Latest publications - Elcano Royal Institute empty_context Copyright (c), 2002-2018 Fundación Real Instituto Elcano Lotus Web Content Management <![CDATA[ What next in export controls? Updating criteria and methodologies in non-proliferation and arms control ]]> 2019-06-17T11:44:17Z

The impact of cumulative innovation in technologies requires policymakers and experts to update the current methodology, concepts and tools for non-proliferation, exports control, restrictive measures, arms control and disarmament mechanisms.


The impact of cumulative innovation in technologies requires policymakers and experts to update the current methodology, concepts and tools for non-proliferation, exports control, restrictive measures, arms control and disarmament mechanisms.


Military and CBRN technologies are evolving rapidly in a cumulative process of innovation, leading to a growing gap between 20th century military assets and modern systems. The accessibility to conventional and CBRN technologies for non-State actors further adds uncertainties to the spectrum of threats that States are likely to face in the years to come. These facts also raise the question of emerging challenges in arms control and non-proliferation policies, in particular for export controls. In a quest to match trade and security interests, policymakers, diplomats and military/technical experts are confronted with a number of specific challenges in multilateral regimes and initiatives: assessing the impact of new technologies on future military capabilities and WMD programmes; preventing a destabilising proliferation of dual-use technologies with military applications; and addressing the resulting conceptual and material outcomes of such an evolutionary process in the methodology for future arms control, non-proliferation and disarmament negotiations.


Cumulative innovation, intensive growth and commercial take-off

Past experience shows that technology usually evolves through a gradual cumulative process, based on a combination of new inventions and innovative uses of existing technologies, rather than revolutionary changes in industrial technology with immediate results. “Cycles of invention – commercial exploitation – innovation” develop gradually and usually take a long time to yield significant results. At an early stage, such innovative technologies have little or no relation with existing operational military equipment, due to a conceptual gap between their original design and their potential use in subsequent designs. The latter use has to be ‘rediscovered’ at a later stage, and many technologies are then gradually adapted to military needs, thus improving operational equipment. Such processes have led in some cases to success, followed by phases of technical progress, or to stagnation and even regression in other cases, eventually becoming commercially irrelevant.

The perception of technological innovation in industrial economies is based on the concept of intensive growth (technology as a factor for improvement) versus extensive growth (labour + capital + resources). The last two decades have already witnessed the emergence of new technologies that have transformed production systems and social habits, leading to important qualitative changes in industrial economies in recent years. Most probably, the take-off phase of an intensive growth based on new technologies is yet to come, but once it starts it is likely to fuel worldwide diffusion of dual-use technologies through global trade and off-shoring, resulting in growing challenges for non-proliferation export controls. One of the major reasons for this spread lies in the necessity for advanced technology firms to write off their often costly research and development (R&D) investments by expanding their markets, which implies promoting exports worldwide. Off-shoring policies help to reduce costs by shifting production, assembly lines or manufacturing of components to factories in countries with lower labour costs. Moreover, foreign direct investments lead to transfers of ownership of firms integrated in the supply chain of important defence contractors. All these factors gradually pave the way for proliferation risks, such as direct access to technology and production processes or ownership of sensitive patents by foreign entities and reverse engineering.

Modern innovation is transforming previously non-listed commercial items into dual-use technologies. In recent history, innovation has mostly been based on new ideas being applied to existing technologies and resources, in a process of gradual improvement over long periods of time. In the Information Age, the cumulative effect of such innovations becomes larger and faster, since each new cycle of innovation delivers a stronger technological impact due to synergies reached in combination with other technologies. Market globalization, intangible technology transfers, and off-shoring policies of private firms are among relevant factors that accelerate technology diffusion worldwide. While these trends are positive in terms of the improvements in productivity, expansion in trade and increase in economic growth, they also represent important challenges for supplier countries, which require adequate regulatory tools to effectively implement export controls.

Such knowledge and technologies may not be listed as controlled items at that stage. However, many dual-use technologies that are not listed as ‘military controlled items’ might be relevant for future WMD or conventional weapons programmes. Export control agencies, through international interaction, determine which weapons, sensitive dual-use technologies, and related materials must be controlled. The same logic is applied to technology-related restrictive measures.1 But innovation often transforms previous non-listed commercial items into present and future dual-use technologies. Technological change through cumulative innovation outpaces our ability to update lists of controlled items in national and multilateral export control mechanisms. This is particularly important in industries operating in the nuclear, chemical, biological, aerospace and military sectors.

While ‘traditional defence sector’ companies have always had a solid security culture, based on specific confidentiality regulations, this may not be the case for some commercial firms from the civilian dual-use sector, which may eventually become suppliers to defence prime contractors. Some of these challenges may lead to a proliferation of sensitive and dual-use technologies, including machine-tools. Commercial and market-oriented companies –especially those producing and supplying dual-use technologies– are more exposed to the risk of unintended sensitive transfers to destinations of concern.

In this regard, the production and availability of technologically advanced components and machine-tools is of particular relevance, since they play a primary role in industry, but also in the construction of advanced military platforms. Some examples of this trend are: software and computers; propulsion systems; video technology; robotics; nanotechnology; autonomous vehicles and remote-controlled systems; and technologies associated with space applications.

New materials, such as carbon fibre and graphene, are also essential in modern industry. New production systems, such as additive manufacturing, are used in different sectors of industry, building objects by adding ultra-thin layers of material one by one: plastic prototypes, ultrasound machines, gas turbines, aeronautics, medical implants, etc. The use of these technologies in the production of military platforms is growing, especially in aeronautics.2 The potential of new technologies in the defence sector is enormous. As a result, the control of all these technologies is becoming not only a commercial advantage for industry, but also a strategic asset.

New technologies, weapons and tools to make weapons: tangible and intangible

Our past experience in arms control, non-proliferation and disarmament methodology has been based on hardware, materials and physical platforms accounting and monitoring. The international agreements negotiated in the 20th century established quantitative ceilings to limit military capabilities and determine the rationale of strategic balances. Examples of this approach are the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 after the end of World War I; the Naval Treaty of Washington, signed in 1922; or, more recently, the Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe, since 1990. Other treaties in the second half of the past century established non-proliferation principles, where a quantitative approach to tangible assets was the method to determine compliance, based on measurable materials. Such is the case of the Non-Proliferation Treaty and the Chemical Weapons Convention, which rely on a verification and accounting system of safeguards and inspections, implemented by the International Atomic Energy Agency and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons respectively. The Arms Trade Treaty follows the same philosophy in its information exchange mechanism: reporting on tangible transfers.

However, the impact of new technologies and intangible assets on conventional and WMD capabilities is likely to grow in the years to come. As an example, due to new trends in information technology, the use of cyber weapons against nuclear, chemical and critical infrastructure may become a threat that will be difficult to assess with current conceptual tools. Therefore, given the extensive use of dual-use applications and intangible assets integrated in modern military systems, the quantitative approach may not be sufficient in the future. The same rationale is applicable to export controls, where software, electronics and other non-lethal technologies determine the capabilities, precision and effectiveness of modern weapons systems.

Some of the risks described above also emerge in the form of intangible technology transfers associated with digital transactions: the transfers of technical data in a non-physical form, including available encryption software, email exchanges of documents related to sensitive information, online consulting, access to cloud-based technologies and other procedures in wireless telecommunications networks. Export control authorities in supplier countries face increasing challenges related to sensitive Intangible Technology Transfers (ITT) due to functional symbiosis of industry and academia, the presence of foreign nationals in domestic high-technology sectors, the mobility of qualified personnel or the access to global information technology networks and digital-electronic methods of intangible transfers.

At the same time, it is necessary to identify industry, research centres, universities and individuals that have access to sensitive technology in order to undertake targeted outreach efforts and, if possible, also promote self-regulation, based on cooperation with export control agencies, including by designing and implementing internal compliance programmes, encouraging appointment of export control points of contact and enhancing codes of conduct. Such measures supplement risk analysis procedures in visa-vetting methods, including profiles following the model used in granting licences for transferring defence and dual-use material, and sensitive areas which could make ITT possible or facilitate them. Furthermore, raising awareness and self-regulation in sensitive suppliers enables them to become the ‘first line of defence’, controlling sensitive technology at the source. This is already being done in many countries through ‘compliance programmes’ and ‘know-your-customer’ policies, but only when such companies are active in supply chains and exports that are already declared sensitive. Finally, these challenges require new tools for enforcement agencies, including national legal frameworks for special investigative techniques in the web in order to monitor electronic transfers of sensitive information, under judicial supervision, in accordance with national legislation.

Innovation and new applications of existing technologies: the conceptual gap

Throughout history there have been cases in which the original design and intended purpose of innovative technologies were used for specific applications, which were entirely different from their use in differing subsequent designs or systems. The latter use had to be ‘rediscovered’ at a later stage, and many of these technologies were gradually adapted both to commercial and military needs, thus improving operational equipment and commercial technologies. In the 18th century the steam engine was initially designed for the textile industry, but it was successfully adapted to trains and vessels in the 19th century. The GPS was designed for military purposes, and a few decades later became commercially available and widely used for civilian applications. Cell phones, specifically designed for wireless communications, have been used as remote-controlled detonators of improvised explosive devices in terrorist attacks. Between the original design and purpose of innovative technologies and their potential ‘rediscovered uses’ there is a conceptual gap,3 due to lack of awareness or purpose to use them in new and different applications.

This conceptual gap can be identified when innovation is not intended or focused on a particular goal at a given time and is conceived by a designer/developer unaware of its full potential. The analysis of a conceptual gap requires an assessment of the innovation process to compare the original purpose of the technology with other potential uses of the same technology as reflected in Figure 1. The need to expand markets and recover R&D investments leads to the search for new applications and functions of existing technologies. In this process, the interaction between designers and end users is essential, since it is often demand from the latter which leads to new findings. In this regard, innovation plays a role in two parallel functions:

  • Existing and new dual-use technologies are used to upgrade existing platforms and systems with new applications. The latter play the role of enablers.
  • New designs of technologies for innovative applications are used to construct new platforms and systems.
Figure 1. The development of conceptual gaps

The conceptual gap is bridged with a deductive and functional approach: a designer or researcher seeks existing technology that is able to perform a functional role that has been previously identified as a need by the end user. In this process there is an issue of particular relevance concerning capabilities for asymmetric warfare. While cases of “reverse engineering” of military and dual-use technologies by state-sponsored entities are widely known in the context of “technology flows” leading to industrial production, the acquisition path of sensitive technologies undertaken by non-state actors usually starts with commercially available items purchased off-the shelf or on the black market. These items are later redesigned and upgraded with other available technologies to produce derivatives – not replicas – adapted to their needs and resources. This product may be of a lower technology standard and performance compared to the original system, but it plays a similar functional role. Many weapons used by non-state actors in asymmetric warfare and terrorism are the result of “reverse designing” derivatives4.

In the context of asymmetric threats, the existence of such conceptual gaps in chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) systems requires a specific approach. Often associated, rightly or not, to weapons of mass destruction, CBRN materials are part of a more complex system with production facilities, means of delivery, CBR agents, nuclear devices, explosives, detonators, guidance systems and particular vulnerabilities, eg, to sabotage through cyber-attacks. The outcome of innovative processes is diverted and integrated into existing CBRN devices, in which CBRN materials are part of a more complex system. The complexity of CBRN systems and their enhancement through integration of dual-use conventional technologies are usually ignored when the two –conventional and non-conventional technologies– are defined as separate categories.

Moreover, risk management –based on the safety/security standards implemented in a CBRN facility– is also a relevant factor in export control. If they are not protected, these technologies and materials can be stolen at the facility, diverted to other purposes or used against the receiving State or other countries (including the supplier country). As a result, two elements can be identified as characterising conceptual gaps in CBRN.

First, and from a technological perspective, CBRN systems cannot be conceived as an isolated category. They are integrated in a complex spectrum of technologies, ranging from conventional to CBRN elements, including dual-use technologies. CBRN systems differentiate conceptually from conventional systems due to their fallout and consequences, the legal framework in which they are categorised as well as certain ethical considerations, due to their usual association with WMD. But they are, in effect, integrated in a complex and comprehensive continuum of diverse technologies, where conventional and non-conventional technologies are blended and only then possibly formed into a CBRN weapon. Therefore, controlling the spread of CBRN materials is insufficient for achieving non-proliferation, since complementing conventional or dual-use technologies usable for the weaponisation of these materials need to be regulated, too.

