI, 2005) and “The New Diplomacy” (Polity, 2003). He maintains a blog (www.shaunriordan.com) and can be followed at @shaun_riordan