Despite renewed leadership in some areas, Spain failed to engage fully on some of the defining foreign policy issues of 2014.
In 2014, Spanish foreign policy continued to be at least in part shaped by the economic crisis. The crisis, along with the dramatic cuts necessitated by austerity policies, have severely constrained Spanish external action, as has been particularly evident in the butchering of hitherto substantial funds for development aid. Nevertheless, an increase in foreign direct investment, improved financial conditions, and the return of growth have helped to create a “Spain is back” narrative, and the government is prioritising the restoration of Spain’s international reputation.
Although its diplomacy is traditionally cautious and behind the scenes, Spain was more activist in some areas of its foreign policy in 2014.
Although its diplomacy is traditionally cautious and behind the scenes, Spain was more activist in some areas of its foreign policy in 2014, both on established priorities (such as the crises in the Arab world) and in efforts to rethink Spain’s foreign policy within a shifting international order. External action initiatives increased, some tied to domestic institutions and mechanisms, such as theapproval of a non-binding parliamentary motion urging recognition of Palestine, the implementation of the State Foreign Action and Service Law, and the drafting of a new Foreign Policy Strategy with a strong pro-European character. Spain’s international profile has benefited from its successful bid for a non-permanent seat at the United Nations Security Council for 2015-2016, which will provide the centre for the government’s foreign agenda in the last stretch of its mandate (elections are set for late 2015).
However, during 2014, Madrid was reactive rather than proactive on three major crises: the conflict in Ukraine, the emergence of the self-proclaimed Islamic State, and the Ebola outbreak. In all of these cases, Spain was reluctant to engage fully, trailing in the wake of events or, per the assessment in the European Policy Scorecard 2015, dragging its feet.
Spanish foreign policy seems to have followed two different tracks. On some issues, Spain followed a pan-European approach, although it was most concerned with projects that aligned with its national interest and governmental priorities, such as the proposed Energy Union (on which it tabled European Union-wide initiatives with Poland and Portugal) and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. On others, Spain joined in the general wave of realpolitik, individualist foreign policy, fostering bilateral relations with great powers or mid-sized actors and often overlooking issues of democracy and human rights. This was particularly the case with countries in which Spain has an economic interest.
Spanish authorities have tended to use a legalistic approach to hide their lack of commitment in certain areas of external action.
On some foreign policy issues, internal attitudes and fears in Spain conditioned the government’s stance, as in the case of the annexation of Crimea by Russia. And Spanish authorities have tended to use a legalistic approach to hide their lack of commitment in certain areas of external action, delegating many responsibilities to multilateral actors.
Spain did play an important role on some issues in 2014, especially in the Middle East and North Africa and the Sahel. In Syria, the Spanish government has invested heavily in facilitation efforts with the Syrian opposition – sometimes risking criticism from other EU partners – through initiatives such as the Cordoba gathering of Syrian opposition groups. And it has been a supporter of EU policies that align with these objectives. However, this has gone alongside a more cautious, low profile in the participation in the coalition against the Islamic State, especially in the early phase of the diplomatic negotiations, although Spain did send a contingent to train the Iraqi Army.
The Spanish activism in the southern neighbourhood was particularly reflected in its leadership on the Libyan crisis (a major concern for Madrid). Spain organised a conference on Libya in Madrid in September, aimed at giving a boost to regional engagement in a political solution in support of UN-led mediation efforts. Similar initiatives have taken place within the 5+5 framework (Algeria, Spain, France, Italy, Libya, Malta, Morocco, Mauritania, Portugal, and Tunisia), which Spain presided over in 2014.
In terms of deployments in multinational missions in Mali and in the Sahel, Spain has played a leading role by providing political, economic, and military support for the French and EU missions, in view of the strategic priority that this area has for Spanish security. Spain has also remained engaged in Afghanistan, through military and civilian efforts that will last until the end of the NATO mission, and it has committed to participating in the new Resolute Support mission.
Spain was a slacker in only one component of the Scorecard: humanitarian support to the Middle East.The main reason for the failure here was its lack of support for Syrian refugees in comparison to other EU member states – a structural pattern that reflects badly on Madrid’s official commitments. This and other inertias still make Spain punch below its weight, in spite of the efforts at a comeback that began in late 2013 and continued throughout 2014.
Álvaro Imbernón is a researcher at ESADEgeo Center for Global Economy and Geopolitics and was the Spanish national researcher for ECFR’s European Foreign Policy Scorecard 2015.
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.