Figure 2. From CBRN material to non-conventional systems
Figure 3. From conventional enablers to CBRN effects

This perspective is particularly important when dealing not only with terrorist threats but also in a hybrid war context: insiders, militia-type agitators and hackers can all use conventional systems to achieve harmful CBRN outcomes as shown in Figure 4.

Figure 4. Risk management in CBRN facilities

Coordination and assessment of information through national prevention-defence-resilience hubs is important for monitoring critical infrastructure and improving situational awareness, enhancing the ability to connect seemingly unrelated events which might be symptoms of a hybrid attack.


The way ahead: measuring intangible assets and anticipating technologies’ potential outcomes

Weapons systems, dual use technologies, technical production systems and their different applications bear not only the legacy of knowledge, but also the traces of evolution in human behaviour. In this regard, the process is characterised by a tempo marked by relevant inventions and industrial highlights, as well as a long-term perspective of evolution where elements of a technical-industrial legacy find new roles assigned by human creativity. In summary, the time is ripe for considering a gradual update of the methodology for non-proliferation, exports control, restrictive measures, arms control and disarmament mechanisms. New concepts and tools will be required to assess the relevance of technologies and capabilities, both conventional and non-conventional, based on tangible and intangible factors.

The impact of cumulative innovation in technologies with potential use in CBRN and conventional weapons programmes, including manufacturing systems, has become a major challenge for policymakers and experts in the security, non-proliferation and disarmament community. In particular, export control authorities and military experts will need to assess the consequences of future innovation on existing controlled platforms.

At the same time, enforcement agencies will need to assess the parameters of compliance in an intangible space. Intangible technology transfers –where traditional customs and enforcement controls cannot be implemented– require a new approach to address new challenges for export controls, such as information transactions where the concept of national boundary either is blurred or simply disappears.

This intellectual exercise will also require a methodology to define the conceptual gaps between the 20th-century designed operational weapons systems and an innovative use of new technological resources or dual-use applications for military purposes. This implies reflecting on possible mechanisms to assess and identify the potential dual use of commercial technologies, which may not be integrated in existing controlled systems at present but might be relevant for future weapon designs and programmes.

Technological observatories, qualitative indicators of capacities based on innovative technologies, as well as new conceptual and impact evaluation models, would be useful regulative tools in this context. Further efforts in this area could include not only an assessment of the transfers to be monitored and the gaps to be bridged, but also a deeper analysis of relevant factors in technological proliferation.

Gonzalo de Salazar
Senior Advisor for Strategic Affairs and Sanctions Policy Coordinator at the Spanish Ministry for Foreign Affairs, European Union and Cooperation

1 Some UNSC resolutions on sanctions use the annexes of the Nuclear Suppliers Group and the Missile Technology Control Regime as technical references for the implementation of restrictive measures.

2 New generations of machine-tools function in combination with advanced programming and simulation software to manufacture flat, mild curvature, complex shapes and high-contour aerospace components. Computer-controlled additive manufacturing machines make lighter parts and components in a faster process, reduce production costs, and yield significant fuel savings for aircraft.

3 Gonzalo de Salazar Serantes (2018), Crimen y conflicto armado, MAEC, Madrid, p.199-201.

4 An example of this process is the ability of some guerrillas to transform commercial UAVs and use them on the battlefield, surface-to-air missiles adapted to surface-to-surface functions or portable rocket launchers based on modified models of self-propelled grenades, built with plastic components using injection moulding machinery, steel and aluminium.

<![CDATA[ From the depths to the surface: conflict drivers in the MENA region ]]> 2019-06-12T05:19:06Z

Failing to acknowledge the 2011 Arab uprisings as a breaking point announcing the need for a regime overhaul in the region, and therefore a long overdue revision of Western policy, would be a mistake with serious adverse consequences. 


Failing to acknowledge the 2011 Arab uprisings as a breaking point announcing the need for a regime overhaul in the region, and therefore a long overdue revision of Western policy, would be a mistake with serious adverse consequences. The 2011 uprisings’ strong aftershocks still have the potential to undermine not just individual states but the entire Arab state system.


Dramatic changes in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) after 2011 dictate the need for external actors to forge a new policy approach to address the region’s long-term challenges. In tackling the region’s increasingly intersecting and conflicting politics, aggravated by external interventions, international policy makers should keep their eyes on both old and new conflict drivers, or risk fighting symptoms rather than causes, and thus potentially do more harm.


On the periphery of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), in Algeria and in the Sudan, popular uprisings toppled two of the region’s longest-ruling leaders in April 2019, opening a new chapter in calls for better governance. In constituting a rejection of the status quo, they carry a similarity with the 2011 Arab revolts.1 In Algeria, the prospect of a fifth term for President Abdelaziz Bouteflika created a sense of national humiliation and pushed citizens to take to the streets. In their view, the 82-year-old and ailing President could not possibly lead reform, and many Algerians saw their country’s potential wasted by interest groups around him.2 In the Sudan, a cut to a government subsidy that trebled the price of bread sparked protests against the 76-year-old President Omar al-Bashir, who had ruled the country for almost 30 years. Protests are of course about much more than bread, with anger centred more generally on a police state’s governance failures.3 Today, the outcomes of the political transitions in the two countries remains unclear.

Continued popular activism throughout the region is proof of a people’s enduring aspiration for an end to corruption and for better governance. However, eight years after citizens across the Arab world took to the streets voicing a widespread sense of social injustice, authoritarianism has begun to re-establish itself with a vengeance, bankrolled by Saudi and Emirati cheque-book diplomacy. The regimes that survived the challenge to their rule, instead of re-imagining and reforming themselves to head off further popular protests, are mostly reinforcing the fragile governance structures that have long fed the grievances that prompted the Arab uprisings, including by channelling scarce resources into strengthening their repressive capabilities. Meanwhile, events in the region continue to create new security concerns for external actors.

Although rightly concerned by developments in the region and fearing the impact in the form of refugees/migrants and jihadism, outside actors are generally not helping. Whereas at the start of the 2011 Arab uprisings Western actors had voiced support for the aspirations of the people in the squares, today short-term priorities are producing securitised policies, which dominate their relations with MENA states. Longer-term drivers of conflict, although recognised rhetorically as part of policy, remain on the backburner of policy makers’ agendas.

Today, after all that the region’s people have suffered and lost, mass protests in Algeria and the Sudan seem unlikely to trigger a domino effect similar to that initiated by Tunisia almost a decade ago. Yet they should serve as a clear reminder that unaddressed grievances will spawn popular rebellion sooner or later. Failing to acknowledge the 2011 Arab uprisings as a breaking point announcing the need for a regime overhaul in the region, and therefore a long overdue revision of Western policy, would be a mistake with serious adverse consequences.

Old and new drivers of MENA conflicts

Throughout history, the region has suffered repeated upheavals that either advanced or challenged it, and each of these ‘earthquakes’ has set off its own set of conflicts. At least five separate ‘conflict clusters’ have emerged from the trauma of WWI, the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire and the onset of colonial rule, as Arab societies are still seeking to overcome the grievances of their founding:4

  • Cluster I: internal conflicts deriving from the creation of the region’s disjointed governing structures (I-A), and challenges to its borders (I-B). Examples of I-A: various military coups (Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Tunisia); and of I-B: Kurdish insurgencies against their respective central states, and the transnational ambitions of jihadist movements.
  • Cluster II: Israeli-Arab wars and Palestinian uprisings deriving from the 1948 creation of the state of Israel. Examples: in 1967, 1973, 1982, 1988 and on.
  • Cluster III: conflicts stemming from Iran’s outward projection in the aftermath of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, and efforts to curb it. Examples: the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war and Israel-Hezbollah wars in 1993, 1996 and 2006.
  • Cluster IV: fighting associated with Sunni radicalisation, which was triggered by the Arab states’ defeat in the 1967 war and the 1979 siege of Mecca. Examples: jihadists vs Soviets in Afghanistan, efforts to suppress the Muslim Brotherhood, the 9/11 and other jihadist attacks.
  • Cluster V: civil wars triggered by state collapse in the wake of the 2011 Arab uprisings. Examples: Libya, Yemen and Syria. Other states may still be standing but are both highly repressive and internally fragile. Examples: Egypt, Algeria, Tunisia, Lebanon, Jordan and possibly also Saudi Arabia.

The Arab uprisings have left the region in disarray and more deeply polarised. Power vacuums resulting from collapsing states, in the absence of regional unity, functioning conflict-resolution mechanisms or a global arbiter, have empowered ambitious non-state actors and invited interventions by regional actors who fear negative implications to their vested interests. External actors compound this situation through interference, often destructive, that invariably is driven by self-interest, even if well-intentioned.

The 2011 uprisings’ strong aftershocks still have the potential to undermine not just individual states but the entire Arab state system. They largely removed previously influential Arab states (Egypt, Iraq and Syria) as significant actors, compelling the Gulf states to step into the breach and launch new interventions across the region.5 Yet, ill-equipped to tackle the region’s challenges, these actors are failing to impose even the outlines of a new order, and instead contribute to the chaos.

Unprecedented levels of intersecting conflict in the MENA region pose difficult challenges to international policymakers. As pre-existing conflict ‘clusters’ intersect, original conflict drivers are obscured by new grievances and objectives. This makes individual conflicts harder to analyse and address and heightens the risk that external assistance has adverse unintended consequences. Syria is in the unique position of seeing all five conflict clusters intersect.6

Tackling the region’s new complexity will require a new approach. Outside actors should identify, acknowledge and accommodate both new but also old conflict drivers, and understand how positive impact in one arena could cause adverse effects in another. They should be wary of unintentionally strengthening local non-state actors pursuing sub-state or transnational agendas, or regional states pursuing sub-state agendas in neighbours in an attempt to keep them weak and to counter adversaries.

The Arab uprisings and their aftermath

To many, the uprisings signalled the need for a change of course in policy towards the MENA region, where a Western ‘stability paradigm’ had long supported inherently fragile authoritarian regimes,7 and where overly securitised policies were overlooking and aggravating deeper drivers of conflict. For a short moment, such a policy shift seemed to be taking place.

In February 2011, at the yearly Munich Security Conference, the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton noted that security and ‘the need for democratic development’ had never so clearly converged in the Middle East. Clinton said that the status quo was ‘simply not sustainable’ and that ‘leaders in the region may be able to hold back the tide for a while, but not for long’. To ‘help our partners take systematic steps to usher in a better future where people’s voices are heard, their rights respected, and their aspirations met’ was no longer simply a matter of idealism but a strategic necessity.8

However, this reprioritisation did not take place. The economic and financial crisis of 2008-09, combined with the legacy of interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, accelerated the decline of Western primacy in the MENA region. In a more multipolar world, a multiplicity of players made common solutions and political settlements more elusive. Thus, in those instances and fields where Western actors aimed to support the region’s people, competing agendas were at play, resulting in an incoherent response to the uprisings. Expressing support for protesters in Egypt and intervening directly in Libya, Western powers failed to act in Bahrain, not wanting to confront their Gulf allies. Then, in acknowledgement of their limited ability to impose order on the region, they did not intervene in Syria either.

Soon, a counterrevolution led by Saudi Arabia began to reverse the changes set in motion by the uprisings. It helped reinstate the Egyptian military regime; kept monarchies in Jordan, Morocco and Bahrain afloat with large amounts of aid; and funded militias elsewhere. The region’s activists failed to unite around a common vision and to drive out status quo powers that violently resisted change. As regional and non-state armed actors jumped into the power vacuums created by collapsing states, Western actors that initially voiced their support for the aspirations of the region’s citizens began to shift towards more reactive, heavily securitised, approaches. In many cases these realigned them with the ‘same-old’ state forces seeking ‘stability’ and restoration of expired social contracts.

Thus, while the uprisings initially raised hopes of profound social change, they brought disillusion instead, as change proved cosmetic or turned into worse. In the aftermath of the uprisings, instead of re-imagining themselves, the states that remained standing resisted reform and reinforced their repressive apparatus.

Yet, protests in the Sudan and Algeria are the most recent reminder that a deeply felt sense of social injustice persists. Elsewhere, protests expressing frustration with dysfunctional systems of governance have continued sporadically, including in Jordan, Iraq and Tunisia.9 Protests occurred before 2011 as well, which underlines the continuum of unaddressed grievances.

Towards a more positive engagement with the MENA region

Addressing MENA’s persistent governance crisis will not be easy. External actors wishing to support positive change face a region in desperate need of reform yet governed by elites with an existential interest to counteract change whose outcome they cannot control. In almost every MENA country today, the political, economic and social challenges present before the uprisings have worsened, and the political and economic environment post-Arab uprisings is even less conducive to reform.

