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International Herald Tribune

Coming Home To 'Old Europe'

By Dan O'Brien

March 12, 2004
Copyright ©2004 Bell & Howell Information and Learning Company. All rights reserved.

LONDON -- Jose Maria Aznar, Spain's prime minister of eight years, has left an indelible impression on his country, most importantly by completing the normalization of the country's politics which began after the advent of democracy in the late 1970s. But as he prepares to leave office after elections on Sunday, his foreign policy legacy is less secure.

When he came to power in 1996, Aznar believed that democratic Spain had been punching below its weight in international affairs. He wanted to play a role in the world more befitting of his country's stature, as he saw it. He was determined that with the 10th-biggest economy in the world, a population of more than 40 million, growing self-confidence, a world language and links to the Americas, Spain could be a global player. In order to achieve this, he decided to do two things.

First, he would take a more proactive and assertive stance in international affairs. There would be no more sitting on the fence. He would ensure that his country had a position on the major issues of the day, even if this risked the ire of countries accustomed to Spain following, not leading. Second, he would forge closer ties with the United States in the belief that only by gaining influence with the superpower could Spain wield more clout in Europe and the world.

In the years that followed, Aznar was successful in increasing his country's influence with the United States and, as his stature grew, in the European Union too, all the while managing to avoid damaging confrontations with the EU's other members.

And then came the war in Iraq. Aznar, never one to duck a hard call, was decisive. Relations with the United States, now in its hour of need, would not be damaged to keep a tyrant in power. If this meant going against France and Germany, then so be it, and all the more so if they dared to presume to speak for Spain.

But his decision to back the war was a bridge too far not only for the Spanish public, which was as opposed as any other in Europe, but also among political and policy-making elites. Unlike Britain and France, Spain long ago ceased to be a warrior nation and anti- militarism is strong, in part because of the role of the defense forces in four decades of Francoist dictatorship.

When Spain interfaces with the world it is pacific internationalism, in the shape of the blue helmets of the United Nations not support for wars of pre-emption that characterizes the approach most Spaniards feel comfortable with.

Nor is Spain, traditionally not one of Europe's Atlanticist nations, necessarily naturally behind the United States in foreign matters. Anti-Americanism is strong on the left, not least owing to U.S. support for the Franco regime. Recently the opposition Socialist Party leader has spoken pointedly of not submitting to Washington if elected in March.

Less obvious, but arguably more important given the likely outcome of the election, is that the Spanish right also does not feel a strong bond to the United States. A traditional distrust of the great Protestant nation in this most Roman Catholic of countries is one reason.

But more important was the U.S. role in depriving Spain of its last colonies. In the Spanish-American war of 1898, the United States ejected Spain from her last remaining colonies in Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines. For many on the right this humiliation is still seen as the beginning of Spain's decline.

Aznar's successor, and the Popular Party's candidate for prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, avoids talking of foreign policy when he can. Unlike Aznar, who seems almost uncomfortable not taking sides, Rajoy is an altogether more emollient figure and is likely to seek, at the least, to steer a middle ground between Europe and America if new divisions emerge.

There are other reasons to believe that Aznar's foreign policy is likely to be reversed. The underlying determinants of international clout suggest Spain is attempting to punch above its weight, an endeavor difficult to sustain for long. Militarily, Spain is a minnow, spending only a quarter of Britain's defense budget.

Economically, despite strong growth in recent years, it is not yet a model for others it is a net recipient of EU subsidies and its per capita income is among the lowest in the Union. Diplomatically, it is under-resourced and lacking a capability or culture of strategic thinking.

These limitations have been reflected in some notable failures. Aznar's hope that the Group of 8 industrialized countries would be enlarged to accommodate Spain looks to remain unrealized.

Nor is Spain close to achieving Great Power status in Europe. While Britain's Tony Blair has overcome his differences with Jacques Chirac of France and Germany's Gerhard Schroder over the Iraq war to form (potentially) a trilateral alliance to drive the EU, Spain has no prospect of becoming the fourth wheel. Given all this, it is hard not to sense that Aznar's ambitions for Spain look like overstretch.

Trying to punch above one's weight is not only hard to sustain, it can also be risky. In Europe, Aznar has taken on France and Germany not only over Iraq, but also by his unbending line on changing voting weights in the EU's Council of Ministers. All this has taken place while he has fought fiercely to maintain Spain's massive EU subsidies, which Germany, for the most part, pays. This has led Schroder to warn publicly that Spain would be punished in cash terms if it did not give way on the EU voting issue.

Though Aznar's readiness to be more assertive when necessary, and his ambition to play a greater international role, is supported across party lines, there is a sense of unease that this has led to the isolation of Spain in the EU. The main political parties all long ago bought into the European integration project and, as demonstrated by the determination to be a founding member of the euro in the 1990s, Spain naturally feels most comfortable when attached to Europe's core. That will always mean France and Germany.

Unease at isolation in Europe is shared by the wider public, as the opposition illustrated when it criticized Aznar last December for his position on EU voting weights (this was in stark contrast to Aznar's sole ally on the issue Poland's Leszek Miller whose obduracy earned him a hero's welcome in Warsaw).

Given all this, expect Spain's foreign policy to return to a lower profile and a less overtly pro-United States position once Aznar steps down.


Dan O'Brien is a senior editor at the Economist Intelligence Unit.

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