13/06/2022

A question of scale

3 min
A question of stairs

Spanish foreign policy has a problem of scale. Not with its neighbours, which lately also seems to be the case, but of the scale in which the Kingdom of Spain sees itself in relation to the world around it and, therefore, the arrogance with which it makes mistakes.

Spanish foreign policy has spent the last decades debating between the classic myth of the Spanish Empire and the harsh reality of assuming that Spain is now a small regional power, fragile and at the same time unique due to its geographical situation, and only reinforced by its membership of the European club and US army bases on its territory.

The disproportionate perception of Spain's place in the world reached its climax in the airs of grandeur that led José María Aznar to involve the Spanish army in a war in Iraq based on the lie of the existence of weapons of mass destruction. The photograph of the Açores trio, with George W. Bush, Tony Blair and Aznar alongside each other, was followed by the photograph of the Spanish president with his feet on the table next to the US president in a sort of Cantinflas-like parody of the historical transatlantic relations.

Spanish diplomacy has moved on from the delirium of the mythologised but non-existent empire, as British historian Henry Kamen explains in his book Imagining Spain: Historical Myth and National Identity (Yale University Press), to an erratic foreign policy, marked by short-termism and fear of the repercussions of the latest media crisis. Spanish diplomacy has gone from acting towards its neighbours with a sort of atavistic superiority complex to a sudden change of direction on an issue as old and transcendental as relations with Morocco and therefore also with Algeria.

The turn has not been officially explained with solid arguments and can only be understood by the fear of the Moroccan threat of starting a migratory crisis from the south when in Europe the migration of six million Ukrainians due to the Russian invasion was starting from the north. The fear of the induced overflow through the southern border and an overconfidence due to ignorance explain the mistake made by the Spanish ministry of José Manuel Albares. If it is not due to migratory pressure, one cannot explain the unilateral change of opinion on the self-determination of Western Sahara, which has blown up relations with a critical energy partner such as Algeria. Not only could Morocco have obtained sensitive information from Spain in recent years through the use of Pegasus spyware and put itself in an advantageous negotiating position, but the Moroccan royal house leaked on a chaotic Friday evening Madrid's support for its autonomy plan and thus imposed, with a slap on the face, the end to a political position sustained for 47 years. A palace leak put an end to support for UN resolutions taking note of Morocco's occupation of Western Sahara.

Morocco showed Minister Albares up, who had no capacity to react, with internal political allies shocked and Algeria on the energy warpath.

In fact, this is another scenario of the war in Ukraine (Russia's foreign minister Lavrov made a visit to Algiers last month), and Italy has taken advantage to gain a good position while Spain remains disoriented. Algeria's announcement that it is suspending the good neighbourliness treaty and freezing foreign trade operations has been tempered in recent hours by threats from the European Union, but Spain has few arguments left beyond the pressure of its European partners.

Once again, the great differentiating factor of Spain's capacity to act is its membership of the Union. Once again, despite the difficulties, it is the EU that moves Member States forward. And, if not, let Poland, which has completely changed its migration policy with Ukraine, be the judge of that. Despite the obstacles, the EU is the only viable project for the future.