While some Arab states are making expensive public-relations efforts to attract foreign investment, genuine reform will depend on more inclusive political and economic governance, which utilises the region’s human potential to the fullest. Resource-rich Arab states are in a race against time as they rely on elusive economic growth to redistribute wealth and pre-empt dissent. But for the resource-poor, a more inclusive growth process will be the only viable way forward, lest they face collapse.

In the face of these challenges, Western powers might be tempted to see the re-emergence of ‘the enemy that we know’ as a welcome return of some sort of stability. After all, the dysfunctional but familiar (dis-) order that emerged out of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire had long underwritten at least relative stability. Without the trigger of the popular uprising in Tunisia, the prevailing conditions could perhaps have endured for a while longer: the way in which reform-resisting regimes in the region muddle through today serves as evidence.

Indeed, although the region-wide uprisings ‘demonstrated the short-sightedness of the ‘stability paradigm’ –the model of Arab governments doing the West’s bidding in return for the West overlooking the suppression of dissent– that had animated US and European policy for a half-century’,10 energy, restricting migration and terrorism continue to top Western policy agendas.

However, failing to see the Arab uprisings as a breaking point warning of the need for a new approach would be a mistake. Just because the region’s collapse is not complete does not mean the remnants will be able to survive for long.

Thus, the question facing external actors today is whether it is in their interest to maintain the current order or to enable its transformation. To the extent that the uprisings represented a final rupture of the social contract in individual MENA societies, and a rejection of the post-WWI order/disorder more broadly, they should serve to refocus outside actors’ attention on the Arab states’ lingering legitimacy crisis. In engaging with the region, they should give priority attention to issues of governance and other deeper drivers of conflict.

Of course, a new social contract can only emerge locally, from within societies, and change must be driven by the region’s citizens. Past lessons serve as evidence of the limited capacity of external actors to impose order on the region and, moreover, Western governments are by no means the sole external actors in the region. Yet, in rethinking their relationship with the MENA region today, they should at the very least seek to become more aware of how their part in the interaction serves to either support or impede change.

External interventions interact with conflict drivers in their various clusters, often compounding them, and overly securitised, short-term policies directed towards individual events in individual conflicts pay insufficient attention to a conflict’s deeper drivers. The idea that authoritarianism can help tackle extremism continues to prove just as misguided today as it has done in the past. Meanwhile, efforts at mediating negotiated settlements to MENA conflicts flounder on these conflicts’ increasingly interconnected nature. The structure of Western governments’ and organisations’ bureaucracies does not help either: they remain compartmentalised in their understanding of, and approach to, the MENA region, having erected internal, artificial barriers that obstruct efforts at finding a collective way out.

It is clear that the last thing the region needs is a refashioning of the old order. Driven by fear of further chaos, Western states risk setting the stage for even greater chaos once their re-found allies breathe their last.

Instead, they should:

  • Rebuild the trust and credibility they have lost with the region’s people as a result of decades of support for postcolonial autocrats and the post-9/11 wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Technical cooperation and development aid have the potential to do so, but only when that cooperation is actually based on the values that the international community purports to advance. Today, much aid continues to discredit the providers.
  • Use development cooperation to build up the autonomy of the region and its citizens, instead of perpetuating dependency ties. Donor countries tend to prefer working with and supporting national governments, overlooking local actors. As a result, recipient states too often treat the funds they receive as rents that help them resurrect the dysfunctional characteristics of the current (dis-)order instead of instituting overdue reforms. Encouraging substantial reforms will likely require finding a range of new partners, from local NGOs to local-level governments, and providing new incentives.
  • Beware of the inherent power imbalance of ‘partnerships’ involving a broader set of citizens, as the outside actor still holds the purse and sets the terms. To help build more participatory and representative structures, development cooperation should respond to local priorities, and external actors should be open to speak to all parties, regardless of political or ideological differences (for example, in the case of Islamists enjoying broad popular support).
  • Engage with MENA actors through a coordinated regional and inter-disciplinary approach. Careful inter-agency coordination is instrumental for consistency and for preventing adverse secondary conflicts, including across conflict clusters.
  • Start with an accurate real-time understanding of who and what drives conflicts when designing policy responses and be aware of how policies either help address or instead exacerbate deeper conflict drivers, of the actors they might empower or disempower, and of the grievances this might feed. This requires better independent cross-MENA analysis.


The Arab uprisings underlined the notion that existing conditions in MENA had become unsustainable and announced the region-wide expiry of a socio-economic order that had underwritten relative stability for decades –and with it, the shortcomings of the international system that helped sustain it–. Today, the grievances that led to the near collapse of the regional order persist, and economic trends paint a bleak picture of further decline. Arab states willing or able to only cater to wealthy elites will continue to feed frustrations among the mass of the population, fuelling unrest and outmigration.

At the same time, the 2011 uprisings produced a certain momentum for change, and in some places provided new opportunities. Somehow, new governing structures must emerge, and external actors, if they want to be part of the solution, should be aware that they have long been part of the problem. They need to be aware of how their policies towards the MENA region either help advance or thwart local agendas promoting reform and seek ways in which they may more positively engage with the region.

Joost Hiltermann
Director of the Middle East and North Africa Programme, International Crisis Group | @JoostHiltermann

Maria Rodríguez Schaap
MENA Programme Assistant, International Crisis Group
| @RodriguezSchaap

1 Jon Alterman (2019), ‘A new Arab Spring?’, Center for Strategic and International Studies, 15/IV/2019.

2 International Crisis Group (2019), ‘Post-Bouteflika Algeria: growing protests, signs of repression’, 26/IV/2019.

3 International Crisis Group (2019), ‘Bashir moves Sudan to dangerous new ground’, 26/II/2019.

4 For a detailed account of the five conflict clusters, see Joost Hiltermann (2018), ‘Tackling the MENA region’s intersecting conflicts’, International Crisis Group, 13/II/2018.

5 Reflections five years after the uprisings’, Project on Middle East Political Science, POMEPS studies, 28/III/.

6 The 2011 challenge to the regime (I-A) dragged in Iran and Hizbollah (II and III), as well as Turkey and Qatar (pro-Muslim Brotherhood, IV), which have competed with Saudi Arabia (anti-Brotherhood, IV); the war has fomented intra-Sunni radicalisation (IV), leading to an increasingly sectarian-tinged struggle (III and IV), while the Kurds have been emboldened to demand self-rule (I-B). To top it off, the rise of jihadists provoked military intervention by the US and its Western allies; the threat of Assad falling drew in Russia; and the PKK’s local affiliate’s progress in northern Syria triggered Turkish intervention (related to Ankara and the PKK’s own Cluster I-B conflict inside Turkey). The Syrian war itself is a Cluster V conflict, with an as yet unknown outcome.

8Hilary Clinton’s remarks at the Munich Security Conference’, 5/II/2011, US Department of State.

9 Marc Lynch (2019), ‘Is the next Arab uprising happening in plain sight?’, The Washington Post, ‘Monkey Cage’, 26/II/2019.

10 Hamid, op. cit.

<![CDATA[ Sánchez must snatch the Economic Vice-presidency for Spain ]]> 2019-06-10T06:26:02Z

Spain deserves a top job in the EU and Pedro Sánchez is determined to get it. For a country that is strongly pro-European and the fifth-largest (fourth, if Britain quits) economy in the Union, it is embarrassingly underrepresented. 

Spain deserves a top job in the EU and Pedro Sánchez is determined to get it. For a country that is strongly pro-European and the fifth-largest (fourth, if Britain quits) economy in the Union, it is embarrassingly underrepresented. Since Javier Solana and Joaquín Almunia left Brussels, Spain has not had a high-profile politician in the European capital. At the depth of the crisis it even lost its seat on the European Central Bank (ECB) Executive Board with the departure of José Manuel González-Páramo, a loss only reversed in June 2018 with the arrival of Luis de Guindos.

The comparison with Italy is striking. Italians currently hold the Presidency of the ECB (Mario Draghi) and the EP (Antonio Tajani), and include the High Representative for Foreign Affairs (Federica Mogherini) and the head of the ECB Single Supervisory Board (Andrea Enria). That is quite a prize for a country that in recent times has shown very little enthusiasm for the European integration project.

Sánchez should play his cards wisely this time. After his good results in the last national and European elections (with 33% support in the latter, which translates into 20 MEPs) he has become the de facto leader of Social Democracy in Europe and, consequently, the chief negotiator of the Party of European Socialists (PES) for the Top Jobs. Therefore, the question is to know what Pedro Sánchez will do with his newly-acquired power.

“Sánchez is certainly keen to have a more progressive Commission, but it is not entirely certain that he will spend all his political capital on it”.

There has been much speculation that Sánchez will side with Emmanuel Macron in trying to isolate Manfred Weber and the European People’s Party (EPP) and seek an alternative candidate. Sánchez is certainly keen to have a more progressive Commission, but it is not entirely certain that he will spend all his political capital on it. Ultimately, he knows that the CDU/CSU is an indispensable force to get things done in Europe. Hence, for Sánchez it is important to gain the trust of both Macron and Merkel.

The three constitute the sides of a double triangle. They are the leaders of Germany, France and Spain, the three biggest pro-integrationist countries and at the same time the de facto leaders of the EPP, S&D and ALDE. Under this configuration, Sánchez will defend the candidacy of Frans Timmermans, the socialist candidate, but also the Spitzenkandidaten method. There is strong backing in Spain for the latter process since it strengthens the power of the European Parliament, the main engine for an ever-closer union, and Spain’s mainstream parties are well represented in the key families.

If Timmermans ultimately fails to get the top job, Sánchez would be content with both Weber and Vestager as alternatives. Many believe that as Spain has no strong candidates for either the Commission or Council Presidencies, Sánchez will aim for the High Rep position and place his current Foreign Minister, and former EP President, Josep Borell, there. But this is not so clear. The feeling in Madrid is that the High Rep does not have enough influence in the Commission. Travelling leads to too many absences and, furthermore, when there is a significant foreign crisis, as in Syria or Libya, national Foreign Ministers of the big member states still call the shots.

For Spain, and for this government in particular, the biggest priority is deepening the Economic and Monetary Union (EMU) –which is seen as the core of the European project– so it is conceivable that Sánchez will forgo a Top Job for a Spaniard as long as he can snatch the Vice-presidency of the Commission in charge of economic and financial affairs. He is also likely to insist that the Vice-presidency be the first and cover all key DGs in the area, from the budget (DG BUDG) and fiscal issues (DG TAXUD) to economic governance (DG ECFIN and FISMA), trade (DG Trade) and industrial policy (DG Grow). In an era of geostrategic competition, this will become a powerful post.

"Should that be the case, Sánchez has another card up his sleeve: Nadia Calviño".

Josep Borrell, one of the most respected politicians in Spain, with a PhD in economics and a strategic mind, could be a very suitable candidate for the position. The only problem is that he might be considered too heterodox by some of the northern countries. Should that be the case, Sánchez has another card up his sleeve: Nadia Calviño. The current Minister of Economy and former Director General for Budgets (DG Budget) has an excellent reputation in Brussels. She combines both determination for fiscal rectitude, sensitivity for social cohesion and zeal for competitiveness in a globalised world.

Apart from securing this strong Vice-presidency, Spain is also keen to have a greater presence and influence on the second-tier levels of Europe’s institutions. Getting the job of Secretary-General of the European Commission if Martin Selmayr finally needs to go would be an attractive proposition too. The next Spanish government will also make a strong effort to have Spanish officials in the cabinets of all the Presidencies of the three institutions and of key commissioners and in all the DGs and their units. The determination in Madrid is that influence needs to be built from the bottom up. Last but not least, Iratxe García, as a possible leader of the S&D Group, should be added to the list of persons of influence.

Ultimately, it is important to underline that Sánchez will not only seek influential posts but also insist on inserting progressive items on the legislation agenda. Although the priority will be EMU reform, more papers might be coming from Madrid focusing on strengthening the Union’s social pillar, developing a new green deal, designing a European industrial and innovation policy, strengthening the single market, generating a true ‘level playing field’ in global trade, better managing migration flows from Africa and increasing the EU’s capabilities in foreign affairs and defence. Should this come to pass, Spain would finally move from being mostly a passive to an active player in the EU.

