The main factor shaping Spain's approach is what is thought of in Madrid as realism.
The main factor shaping Spain’s approach to the Eastern Partnership Project is what is predominantly thought of in Madrid as realism. Thus, in the run-up to the Riga Summit, the government is keen to avoid a “Vilnius II” scenario. Madrid sees the dynamics of the 2013 summit in Vilnius – in particular, the Brussels-led diplomacy with then-President Viktor Yanukovych’s Ukraine and the increasing tensions with Russia – as having aggravated or at least contributed to the outbreak of the crisis in Ukraine. Hence the current emphasis on realistic deliverables and the concept of a “working summit” in Riga, as opposed to a grandiose one.
Still, the line between realism and a Kissingerian Realpolitik is sometimes unclear, given other foreign policy positions taken by Spain’s current conservative government.
This factor applies not only to relations with Russia but also to managing the expectations of the Eastern Partnership (EaP) countries – in particular, over the prospects for EU enlargement in the near future.
On the Russian question, many policymakers in Madrid perceive the lack of sensible offers to Moscow (for example, on visa liberalisation), coupled with the lack of real will to engage with Russia’s interests and concerns – or a veiled desire to balance Moscow at any cost – as trigger factors in the Ukraine crisis. This must be viewed in light of the concept of a “strategic partnership” between Europe and Russia (and between Spain and Russia) which, though increasingly under fire, still influences thinking in Madrid, as confirmed by Foreign Minister José Manuel García-Margallo’s recent speech at the Permanent Council of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe.
Though the EaP is valued as a framework both for relations with the six partners and for reforms within them, according to this way of thinking Europe should also provide incentives to Moscow in return – a sort of “carrot-based off-ramp” approach, which should serve to de-escalate tensions over Ukraine. Above all, the thinking goes, Europe should avoid isolating Russia.
But caution is also a relevant policy approach when it comes to creating unrealistic expectations among EaP countries – to avoid putting the cart before the horse, so to speak. Diplomats in Madrid are adamant that the European Neighbourhood Policy is not, cannot, and should not be used openly, at least at this stage, as a precursor to enlargement. There are misgivings when it comes to the EU making “unrealistic” promises of “European perspectives” in the short to medium-term, absent a political consensus within the EU to that end.
Nonetheless, in fairness, the current Spanish government has also made several overtures to EaP countries, through diplomatic visits and other such measures. Madrid places a strong emphasis on incrementalism: should countries make progress in reforms required by the EU, the EU should respond accordingly and provide support through economic, financial, and expert assistance. But, in the same light, incentives (and related key decisions) should not be provided in the absence of real reforms – hence Madrid’s and other member states’ stance on visa liberalisation for Ukraine at the Riga Summit.
So Madrid’s line can be summarised as “reforms and standards first, status and incentives later”. The perception is that there is often insufficient emphasis on good governance and rule-of-law reforms, and on transformation in general.
Some in Madrid are critical of the EU’s inconsistent approach to the different partners and challenges posed by the EaP, whether from a geopolitical or a human rights perspective. The perception is that this inconsistency defeats the very purpose of the EaP project and weakens the EU’s common foreign policy. For instance, the overemphasis on Ukraine should not limit the attention paid to countries such as Georgia or Moldova. In the same vein, Europe must design a sensible relationship with those countries that may not be willing to “Europeanise” any time soon, but which are still relevant on other grounds, such as Azerbaijan.
5. Increased engagement
Despite the common perception that Spain is aloof from the EaP project, given its pressing interests and demands in the Southern Neighbourhood, Madrid’s overall engagement has increased somewhat. This is probably true at least in terms of diplomacy (as shown by visits to the Eastern Neighbourhood by senior diplomatic officials) and the increased relevance given in Madrid to the EaP question, not least after the Ukraine crisis. This goes hand in hand with diplomatic overtures to countries that aren’t like-minded, such as the Baltic states, aimed at fostering foreign policy convergence (or at least at clarifying respective policy assessments).
The actual implications of this remain unclear, bar some gestures here and there, but the profile of Eastern Europe in Madrid’s foreign policy and decision-making circles has increased since the Ukraine crisis. This may also be seen within the context of Spain’s clear attempts to increase its global diplomatic standing, now that it has a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council.
6. Balancing competing foreign policy demands
Still, Spain epitomises Europe’s current foreign-policy quagmire of having to extinguish fires across the east and in the Southern Neighbourhood in particular (if not further afield, such as in the Sahel). In the context of refocusing priorities, Spain is naturally concentrating the sheer weight of its diplomatic and scarce resources on areas of traditional interest, such as North Africa and Latin America – areas that account for most of the diplomatic initiatives to have emerged from Madrid in recent years (such as the flurry of high-level brinkmanship over the various Mediterranean crises, from migration to the Libyan conflict).
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.