Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s foreign policy, together with former Prime Minister José Luis Zapatero’s, removes the country from the international arena.

This article was first published in Spain in El País on 31 August 2015. Translation by Carla Hobbs.

In the 1980s, after its difficult transition to democracy, Spain returned to the world stage. In just a few years it ended decades of isolation and not only assumed a role in the international arena but gained the respect of its partners and friends, embarking on intense diplomatic activity in Europe, Latin America and North Africa and launching a large number of initiatives to enhance 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 Felipe González’s governments, had Spain punching well above its weight.

That return to the world, instigated by Felipe González, was furthered by José María Aznar. Although one may disagree with Aznar’s vision, it is unquestionable that he had vision. Highly suspicious of federalism and the Franco-German axis, Aznar’s foreign policy was successful according to the standards it set itself. Although it contributed towards the division of Europe into two blocs over the Iraq issue, it managed to locate Madrid on the Atlantic axis with Washington and London and gave new impetus for Spain’s international projection. 

It is common to attribute the past successes of Spanish foreign policy to a solid consensus between the two established parties. This consensus, however, is a myth that ignores the enormous differences between the positions maintained by the Socialists and the conservative Popular Party. Based on flawed reasoning, this conventional interpretation overlooks the truth of the matter which is that the successful foreign policy of both was simply due to the level of activity. 

Gonzalez and Aznar, in stark contrast to José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero and Mariano Rajoy, dedicated more time, people, resources and interest to international affairs. They might 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 have failed to hide their discomfort in international gatherings and also failed to cultivate personal relationships with their colleagues, so crucial today. Instead, they have preferred to take refuge in rhetoric and platitudes rather than choosing to actively participate in solving problems overseas. 

It is true that Zapatero, in contrast to Rajoy, had greater international visibility through initiatives such as the withdrawal from Iraq and the spectacular increase in development cooperation funding. Yet despite Zapatero’s pro-European rhetoric, one is hard pushed to recall a European initiative bearing his stamp or a European issue he has solved. In fact, his positive international image was due more to internal initiatives such as same-sex marriage or defending women’s rights. Meanwhile, he discarded the opportunity to project Spain internationally, especially in Latin America where a big impact could have been had. 

Wary of the US and averse to dealing with security and defence issues, foreign minister Moratino allowed Spain’s foreign policy to increasingly flirt with non-alignment. Initiatives such as the Alliance of Civilizations (a poor measure lacking the support of European leaders), affinity with the Castro brothers, servility to China, sympathies with Russia or efforts to align Spain with Milosevic's Serbia on the issue of Kosovo were conducted at the expense of Spain's relations with the EU and NATO. This has led some analysts to speak of the "de-Europeanisation" of Spanish foreign policy under Zapatero, undoing Gonzalez’s work. 

Building upon the Zapatero years, Rajoy’s approach to foreign policy consolidates Spain as a country removed from the international arena, underperforming in areas where it was traditionally strong. Not in the Atlantic, Europe, Latin America or the Mediterranean is Spain an actor to whom visibility, room for manoeuvre or vision can be attributed. Admittedly, the crisis provides a good excuse for that withdrawal but it is an easy excuse which doesn’t explain ineffectual and ill-conceived initiatives such as the ‘marca España’, excessive importance placed on economic diplomacy or Rajoy’s non-existent international presence. 

The fundamental problems underpinning Rajoy’s foreign policy harken back to those present during Zapatero's mandate: the combination of an absent and disinterested prime minister with a foreign minister - Moratinos then, García-Margallo now - who operates independently without government, parliamentary, or party guidelines. In García-Margallo’s case, this has prompted frequent and counterproductive attempts to discuss Catalonia when he is actually the least qualified of the Cabinet to do so. It has also permitted him to link Catalonia, Kosovo and Crimea, a feat which not only gives Putin international validation and weakens the European position, but again paints Spain as an eccentric ally. Lastly, and for the finishing touch, Margallo has advised Russia to refer its annexation of Crimea to the International Court of Justice, based on the belief that this would negate the transfer of the territory to Ukraine by Khrushchev in 1954 and thus validate its subsequent annexation by Putin.

But perhaps it is the Spanish reaction to the immigration crisis that best highlights the government’s lack of vision, with Rajoy completed disconnected from the affair while his European counterparts are deeply embroiled. That the interior minister can talk shamelessly about the pull factor of sea rescues and the foreign minister can argue ridiculously that Spain’s unemployment rates prevent an increase in asylum seeker intake not only causes embarrassment, but will have repercussions when it is Spain that requires the solidarity of its EU partners. 

This self-absorbed and egotistical Spain is difficult to behold. It has no commitment to the promotion of democracy and human rights overseas and is myopically focused on promoting its own welfare while ignoring the interdependencies that its welfare actually depends upon. Also the worst may be yet to come as electoral fragmentation could lead to even greater navel-gazing after the end-of-year elections. In recent years Spanish policy has become accustomed to keeping a low profile and has closed too many doors. It's time to open them and return to the world.

Read more on: European Power, European Strategy, Global Strategy

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.