Miguel Otero-Iglesias
Senior Analyst at the Elcano Royal Institute and Professor at IE School of Global and Public Affairs
| @miotei

Ilke Toygür
Analyst, Elcano Royal Institute
| @ilketoygur

<![CDATA[ EU policy in the face of the Chinese challenge ]]> 2019-06-06T04:40:39Z

While the change in the European Commission’s narrative on China is highly significant, it is not at all clear how this will translate into the foreign policy of the various member states.

Original version in Spanish: La política europea frente al desafío chino.

As the People’s Republic of China transforms itself into a technological and military superpower, while maintaining a party-state system, there is increasing debate at the heart of the EU about the terms on which relations with the country should be pursued. Pressure has been exerted on the debate by the EU’s main ally, the US, whose strategic rivalry with China is growing daily.

For decades the EU sought to enhance relations with China on the basis that it was a developing country, something that carried two main implications. First, the EU was willing to accept a relationship based on asymmetrical rules that were advantageous to the Asian giant. Secondly it was hoped that China’s socioeconomic development and its incorporation into the value chains of the global economy would translate into greater political pluralism and a general improvement in civil liberties and political rights.

“While the change in the European Commission’s narrative on China is highly significant, it is not at all clear how this will translate into the foreign policy of the various member states”.

The spectacular progress China has made over the years (it has become the world’s second-largest economy, with the second-largest budgets in research and development and defence) has rendered any attempt to describe it as a developing country as obsolete. There are many voices in the EU, moreover, that consider the situation unsustainable, owing to the size and ambitions of China.

China accounts for 20% of the world economy in terms of purchasing power parity and it is therefore hardly surprising that it has become a trading and financial partner of great importance for many European countries. The relationship has always been complex, offering major opportunities and challenges to European companies and governments. The EU Trade Commissioner, Cecilia Malmström, has frequently pointed out that 3 million jobs in the EU depend on trade with China and that many EU companies obtain competitive advantages thanks to their presence in China and their contacts with Chinese suppliers. However, Malmström has also repeatedly called for an end to the discrimination EU companies suffer in China, given that they face various barriers to entry, are not able to access the same sources of finance or tender for the same state contracts as local firms, and nor do they enjoy the same level of legal protection as their local counterparts.

Despite these problems, the document that guided Sino-EU relations from 2013 onwards, the EU-China 2020 Strategic Agenda for Cooperation, describes China as a vital strategic partner for addressing the main issues on the global agenda in a multilateral international order. This view was substantially revised on 12 March 2019 in a European Commission document titled EU-China – A Strategic Outlook prior to the European Council meeting of 21-22 March, in which less benign descriptions of China such as ‘economic competitor in the pursuit of technological leadership’ and ‘systemic rival promoting alternative models of governance’ were added.

This new, more assertive, view of China stems from concern about the fact that the country’s development, driven to a large extent by its international relations, has not translated into the adoption of economic and political governance models prevailing in Europe, but rather into the strengthening of a markedly protectionist party-state system; the latter has aided the internationalisation of its companies in strategic sectors that are closed or barely open in its own market to EU firms, and driven its technological development in economic sectors that play a key role in the fourth industrial revolution, such as digital platforms, 5G, big data and artificial intelligence.

Is EU policy towards China being ‘Trumpified’?

While the change in the European Commission’s narrative on China is highly significant, it is not at all clear how this will translate into the foreign policy of the various member states, nor that the EU or its member states will sign up to the policy of containing China pursued by the Trump Administration and set out at the end of 2018 in a major speech by his Vice-President, Mike Pence.

“The member states do not have an agreed stance on relations with China”.

The member states do not have an agreed stance on relations with China. Indeed, it is possible to identify three distinct positions. In one faction there are countries such as Germany and France, which are driving the more assertive tone in EU policy towards China, and which is also translating into concrete steps such as the implementation of a mechanism to oversee foreign investments. These players are especially concerned, in the European context, by the geostrategic implications of China’s rise and by the loss of their companies’ competitiveness compared to their Chinese counterparts in strategic and high-added-value industries. Moreover, as they have confirmed in a recent manifesto, the two countries advocate the bolstering of EU industrial policy and the role of the state in driving the creation of European champions that ensure the importance of European companies in these economic sectors, preferably in the global marketplace, but at the very least within the EU market.

In a second group there are countries that share the unease of the first, but are more reluctant to increase the level of state intervention in the economy as a means of addressing the economic challenge posed by China. This group includes the Netherlands, the Nordic countries and the UK. Brexit has thus had a major effect on the current EU debate on the nature of relations with China, because the group’s main champion has lost influence within the Union.

In a third group, the majority of countries in the EU’s south and east are more receptive to continue strengthening economic ties with China, even if the Chinese authorities are not willing to embrace economic governance models more attuned to European ones, and choose to continue with an economy that is notably more closed and subject to intervention than its European counterparts. Such countries usually show more interest in attracting Chinese investment and finance than the members of the preceding two groups, because they have more problems in satisfying their financing needs. Moreover, governments that have had disputes with the Commission or with France or Germany on other issues have tended to turn to China to make it clear to their European counterparts that they have other options to diversify their foreign policy. Hungary, Greece and Italy fall into this group.

The most recent illustration of these divisions came with the European Council meeting of 22 March, where discussions on relations with China ended without an official communiqué, while on the very next day the Italian government agreed a memorandum of understanding to sign up to Xi Jinping’s stellar foreign policy project, the Belt and Road Initiative, despite being at the receiving end of repeated lobbying from Washington and Brussels against the initiative. There are now 14 EU member states, including Italy, that have signed some type of agreement to support the initiative (Austria, Bulgaria, Croatia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Estonia, Greece, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Portugal, the Czech Republic and Romania). The rest (including Spain) reject doing so until such time as the initiative operates in a more transparent and multilateral way, in accordance with the social, environmental and financial sustainability standards recognised internationally and set out in the connection strategy proposed by the EU.

Having said this, it is important to point out that even the players advocating a more assertive reformulation of EU policy towards China, such as the European Commission and the Federation of German Industry (known by its German initials BDI), which published a report on the issue recently, deem it essential to continue bolstering economic and political links with China. This is the same message that Juncker, Macron and Merkel conveyed to Xi during his recent visit to Paris, reflecting the lack of EU support for the US desire to block Chinese technology in the development of 5G networks.

Spain too takes a line that is clearly different from that advocated by the more hard-line members of the Trump Administration, who argue for containment measures against China and a reduction of the interdependence between the two countries. This difference of approach stems from a divergence of interests between the US and European authorities. The former are more focused on perpetuating US hegemony and consequently on the evolution of the balance of forces (including in the military sphere) between the US and China. The European authorities on the other hand place more importance on the absolute economic gains and the role that Beijing could play in consolidating a multilateral international order capable of ensuring the provision of global public goods. Whereas the zero-sum game predominates in the US, there is still a belief in Europe in a positive-sum alternative.

What should the EU do?

The growing rivalry between the US and China forces the EU to reflect and ask itself what role it wants to play within the international community in a context in which the US is going to be increasingly concerned with preserving its hegemony and less with ensuring the provision of global public goods and defending the values it shares with Europe, whereas China is going to push in an increasingly concerted way to impose its models of political and economic governance at an international level.

The EU thus faces four possible scenarios: (1) aligning itself with the US, on the grounds of sharing principles and values, and because, over the short and medium-term, the US still underpins European security; (2) aligning itself with China, because it is the most dynamic market in the most dynamic region and because in the long run China will become the largest economy in the world; (3) the EU not acting uniformly, thus becoming divided and weakened, with some countries taking a lead from the US and others from China, and with recurring internal tensions; and (4) the EU coming closer together and acting as a third pole in a world characterised by systemic strategic rivalry between China and the US and by occasional multilateral cooperation.

The EU should aspire to the fourth scenario, something that entails being committed to taking integration further in order to become a global actor with growing strategic autonomy. Only then will it be able to harmonise and consolidate an effective multilateral international order. The more integrated Europe is –in terms of a banking, fiscal, economic and political union– the more similar will be the interests of the various member states. The process will not be easy and will need to be conducted with sensitivity, empowering the various players to enable them to integrate their interests and thereby feel they are represented.

The Franco-German engine is indispensable for this, but not sufficient. Decision-making about future European champions cannot be the exclusive preserve of Paris and the German industrial cities. Pan-European conglomerates and consortiums are needed along with the distribution of resources in accordance with the specialisations and comparative advantages of the various participants. The watering-down of competition law will not solve anything if it is not accompanied by a greater commitment to funding for education, research, development, enterprise and innovation. Meanwhile, the EU needs to complete the internal market in services and apply the prohibition on unfair state-aid to non-EU companies too. The rules in the single European market must be the same for everyone.

“Spain too takes a line that is clearly different from that advocated by the more hard-line members of the Trump Administration, who argue for containment measures against China and a reduction of the interdependence between the two countries”.

Lastly, Spain, in particular, has a great deal to offer in many areas of this new technological race, from banking, telecommunications and energy, by way of the auto-industry, infrastructure, services (whether involving tourism or otherwise, including education and health) to entertainment, defence and aviation, farming and artificial intelligence. This is the first time in history that Spain has been well placed to play an active rather than a passive role in an industrial revolution. It is a starting point that must not be allowed to let slip.

But it will require a national strategic plan to be developed for the digital era and a new industrial policy and a cross-party national agreement to be forged regarding shared interests. Only then will Spain be able to play a leading role in Europe. Over the course of recent years, Brussels, Berlin and even Paris have requested more input from Spain in EU debates, because they know that Spain is a country convinced that it needs a more united EU to be able to address the major challenges of the 21st century. The rivalry between the US and China is one of these, and Spain is especially well positioned to try to catalyse a consensus on this matter within the Union thanks to its ability to build bridges between member states concerned by the geostrategic implications of China’s rise and the loss of competitiveness among their companies, those reluctant to increase the level of state intervention to combat Chinese competition and those who want to attract a greater volume of investment and finance from China.

Mario Esteban
Senior Analyst at the Elcano Royal Institute and Professor at the Autonomous University of Madrid | @wizma9

Miguel Otero-Iglesias
Senior Analyst at the Elcano Royal Institute and Professor at IE School of International Relations  | @miotei

<![CDATA[ Policy pathways for Spain’s energy transition ]]> 2019-06-04T04:24:01Z

It is important to describe current and future Spanish energy policy decisions in order to assess a set of policy pathways for Spain’s energy transition.

Elcano Royal Institute - MUSTEC Policy Briefs


It is important to describe current and future Spanish energy policy decisions in order to assess a set of policy pathways for Spain’s energy transition.


This paper describes and quantifies three different energy policy pathways for Spain’s energy transition: government-centred, represented by the socialist party (Partido Socialista Obrero Español, PSOE); market-centred, represented by the conservative party (Partido Popular, PP); and grassroots, represented by Unidas Podemos.


A recent MUSTEC, H2020 report1 describes the Policy pathways for the energy transition in Europe and selected European countries. It analyses current and potential future policy decisions in Germany, France, Spain, Italy, Switzerland and the European Commission, bundling them into sets of policy pathways that describe the energy transition trajectories of countries and the EU as a whole. Each pathway is centred around a certain logic: a worldview, or belief, about the type of policies that are (to its proponents) acceptable and beneficial, leading to a distinct type of electricity (and energy) future.

The paper takes the future as given. Current, past or future policy decisions may or may not be cost-optimal, or even useful, but we assume they are implemented, as the dominant political force in Spain (which, depending on the pathway, is the PSOE, PP or Unidas Podemos, respectively) deems it appropriate at a point in time. These pathways depend both on hard facts and ideological factors which are exogenous to the energy system (eg, fundamental views on market vs state, economic efficiency vs equity, etc). Because there are so many possible decisions, there are theoretically a myriad of decarbonisation pathways that could materialise between today (2019) and 2030, 2040 or 2050. In order to produce a meaningful and manageable analysis, it is key to reduce the number of possible energy-policy pathways.

This paper describes and quantifies three different energy policy pathways for Spain’s energy transition: a government-centred pathway represented by the PSOE, a market-centred pathway represented by the PP and a grassroots pathway represented by Unidas Podemos. There are for sure other political parties in Spain with interesting energy worldviews to analyse, but it could be argued that the selected ones are representative of the energy transition policy space. Additionally, PP, PSOE and Unidas Podemos have prepared law proposals,2 allowing a better specification and quantification of their pathways.

Each of the three decarbonisation pathways (government-centred, market-centred and grassroots) can include elements that would theoretically fall within two other decarbonisation pathways. For instance, the new socialist government’s Climate Change and Energy Transition Law proposal includes bidding and other market mechanisms but, on the whole, it tends to assume energy transition requires tough, mandatory measures such as phase-outs, deadlines, bans and ambitious targets. Similarly, Unidas Podemos sets the most ambitious decarbonisation targets and argues for state (and local) intervention, but its key differentiating factor lies in its grassroots-centred logic, focused on small-scale and local action, seeking decarbonisation through decentralisation of the energy system. Finally, the Popular Party self-stated market-centred logic is based on carbon pricing and letting the market identify the most cost-efficient way to meet energy and climate targets.

Nevertheless, the following pathways represent consistent, clear and the best specified set of alternatives for Spain’s energy transition. Their implicit strategies are presented as ‘narratives’ or ‘scripts’.3 They tell the story from the perspective of 2050, ie, looking back, of how medium and long-term decarbonisation targets were (hypothetically) reached through different means and policy measures, depending on the pathway Spain took (using the past tense, ie, as if they had materialised according to the draft legislative proposals of each of the parties). The three pathways are also presented in a quantitative manner with the support of their respective tables, with the dominant (government-centred) pathway including the key elements of Spain’s draft Integrated National Energy and Climate Plan (INECP) presented to the EC in February 2019.

The State-centred pathway: Partido Socialista Obrero Español(PSOE)

By 2050 Spain had achieved net-zero emissions, both economy-wide and, in particular, in the electricity sector, which was fully renewable. The government’s ‘Target Scenario’ materialised as envisaged in the INECP for 2021-30. The INECP operationalised the long-awaited Climate Change and Energy Transition Law that was finally approved in 2020, along with the development of a Long-Term Strategy and a Just Transition Strategy.

Several international and domestic factors drove Spain’s shift to a lower carbon development model. These included: (1) the entry into force and ambitious implementation of the Paris Agreement; (2) the adoption of increasingly stringent targets for renewables and energy efficiency in the EU; (3) the implementation of the EU’s Long-Term Strategy, that set out to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050; (4) the continued reduction in the cost of renewable energy technologies; (5) the banning (in sales and registration) by 2040 of internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles in Spain’s main car markets (eg, the UK and France); and (6) an increasing concern for climate-change impacts by Spanish citizens, who ranked climate change as the top foreign-policy priority concern from 2016 onwards.4

A set of laws and policy measures guided the radical decarbonisation of the electricity sector, and of society as a whole, under tight government control. For the power system, this included decisions such as an orderly phase-out of nuclear power between 2025 and 2035, the phase-out of coal by 2030,5 a ban on new fossil fuel subsidies6 from 2020 onwards, the centrally planned phase-out of existing fossil-fuel subsidies, the banning of internal combustion engines in cars, mandatory low-emission zones in municipalities and mandatory renovations and building retrofitting.

By 2030 Spain’s economy had reduced its GHG emissions by 21% compared with 1990 levels. By 2050 Spain’s GHG emissions were 90% lower than 1990 levels, with the remaining 10% being offset by Spain’s carbon sinks, making the Spanish economy carbon neutral by mid-century, in alignment with the INECP and with the Spanish Climate Change and Energy Transition Law.

Overall, Spain’s INECP was initially considered very ambitious, even too ambitious for some energy and emission intensive sectors, as the implementation of Spain’s INECP meant a reduction of over a third of Spain’s 2017 emissions in little over a decade, an unprecedented decarbonisation effort for Spain. The INECP was, however, criticised by other sectors (mainly Civil Society Organisations, CSOs)7 as showing limited ambition compared to other EU countries that adopted more stringent emission reduction targets.8 Although the government initially set out to reduce its GHG emissions by 40% compared with 1990 levels by 2030, which would have aligned its ambition with most EU countries, it scaled down its ambition and settled for a 21% goal in its INECP, arguing it was a fair, achievable and balanced goal.

By 2030, the INECP’s 42% renewable energy target was achieved in Spain’s final energy consumption, supported by an electricity system that was largely renewable (74% of the electricity consumed in Spain). Among other measures, the objective was met through a steady stream of auctions that added at least 3,000 MW of new renewable capacity annually between 2019 and 2030. Throughout the 2021-30 period, 57,000 MW of new renewable capacity was added to the system, supported by auctions. Solar and wind were the bulk of the auctioned power between 2019 and 2030. During this decade, 5 GW of concentrated solar power (CSP) were auctioned and constructed, restarting the expansion of this technology in Europe.

The overall target for renewable capacity installed in Spain was determined by the INECP. The government took a technology-neutral approach to decarbonisation but the ‘Target Scenario’ materialised by 2030. That scenario considered the expected evolution in technologies and costs and strived for a cost-efficient realisation of the decarbonisation pathways. In the ‘Target Scenario’ Spain’s 157 GW of installed power capacity included, among other issues, 50 GW of wind, 44 GW of solar (37 GW of solar PV and 7 GW were CSP),9 27 GW were combined gas cycles, 16 GW were hydro, just under 7 GW of pumped hydro, 2 GW of oil and 3 GW were nuclear.10 The INECP envisaged a very significant uptake of renewables so integrating them into the system was key. In order to achieve integration, demand-side management measures were fostered to change consumption patterns. Additionally, storage capacity was increased, adding 3.5 GW of pumped storage and 2.5 GW of storage capacity in batteries.11

By 2050 Spain’s power sector was fully (100%) renewable. After the Climate Change and Energy Transition Law was approved in 2020, the integration of renewables in the power system continued to be supported by the Spanish government through priority dispatch, subject to the requirements and limitations enshrined in the Energy Union regulations.

Most new fossil fuel subsidies12 were banned by the Spanish government as of 2020. Given, amongst others, energy poverty problems, the government introduced Article 9 in the Climate Change and Energy Transition Law, allowing new fossil subsidies if justified on social grounds, to protect Spain’s economic interests or due to the lack of adequate technological alternatives.13 Initial concerns regarding these exemptions to new fossil fuels were assuaged as a robust control mechanism was put in place by the Spanish government to prevent loopholes through which undue subsidies could have been granted. Existing subsidies (consisting of tax exemptions and deductions) in 2017 (amounting to €2.3 billion for oil, €756 million for gas and €2.9 million for coal)14 were progressively phased out following the government’s calendar to do so. New exploration and extraction of hydrocarbons by conventional and new techniques such as hydraulic fracturing were also banned in Spain as of 2020. Existing permits for exploration and extraction of hydrocarbons were not extended.

Half of Spain’s coal power15 was phased out by 2020, with the rest having been phased out completely by 2030. Nine out of the 15 coal power plants in Spain were already closed in 2021 as the necessary adaptions to limit atmospheric emissions to comply with the Industrial Emissions Directive were not carried out. As regards the remaining coal phase-out, the government took a market-based approach, allowing power plants to burn coal until the drop in the cost of renewables and the price of a tonne of CO2 in the EU-ETS (€35 in 2030) pushed coal power out of Spain’s electricity mix.

The Spanish government furthermore divested (sold its shares and other financial instruments) from companies that extracted, refined or processed fossil fuels, following a divestment plan that was drafted by 2021, in accordance with the Climate Change and Energy Transition Law.16 Government divestment provided incentives for other social agents to follow suit.

The government reached an agreement with utilities so that nuclear phase-out became a reality in Spain by 2035, with nuclear power being phased out when nuclear power plants reached a maximum of 46 years in operation. The government’s initial plans of not extending nuclear power plants’ useful life beyond 40 years were adapted after negotiating with utilities. CSO’s that had historically advocated early closures (calling for nuclear power plants to be decommissioned after 40 years in operation, at most) implicitly accepted the phase-out agreement.

Overall investment needs for the implementation of the INECP in Spain for 2021-30 amounted to €236.12 billion, most of which were disbursed by the private sector. There were initial concerns about whether the private sector would indeed be able and willing to invest 80% of the needs for the INECP, but the private sector recognised the economic opportunity of the low-carbon transition and invested accordingly, meeting the government private-sector investment figures in 2021-30. Investments in energy efficiency amounted to €86.48 billion. Estimated investment in updating power networks and electrification to meet the 2030 decarbonisation goals amounted to €41.84 billion, with an overall investment in renewables of €101.63 billion. Concerns about a potential crowding-out effect were dispelled as empirical data showed large investments in low-carbon transition need not automatically lead to investment reductions in other economic sectors.17

Spain’s interconnections with France, Morocco and Portugal remained very limited until 2020, amounting to <5% of Spain’s generation capacity in 2019, half of which were interconnections to France. This made Spain the only European country that failed the EU target of 10% interconnection capacity in 2020. Hence, Spain developed new interconnections with Portugal (reaching 3,000 MW in 2030) and France (reaching 8,000 MW in 2030, up from 2,800 MW in 2019). A ratchet-up mechanism for interconnections, renewables and energy efficiency goals was included in the INECP for 2023, coinciding with the Global Stocktake enshrined in the Paris Agreement. Spain’s INECP’s target of reaching 15% interconnection of installed capacity in 2030, in alignment with the EU’s interconnection goal, was met. From 2019 Morocco was a net electricity exporter to Spain, but new rules were introduced to prevent coal and gas-generated electricity being exported to the EU. Meanwhile, increasing domestic demand in southern Mediterranean partners continued to put pressure on local installed capacity, including the deployment of renewables.

As for the transport sector and electric mobility,18 Spain banned the registration and sale of internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles in 2040 as stated in the Climate and Energy Transition Law, despite initial resistance from the car manufacturers’ association. By 2050 only zero-emission privately-owned vehicles were allowed to circulate. By 2030, 5 million Electric Vehicles (EVs) were in use in Spain, with a significant impact on electricity demand. Charging infrastructure for EVs in Spain was small in 2018, but from 2020 onwards the Spanish Climate Change and Energy Transition Law required petrol stations across the country selling more than 5 million litres of fuel annually to present a project to install charging stations of ≥22 kW, reaching 9% of petrol stations across Spain. The Ministry for Ecological Transition regulated which petrol stations had to have charging points and when they had to be operational. For smaller petrol stations the deadlines for projects and operation of charging points was more flexible. Additionally, municipalities of ≥50,000 inhabitants established by law low-emission zones by 2023 (at the latest) and fostered the deployment of public and private EV charging points.

Spain’s INECP included a 32.5% energy efficiency goal vs. a trend scenario, in alignment with the EU goal for 2030. However, Spain achieved its ‘Target Scenario’ energy efficiency goal of 39.6% primary-energy intensity improvement in 2030 (3.6% primary-energy efficiency gains per annum from 2021 to 2030). Energy efficiency goals were achieved through reductions in both primary and final energy consumption (-16.16% and -6.22%, respectively) in 2030 compared with 2015 levels. Electricity consumption in final energy consumption increased 8,16% from 2015 to 2030 (from 19.951 ktoe to 21,579 ktoe), but electricity consumption in final energy consumption was reduced in the residential sector by 12% (from 6,025 ktoe in 2015 to 5,301 ktoe in 2030), essentially through improvements in the thermal envelope of buildings and improvements in district heating and domestic hot water (DHW). Energy efficiency goals achieved, in line with the government’s ‘Target Scenario’, were highly ambitious, as Spain’s energy efficiency improvements in 2000-16 period showed (see Figure 1 below).

Figure 1. Evolution of primary and final energy intensity, 2000-16
Figure 1. Evolution of primary and final energy intensity, 2000-16

In accordance with the updated Energy Efficiency Directive of 2018 the Spanish government increased energy efficiency in buildings by improving the thermal envelope of 1.2 million homes from 2021 to 2030, renovated heating, water heating and air conditioning in 300,000 buildings per year and renovated 3% of publicly-owned buildings. The government also promoted an increase in the use of renewable electricity sources in retrofitted buildings and new buildings. Demand-side response policies were actively developed by the government to nudge consumers into lower carbon consumption patterns that would allow a greater penetration of renewables and greater stability in the power system. Smart metering allowed raising awareness of energy consumption, helping consumers shift energy use in heating, cooling and domestic hot water. Financing mechanisms were fostered by the government to ensure retrofitting of the existing building stock and the construction of near-zero energy buildings. Subsidies were also given to low-income families to allow for retrofitting investments, based on energy savings audits and performance. Public-private partnerships were established to reach retrofitting goals.

Figure 2. Spanish State-centred dominant policy pathway according to Spain’s INECP ‘Target Scenario’ according to the PSOE government, 2016-50
ES: Dominant 2016 2020 2030 2040 2050
GHG reduction targets. Economy-wide (baseline year) 283 Mt CO2eq 327 Mt CO2eq -21% (1990)   -90% (1990)
ETS sector reduction targets 229 Mt CO2eq (European annual emission allocation)

219 Mt CO2eq (European annual emission allocation)

Non-ETS sectors emission reduction targets (baseline year)   -10% (2005) -38% (2005)    
GHG reduction targets (electricity sector)          
Renewables targets (energy; % of final energy consumption)   20% 42%    
Renewables targets (electricity; % of final energy consumption) 39%; 108 TWh; 49 GW   74%   100%
Intermittent renewables 57 TWh; 28 GW 36.3 GW 87.3 GW ≥ 2030 ≥ 2040
Wind onshore 49 TWh; 23 GW 27.9 GW 50.3 GW    
Wind offshore Included above Included above Included above    
Solar PV 8 TWh; 5 GW 8.4 GW 37 GW > 2030 > 2040
Dispatchable renewables 51 TWh; 21 GW     ≥ 2030 ≥ 2040
Biomass 5 TWh; 1 GW 1.6 GW 2.4 GW    
Hydro 40 TWh; 14 GW 15.8 GW 16.3 GW    
CSP 6 TWh; 2 GW 2.3 GW 7.3 GW 2030 2040
Other renewables (year of data when different to column heading) 1 TWh; 0.2 GW (2015 0.2 GW 0.3 GW    
Net traded renewables (year of data when different to column heading) -3 TWh (2015) 11 TWh 6.7 TWh    
Nuclear 59 TWh; 7.4 GW 7.4 GW 3.2 GW 0 0
Fossil fuels 108 TWh; 48GW 45.1 GW 32.5 GW    
CCS 0 0 0 0 0
Lignite 0 TWh 0 0 0 0
Hard coal 36 TWh 10.6 GW 0 0 0
Gas 54 TWh 31.2 GW 30.2 GW    
Petroleum 16 TWh 3.4 GW 2.3 GW    
Other non-renewables 1 TWh 0 0    
Battery     2.5 GW    
Pumped Hydropower 3.3 GW 4.4 GW 7.9 GW    
Other storage          
Cross-border interconnection NTC < 5% of installed capacity 10% of installed capacity 15% of installed capacity    
Electrification of additional sectors          
Total heating demand incl. non-electric heating          
Heating with electricity (energy supplied by heat pumps)

4.1 TWh
353 ktoe

7.6 TWh
651 ktoe

47 TWh

Total cooling demand incl. non-electric cooling          
Cooling with electricity          
Electric mobility    

22% RES (electrification & biofuels)
5 million EV

>> 2030 Ban on ICE sales & registrations >> Ban on ICE circulation
EV chargers (year of data when different to column heading) 4,974 (2017) > 2017 >> 2020 >> 2030 >> 2040
Gross electricity consumption (year of data when different to column heading) 232 TWh (2015) 234 TWh 251 TWh    
Final energy consumption (year of data when different to column heading) 84,542 ktoe (2015) 88,994 ktoe 79,279 ktoe    
Source: the authors

Market-centred pathway: Partido Popular19

By 2050 Spain had achieved an 80% decarbonisation of its economy in a manner that was economically efficient, hence not only meeting international commitments but also in a way that was ‘beneficial to our families and companies’. To achieve this, the government, to the extent possible, avoided interfering with market rules except where necessary to correct market failures associated with environmental externalities and where international climate commitments were at stake. Hence, the few measures taken were market-based, such as a carbon tax (for the non-trading sector), the EU emission trading scheme and auctions for renewable power, leading to efficient levels of decarbonisation.

While all types of actors were enabled to carry out the transition, the private sector and particularly large corporations remained important players over the entire period given their ability to engage in large and cost-efficient investments. Besides renewable generators (especially utility-scale plants with lower specific generation costs), nuclear and fossil fuels with CCS played an important role in the energy transition towards a decarbonised economy. Increasing the interconnection capacity always ranked high in the agenda as a pre-requisite for a cost-optimal exchange of electricity and balancing in the internal European electricity market.

Spain has always followed the trajectory prescribed by the EU, neither lagging behind nor rushing ahead, in order to achieve a coordinated, cost-efficient decarbonisation of Europe together with the other EU Member States. Hence, the Spanish economy is expected to be 80% decarbonised by 2050 (compared with 1990), following the accomplishment of a 26% reduction of emissions in the non-trading sector by 2030. The key enabler to this was the implementation of the National Strategy for a Low-Emission Economy by 2050, which guided the transition to a low-carbon economy. Among other measures, this strategy was based on cost-efficient measures to increase energy efficiency and deploy a mix of low-carbon technologies leading to a cost-optimal mix of renewables, nuclear power and fossil fuels with CCS.

In order to make use of the most cost-efficient decarbonisation measures, the Spanish government did not define specific renewable energy or electricity targets beyond the 2030 renewable energy target (32% renewable energy); in the electricity sector, this led to the deployment of the renewables with the lowest system cost both in Spain and abroad (to the extent allowed by the interconnectors). Already in the period before 2018, renewable electricity deployment was promoted through technology-neutral auctions and the relative increase in competitiveness through carbon price measures.

While there was no specific target for intermittent renewables, PV and onshore wind power became the main pillars of the Spanish system given the lower cost compared to other renewables and the technology-neutral design element of the renewable auctions. Similarly, dispatchable renewables-biomass (with and without CCS) hydropower and CSP never had explicit targets and their expansion occurred at the time and location where they proved cost-efficient from a system perspective as a way to balance PV and wind power.

Similarly, both physical imports or statistical transfers of renewables (through cooperation) were important measures both for balancing the Spanish power system and to meet the EU-mandated renewables targets in a cost-optimal manner. This was further supported by the expansion of new interconnectors. The latter was one of the key Spanish priorities, both to facilitate the completion of the internal electricity market and to allow increased electricity trade, including cross-border renewables trade under the cooperation mechanism. To this end, the government both met and exceeded the EU-mandated interconnector targets.

Nuclear power continued to play a non-trivial role in the Spanish power system, as the old reactors extended their economic lifetime provided their technical characteristics allowed operation in safety conditions. Yet fossil-fuelled CCS and renewables were expanded to become the main pillars of decarbonising the Spanish power system . Consistent with the focus on cost-efficiency, there was no mandated closure of any power station, including coal power; however, the increasing carbon price (within the EU ETS) gradually forced older coal/lignite power stations off the market from the 2020s onwards. The government also promoted gas interconnections in order to strengthen the European internal gas market through access to the gas pipelines from North Africa and LNG.

Several measures were aimed at promoting the deployment of distributed generation and electric self-consumption. As a result, an increased use of decentralised batteries followed. The increased penetration of renewable energies required an increase in the use of electricity storage technologies in the form of grid-scale batteries and pumped hydropower installations.

In the residential, institutional and commercial sectors, various measures were put in place to improve and promote energy efficiency, zero emission buildings, distributed generation, electricity self-consumption, low emission heating and cooling systems, and smart metering. A sustainable transport sector was promoted with a special boost to rail transport. The promotion of the use of electric vehicles was limited by the expansion of a network of charging points, enabling but not directly supporting an expansion of the EV fleet. When it comes to public procurement, public tenders for new vehicles only allowed for alternative-fuel vehicles, except for those vehicles that could not perform public duties or for unjustified economic costs. Electrification of other sectors was pursued to the extent that it supported a cost-optimal decarbonisation of society as a whole, but no specific targets or support measures for heating were introduced.

Figure 3. Quantification of the Spanish market-centred minority policy pathway as described by the Partido Popular, 2016-50
ES: Market 2016 2020 2030 2040 2050
GHG reduction targets (economy-wide) 283 Mt CO2eq 10% (GHG-2005) Non-ETS 26% (GHG-2005) > 2030 80% (GHG-1990)
ETS sector reduction targets 229 Mt CO2eq (European annual emission allocation) 219 Mt CO2eq (European annual emission allocation)      
Non-ETS sectors emission reduction targets   10% (GHG-2005) 26% (GHG-2005)    
GHG reduction targets (electricity sector)          
Renewables targets (energy; % of final energy consumption)   20% 32%    
Renewables targets (electricity; % of final energy consumption) 39%; 108 TWh; 49 GW > 2016 > 2020 > 2030 > 2040
Intermittent renewables 57 TWh; 28 GW        
Wind onshore 49 TWh; 23 GW > 2016 > 2 020 > 2030 > 2040
Wind offshore Included above > 2016 > 2020 > 2030 > 2 040
Solar PV 8 TWh; 5 GW > 2016 (mainly centralised) > 2020 (mainly centralised) > 2030 (mainly centralised) > 2040 (mainly centralised)
Dispatchable renewables 51 TWh; 21 GW > 2016 > 2020 > 2030 > 2040
Biomass 5 TWh; 1 GW        
Hydro 40 TWh; 14 GW        
CSP 6 TWh; 2 GW        
Other renewables 1 TWh        
Traded renewables          
Physical import of renewables (cooperation)   > 2016 > 2020 > 2030 > 2040
Statistical transfer of renewables (cooperation)   = 2016 2016 2016 2016
Explicit trade of CSP or hydropower          
Nuclear 59 TWh 7 GW = 2016 = 2016 = 2016 = 2016
Fossil fuels 108 TWh; 48 GW        
CCS 0 > 2016   > 2030 > 2040
Lignite 0 TWh ≤ 2016 ≤ 2016    
Hard coal 36 TWh ≤ 2016 ≤ 2016    
Gas 54 TWh ≥ 2016 ≥ 2016 ≥ 2016 ≥ 2016
Petroleum 16 TWh        
Other non-renewables 1 TWh        
Battery   > 2016 > 2020 ≥ 2030 ≥ 2040
Pumped Hydropower   > 2016 > 2020 ≥ 2030 ≥ 2040
Other storage          
Cross-border interconnection NTC   ≥ 10% of yearly power production ≥ 15% of yearly power production ≥ 2030 2030
Electrification of additional sectors          
Total heating demand incl. non-electric heating          
Heating with electricity          
Total cooling demand incl. non-electric cooling          
Cooling with electricity          
Electric mobility          
EV chargers   > 2016 > 2020 > 2030 > 2040
Gross electricity consumption 275 TWh        
Final energy consumption          
Source: the authors.

Grass-roots-centred pathway: Unidas Podemos 20

Spain almost achieved a full decarbonisation of the entire economy by 2050. In the electricity sector, this was achieved through strict phase-out policies for fossil-fuel power and emphasising the role of citizens and communities in building up a new and renewable power system. The needs of the citizens were at the core of all climate and energy policies, supported by institutions such as the State Climate Change Agency and the Citizen Climate Change Commission. Through active policy, citizens were empowered to have a more pro-active role by supporting the decentralisation of the energy system and encouraged to become prosumers. The re-communalisation of electricity provision was approved in subsequent local referendums following the example of Barcelona Energy in 2018, when a public metropolitan electricity operator started supplying renewable electricity to the city so that, over time, control over the entire system became communal.

Regarding interconnections and EU cooperation mechanisms, the emphasis is on decentralisation and re-communalisation instead of cross-border mega-projects and further market integration. As a consequence, by 2050 interconnections remain at the 2030 15% goal or slightly higher while virtual and physical cooperation mechanisms remain marginal: the maxim was and remains ‘Spanish renewables for and by Spanish citizens’. Another key aspect of the Unidas Podemos strategy was an emphasis on energy efficiency: the targets of 40% less primary energy demand by 2030 and 50% less by 2050 (compared to 1990) were achieved in part with efficiency measures and in part through electrification of additional sectors, primarily transport.

When it comes to greenhouse emissions, compared with 1990 levels, in 2030 emissions had fallen by 35%, by 70% in 2040 and by 95% in 2050. This was accomplished through the combination of reducing primary energy consumption (40% less energy consumed by 2030 and a 45% reduction of energy consumption by 2040 compared with 1990 levels) as well as the strong deployment of renewables to fill the gap of the phased-out fossil and nuclear generators. The transition was facilitated by two broad energy programmes: (a) the Energy Efficiency National Plan that targeted the housing, transport and industrial sectors; and (b) the Renewable Energies National plan that focused on deployment of renewable power generation (solar, wind, geothermal, small hydropower and low-emitting biomass).

To implement these plans, 1.5% of GDP was mobilised annually over 20 years, comprising both public and private resources, to drive the necessary investments in generation and infrastructure. For example, a Green Finance Fund for mitigation and adaptation was created and the Law for Energy Transition also provided funds for a fair transition in part raised through new environmental taxes and the abolishment of subsidies and tax exemptions for the fossil-fuel industry and for consumption. New measures to prevent oligopolistic practices (including vertical integration) in the electricity market were implemented to prevent large energy corporations concentrating too much power and to support the small-scale actors entering the system. Finally, measures were put in place to decouple the ownership and management of the distribution system. Aligned with a grassroots political party ideal, both plans were implemented in a way that ensured most electricity generation and distribution phases remained in the hands of public entities (especially municipalities), consumers or small enterprises and not large corporations.

With respect to renewable power, the power system has been 100% renewable since 2045, following the achievement of the interim renewable power target of 80% in 2030. Besides targeted support measures for small renewable power plants, the municipalities granted soft loans through the Green Finance Fund (Fondo de Financiación Verde). Furthermore, there was a green procurement strategy by which all public administrations were obliged to consume 100% renewables on their premises so as to reduce the life-cycle environmental impacts of energy use. Finally, the government divested funds from fossil-fuel related companies to incentivise private consumers to invest in renewable energy through subsidies.

Intermittent renewables, especially PV, experienced a great expansion as a result of the support measures included in the Renewable National Plan, including dedicated support for onshore wind power (> 6 MW). A special emphasis was put on special support mechanisms for investments in renewable generators smaller than 1 MW. Furthermore, a new regulatory framework was implemented already in 2018 and maintained since, to support self-consumption, which included the following features: (a) self-consumption was not taxed; (b) electricity fed into the electricity system was remunerated in a fair manner by the distributor company; and (c) quick and simple administrative procedures were established. Consequentially, all renewables grew continuously from 2018 onwards, but decentralised PV grew particularly fast.

As for dispatchable renewables, research, development and innovation plans were specifically designed for the development of new dispatchable technologies, including measures to improve the flexibility of renewables. As the performance of these technologies improved, their deployment grew from 2020 on. As a result, a diverse fleet of dispatchable renewables was deployed over time, including both CSP, hydropower and biomass. When large hydropower plants private ownership came to an end, they became state-owned. As a result, the role of large hydropower plants changed from providing bulk power to being providers of back-up capacity to complement variable solar PV and wind-power generation. Similarly, the growing biomass power fleet was used mainly to balance the system, and not merely to generate bulk energy.

Accompanying the rise of renewables was the decline of nuclear and fossil power. Following the phase-out decisions in 2019, all nuclear and coal power plants were shut down progressively until the last power plants were closed in 2025. The existing gas power stations were allowed to continue operating beyond 2025 insofar as they provided back-up capacity to the system and contributed to guarantee supply. Throughout the whole period, fracking was forbidden and  natural gas production in Spain was practically banned; further, as CCS was not supported, there was no expansion of CCS stations at any time. In all these phase-out cases (especially nuclear and coal plants), the abandonment of the plants followed a fair transition approach for workers so that they have found new employment opportunities.

Given its focus on small-scale, local and distributed electricity, Unidas Podemos limited the development of new interconnection capacity to the minimum necessary to support the further deployment of renewables in Spain (in accordance with EU targets). Instead of developing new transmission infrastructures, Unidas Podemos supported the development of micro- and other local networks, minimising the need for transmission. Consequently, there was no explicit trade with renewables, dispatchable or fluctuating, and Spain has not made use of cooperation mechanisms.

In order to support the balancing of fluctuating renewables, and to minimise the need for further electricity grids, the government supported early on the development and deployment of new storage technologies. This included both batteries and hydrogen, initially through R&D support and later on through deployment support, so as to keep the power system stable and minimise the need for new national and cross-border grid infrastructure. Through various support measures (such as the provision of special tariffs), the law for the energy transition and climate change supported the electrification of certain consumptions such as industrial, heating and transport.

As to the decarbonisation of the transport sector, Unidas Podemos: (a) promoted the use of bicycles in many ways (for example, by facilitating bicycle access to other public transport modes); (b) revised public transport services provision contracts; and (c) promoted electric vehicles. Thanks to the various support measures in place, Spain achieved a 25% share of EV in sales of new cars by 2025, 70% of new cars were EV by 2030 and all new vehicles were EVs by 2040. Furthermore, a programme was developed to promote the use of electric vehicle chargers.

Figure 4. Quantification of the Spanish grassroots-centred minority policy pathway as described by Unidas Podemos, 2016-50
ES: Grassroots 2016 2020 2030 2040 2050
GHG reduction targets (economy-wide) 283 Mt CO2eq   35% (1990) 70% (1990) 95% (1990)
ETS sector reduction targets 229 Mt CO2eq (European annual emission allocation) 219 Mt CO2eq (European annual emission allocation)      
Non-ETS sectors emission reduction targets   10% (GHG-2005) 26% (GHG-2005)    
GHG reduction targets (electricity sector)   > 2016 45% 60% 100%
Renewables targets (energy; % of final energy consumption)   > 2016      
Renewables targets (electricity; % of final energy consumption) 39%; 108 TWh; 49 GW > 2016 80%   100% (by 2045)
Intermittent renewables 57 TWh; 28 GW > 2016 > 2020 > 2030 > 2040
Wind onshore 49 TWh; 23 GW > 2016 > 2020 > 2030 > 2040
Wind offshore Included above = 2016 = 2016 = 2016 = 2016
Solar PV 8 TWh; 5 GW >> 2016 (mainly decentralised) >> 2020 (mainly decentralised) >> 2030 (mainly decentralised) >> 2040 (mainly decentralised)
Dispatchable renewables 51 TWh; 21 GW > 2016 > 2020 > 2030 > 2040
Biomass 5 TWh; 1 GW > 2016 > 2020 > 2030 > 2040
Hydro 40 TWh; 14 GW > 2016 > 2020 > 2030 > 2040
CSP 6 TWh; 2 GW > 2016 > 2020 > 2030 > 2040
Other renewables 1 TWh        
Traded renewables          
Physical import of renewables (cooperation)          
Statistical transfer of renewables (cooperation)          
Explicit trade of CSP or hydropower          
Nuclear 59 TWh 7 GW   0 (by 2025) 0 0
Fossil fuels 108 TWh; 48 GW        
CCS 0        
Lignite 0 TWh << 2016 0 (by 2025 0 0
Hard coal 36 TWh << 2016 0 (by 2025 0 0
Gas 54 TWh < 2016 < 2020 < 2030 < 2040
Petroleum 16 TWh < 2016 < 2020 < 2030 0
Other non-renewables 1 TWh ≥ 2016 (Waste) ≥ 2016 (Waste)    
Battery   > 2016 > 2020 > 2030 > 2040
Pumped Hydropower          
Other storage   > 2016 > 2020 > 2030 > 2040
Cross-border interconnection NTC   ≥ 10% of yearly power production ≥ 15% of yearly power production = 2030 = 2040
Electrification of additional sectors          
Total heating demand incl. non-electric heating          
Heating with electricity          
Total cooling demand incl. non-electric cooling   > 2016 > 2020 > 2030 > 2040
Cooling with electricity   > 2016 > 2020 > 2030 > 2040
Electric mobility   3% EV (by 2020), 25% EV (by 2025) 70% (EV) 100% (EV)  
EV chargers   >> 2016 > 2020 > 2030 > 2040
Gross electricity consumption 275 TWh        
Final energy consumption          
Source: the authors.


The pathways described, depicted in this paper as if they had materialised, are not the only ones proposed by political parties for Spain’s energy transition. However, they illustrate the continuum of options in the energy transition policy space and constitute the best-specified set of energy transition alternatives for Spain. As expected, they do not represent ‘pure’ State, market or grassroots-centred closed models, but rather ‘scripts’ for energy transition with different combinations of elements present in other logics. For instance, the socialists’ State-centred logic includes auctions, the Popular Party’s market approach includes some command and control measures, and the Unidas Podemos’ grass-roots approach comes with significant State intervention. Nevertheless, they constitute coherent, all-encompassing alternative stories on how to achieve the energy transition in three different ways, following three distinct decarbonisation logics and leading to three very different (more or less) climate-friendly energy futures.

For the Socialist Party, the decarbonisation of the Spanish power system is driven by targeted measures enacted by the government, in addition to having economy-wide decarbonisation targets for 2030 and 2050. Some of the key measures included a mandatory and gradual nuclear phase-out between 2025 and 2035, a largely market-driven coal phase-out ahead of 2030 (fostered by EU regulation), banning internal combustion engines and (most) new fossil fuel subsidies, a gradual phase out of existing fossil-fuel subsidies, mandatory deployment of recharging infrastructure for EVs and mandatory retrofitting of buildings, among others. Interconnections were promoted by the government in this pathway, in line with EU requirements, to prevent blackouts during dry years and to support the expansion of renewables.

Under the Popular Party’s market-centred logic, the Spanish energy transition is mostly driven by private actors under an economy-wide decarbonisation target. The government took a few high-level, strategic decisions to ensure the alignment with EU energy and climate objectives and ambition and, whenever needed, the government used market-based instruments (carbon tax, technology neutral auctions for renewables, etc) to correct market failures and get the transition going. The government also put a special emphasis on increasing interconnections as a way to transition to an integrated and cost-efficient EU electricity market.

Unidas Podemos is aligned with the grassroots logics. The key for enabling the Spanish energy transition is empowering citizens and local communities as the main actors of the transition strategy, while progressively abandoning fossil and nuclear technologies. As a result, a highly decentralised small-scale and smart local community-owned power system was achieved. New technologies were developed as a result of R&D programmes (technology push) as well as market pull policies (support policies in the form of subsidies and other incentives). Regarding interconnections and cooperation mechanisms, the local and community logic has limit interconnections to compulsory EU targets and intra-EU renewable exchange remains small.

Despite the differences across energy transition pathways Spain embraced a low(er) carbon development model from 2020 to 2050. The acrimonious political debate that had stalled the drafting and passing of the Climate Change and Energy Transition Law between 2011 and 2019 was finally resolved in 2020. The response from the EC, and from civil society, to Spain’s draft INECP made its content the benchmark across political parties that avoided defaulting on Spain’s energy and climate commitments, albeit relying on different policy instruments to ensure targets were met. This meant a more command-and-control (CAC) based approach from socialist governments, more use of market-based instruments (MBIs) by conservative governments and greater emphasis on both CAC and moral suasion, coupled with bottom-up initiatives, from left-wing governments.

However, the INECP had to be strengthened over time to align Spain’s targets to the goals of the Paris Agreement. Key elements in robust climate laws were gradually included in Spain’s climate actions by governments from across the political spectrum. Among these elements were an independent committee on climate change à la UK, national and sectoral carbon budgets, parliamentary oversight of climate and energy goals, transparent and regular stakeholder engagement, and the requirement to disclose exposure to climate risks by investors and asset managers, following France’s lead.

Natalia Caldés

Gonzalo Escribano
Elcano Royal Institute | @g_escribano

Lara Lázaro
Elcano Royal Institute | @lazarotouza

Yolanda Lechón
CIEMAT | @YLechon

Christoph Kiefer

Pablo del Río

Richard Thonig
Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies | @RThonig

Johan Lilliestam
Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies | @JLilliestam

European Commission. H2020 The MUSTEC project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation program under grant agreement No 764626.

Legal Notice

The sole responsibility for the content of this publication lies with the authors. It does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the European Union. Neither the INEA nor the European Commission is responsible for any use that may be made of the information contained therein.

All rights reserved; no part of this publication may be translated, reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, re-cording or otherwise, without the written permission of the publisher.

Many of the designations used by manufacturers and sellers to distinguish their products are claimed as trademarks. The quotation of those designations in whatever way does not imply the conclusion that the use of those designations is legal without the content of the owner of the trademark.

1 Lilliestam, J., R. Thonig, L. Späth, N. Caldés, Y. Lechón, P. del Río, C. Kiefer, G. Escribano & L. Lázaro Touza (2019), Policy pathways for the energy transition in Europe and selected European countries, Deliverable 7.2 MUSTEC project, Deliverable 1 SCCER JA IDEA, ETH Zürich, Zürich.

2 Grupo Parlamentario Popular en el Congreso (2019), “Proposición de Ley de Cambio Climático y Transición Energética”; Ministerio para la Transición Ecológica (2019), “Anteproyecto de Ley de Cambio Climático y Transición Energética”; Grupo Parlamentario Confederal de Unidos Podemos-En Comú Podem-En Marea (2018), “Proposición de Ley sobre Cambio Climático y Transición Energética”.

3 Lawrence Freedman (2013), Strategy: a History, Oxford University Press, chapter 38.

4 It should be noted that increasing concern about climate change affected policies and implementation across the three decarbonisation pathways (State-centred, market-centred and grassroots).

5 It should be noted, however, that the socialist government did not mandate a coal phase-out by 2030 but rather relied on EU legislation and on market factors (continued cost reductions in renewables, price of the tonne of CO2 of €35 in 2030) that forced coal out of the Spanish electricity mix. The INECP, however, stated that phasing out coal was key to achieve the decarbonisation goals. Hence the Spanish government reserved the right to undertake ‘any appropriate measures deemed necessary’ to meet the RES electricity target (74% by 2030).

6 Article 9 of the current draft proposal for the Climate Change and Energy Transition Law presented by the socialist government states that new fiscal benefits for fossil fuel products will only be allowed under special circumstances detailed below.

7 ‘[CSOs] can be defined to include all non-market and nonstate organizations outside of the family in which people organise themselves to pursue shared interests in the public domain. Examples include community-based organisations and village associations, environmental groups, women’s rights groups, farmers’ associations, faith-based organisations, labour unions, co-operatives, professional associations, chambers of commerce, independent research institutes and the not-for-profit media’ (UNDP, undated).

8 Czech Republic (-30%), Germany (-55%), Ireland (-40%), France (-40%), Latvia (-40%), Lithuania (-40%), Hungary (-40%), the Netherlands (-49%), Portugal (-45%), Romania (-50%) and Sweden (-63%).

9 Most of the new CSP capacity (5 GW) had nine hours of storage capacity as modelled in Spain’s PNIEC.

10 Note that nuclear phaseout took place in 2025-35, which explains the 3GW of nuclear in 2030.

11 See page 42 of the INECP.

12 Defined in Article 9 of the draft Climate Change and Energy Transition Law as fiscal benefits and other support mechanisms or measures that foster the use of fossil fuels.

13 The potential loophole in the drafting of Article 9 (effectively allowing fossil fuel subsidies to continue) gave rise to several comments in the public consultation process prior to the passing of the Climate Change and Energy Transition Law. These comments were taken into consideration by the government to ensure appropriate monitoring of subsides, effectively restricting new fossil fuel subsidies to vulnerable families and small-scale farmers whose livelihoods could be significantly affected by higher fuel prices.

14 These figures are available from page 206 of the INECP and are based on information provided by Spain’s tax agency.

15 Which amounted to 10,4 GW of installed capacity in 2018. See IIDMA (2019), ‘Un oscuro panorama. Las secuelas del carbón’, (accessed 18/V/2019).

16 See the second additional provision of the draft Climate Change and Energy Transition Law for further details.

17 Pollit & Mercure (2018) argue that Computable General Equilibrium (CGE) models assume crowding-out effects as a result of climate policies. The authors argue that macro-econometric models based on non-equilibrium economic theory do not necessarily lead to crowding out effects and can even serve as an economic stimulus.

18 Whose emissions amounted to 25% of total emissions in 2015 and 48% of of diffuse sector emissions in 2017.

19 Partido Popular (2015), ‘Seguir avanzando. Programa electoral para las elecciones generales de 2015’, Partido Popular, Madrid; Partido Popular (2018), ‘Proposición de Ley sobre Cambio Climático y Transición Energética’, Grupo Parlamentario Popular en el Congreso, Boletín Oficial de las Cortes Generales, Madrid; Público (2018), ‘El PP es el único partido que está a favor del “fracking”, del almacén nuclear y del “impuesto al sol”,(accessed 07/V/2019); SNE (2015) ‘El Partido Popular promete mantener las centrales nucleares y terminar el ATC’, Sociedad Nuclear Española (SNE), (accessed 07/V/2019); Partido Popular (2019), ‘Elecciones generales, autonómicas y municipales 2019. Programa electoral’, Partido Popular, Madrid.

20 Podemos (2018), ‘Proposición de Ley sobre Cambio Climático y Transición Energética’, Grupo Parlamentario Confederal de Unidos Podemos-En Comú Podem-En Marea, Boletín Oficial de las Cortes Generales, Madrid; Podemos (2019), ‘Programa de Podemos para un nuevo pais. Programa Electoral elecciones 2019’.

<![CDATA[ From trade diplomacy to economic warfare: the international economic policy of the Trump Administration ]]> 2019-05-31T12:23:59Z

This paper is an analysis of the discursive practices of the international economic policy of the Administration of President Donald Trump, writ large. Within this conceptual context it offers an empirical case study of the US-China relationship across the spectrum.


(1) The global context
(2) Concepts and theories
(2.1) Discursive practices: from securitisation to economic warfare
(2.2) Economic theory and international economic relations: the rise and fall and rise of economic statecraft and mercantilism
(3) The securitisation and weaponisation of US economic policy: the Trump agenda
(4) The US-China relationship: towards economic warfare?
Conclusion: assessing a Trumpian strategy of political (economic) warfare
The record
Donald Trump and the changing nature of geopolitics


This paper is an analysis of the discursive practices of the international economic policy of the Administration of President Donald Trump, writ large. Within this conceptual context it offers an empirical case study of the US-China relationship across the spectrum, from tariff conflict through to the growing struggle for control of the 21st century high-technology industries. The argument is that the Trump Administration utilises the discursive practices of what some scholars call ‘securitisation’ (Buzan et al., 1998) through to what might more appropriately be described as a discourse of ‘economic warfare’.

The paper is in four parts. Part 1 provides a brief discussion of the changing historical and international context of the study. Part 2 provides a conceptual discussion of the discursive practices of securitisation, economic statecraft and economic warfare on the one hand and the theory of international trade captured in the idea of the rise and fall of mercantilism and its re-emergence in the international economic agenda of the Trump Administration on the other. Part 3 looks at these concepts as they pertain to current US international economic policy. Part 4 concentrates on US policy towards China particularly. The paper concludes with some reflections on the success or otherwise of contemporary US policy.

(1) The global context

The cooperation that developed during the period of US ‘self-binding’ hegemonic control (Martin, 2004) over a liberal international order had been under strain in the US since the 1980s when the bilateral deficits with Japan became a major political issue. But it has been since the financial crisis of 2008 that the order has really begun to unravel. The Japan challenge was not sustained but great power competition from both China and Russia has grown. Always fragile, the popular consensus in support of a global liberal order –which was only ever partially liberal and partially global (see Acharya, 2017)– has further dissipated as strong ideological populist challenges have fuelled nationalist politics with attendant practical implications for economic globalisation and international relations in the post 2008 era (see Higgott & Proud, 2017).

This unravelling and great power competition pre-dates Donald Trump becoming President of the US. But it has been exacerbated by his economic nationalist counter-agenda to globalism; an agenda voiced not only by President Trump but also by subordinates in his close policy community –initially by Steve Bannon, but also others such as US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Special Economic Adviser Peter Navarro–.2

As this paper will argue, the challenges faced in a search for a new, post-liberal global equilibrium are reflected in both the conceptualisation and practice of economic securitisation and warfare as an instrument of US policy. The contours of any new order will be a highly contested with an increasing interdependence of the two key issues areas –economics and security– and increasing competition between the two principal combatants –the US and China. What might have started as a fairly traditional recourse to a protectionist trade agenda is steadily, and rapidly, morphing into a wider battle between the US and China across the whole spectrum of relations, and especially the battle for technological ascendency in the 21st century. We are witnessing not simply a rhetorical securitisation of US economic policy discourse but a more intense economic and political response to economic globalism in general, and the ascendency of China as a rival global economic power in particular.

For much of the post-World War II era, the relevant government agencies in the US (especially the US Treasury, abetted by the USTR) and the many interested trade and commerce lobbies and pressure groups had sought to treat international economic policy in general, and trade policy in particular, in a manner different to the normal rules of foreign and security policy. Trade policy was seen as a quasi-preserved domain with its own epistemic discourse. This has changed in the current era, where expert knowledge, when not directly rejected or increasingly belittled, is less valued (see Nicholls, 2017).

We are now in an era in which international trade policy, underpinned by a belief in the welfare-enhancing nature of trade openness is under challenge (see Irwin, 2017). This should not lead us into thinking that the globalisation of the international economy as a set of sinews, networks, activities and practices that developed over the last 40 years are somehow coming undone. This is clearly not the case (see Slaughter, 2018; and Baldwin, 2018). Rather, US policy has undergone a major change. An open liberal economic system has been characterised as a licence for others to cheat in their economic relationship with the US.

(2) Concepts and theories

(2.1) Discursive practices: from securitisation to economic warfare

Following 9/11 it became fashionable in some academic and policy quarters to talk about the ‘securitisation’ of US international economic policy. In academic language, securitisation (following the work of the Copenhagen School) was defined as a set of socially constructed and contextual speech acts and processes in which ‘… an issue is framed as a security problem’ (Waever, 1995, p. 75; and Buzan et al., 1998). Evidence of the securitisation of economic globalisation in US policy can be traced far back: from the time of the Raegan Administration and its introduction of the use of VRAs and VERs against the Japanese in iron and steel, machine tools and cars in the 1980s (Reich, 1989) through the to the Bush Administration. It was 9/11 that (perhaps unsurprisingly) firmed up the trend as the Administration proved unable to resist the siren calls to link the narratives of foreign economic and security policy.

For the Bush Administration, globalisation became not only an economic issue but also a ‘security’ problem. As a consequence, the discourse and practice of the securitisation of foreign economic policy developed accordingly. This trend was particularly acute in trade policy where, to illustrate, the granting of the bilateral Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) under negotiation at the time to those who supported the US Gulf War Two initiative (Australia and Singapore) contrasted with the explicit withholding of them from those who refused to join the Gulf War coalition (New Zealand and Chile) (see Higgott, 2004).

The earlier discourse of securitisation did not operationalise the concept of economic statecraft, let alone economic ‘warfare’ –concepts largely applied to non-liberal regimes, notably Russia and China. This study will demonstrate a step change between the Bush era and the contemporary era of the Trump Administration. It will demonstrate that contextual global change and the empirical narrative of international economic policy in general, and trade policy in particular, under the current Trump Administration requires a recognition of both the similarities and differences in the securitisation-economic warfare dialogue not required in the age of George W. Bush. Current US policy is taking us beyond both the securitisation problematic of the Copenhagen School and the traditional understanding of economic statecraft restated recently by Blackwill & Harris (2016). Rather, current US international economic policy should be interpreted through the discursive lenses of an aggressive and pro-active –as opposed to the earlier defensive and reactive– economic warfare.

Current US strategy in trade policy under the Trump Administration offers a counter-veiling argument to the notion that democracies will invariably prefer, à la Joseph Nye, (2004) a soft power diplomatic approach to more atavistic approaches. The preference is now to challenge longstanding commitments to multilateral collective action in the global trade regime with a preference for a strategy based as much on threat as on reward. A comparative analysis of the Bush and Trump Administrations suggests two major differences:

  1. The securitisation strategy of the Bush Administration after 9/11 was underwritten by assumptions of ‘existential threat’ but still with a significant commitment to multilateral institutionalism. By contrast in the Trump Administration’s strategy, without formally articulating it, it is clear that President Trump has a longstanding belief in a mercantilist view of trade with little or no commitment to multilateral institutionalism.
  2. The impact of the communication and technological revolutions on how the dissemination of a securitised trade policy under the current US Administration is practiced, when compared to the tools at the disposal of the Bush Administration, is both more intense and more sophisticated. George Bush did not have the populist communicative skills of Donald Trump nor the weaponry of digital social media, especially Twitter. The message of economic warfare is much easier to disseminate today.

Current strategy and policy harness the discursive instruments, tools and practices short of war to secure the enhancement of national objectives over those of adversaries. If we use the language of security studies we are seeing what Mahnken et al. call ‘… the coercive use of non military instruments to alter adversary behaviour’ (2018, p. 3). This allows us to demonstrate the degree to which our understanding of the discursive practices of trade war can be extended in two ways:

  1. To include allies as well as adversaries as targets.
  2. To extend our focus beyond Russia and China, to the discursive practices of econo-political warfare beyond the traditional understandings of US economic statecraft in recent years (see Blackwill & Harris, 2016).

This comparison of language and practice in US international economic policy is not of courses to suggest any wider similarity between the US on the one hand and China and Russia on the other. The US, for all its current problems, remains a robust democracy while Russia and China are both strongly authoritarian states. But comparative discursive narratives can be identified. In their case study on Russia, Mahnken et al. (2018, p. 10) identify what they see as key themes in the post revolution Bolshevik narrative. Four of the six they identify –(a) ‘we are special’; (b) the ‘country is threatened’; (c) there is a ‘sacred mission’; and (d) ‘victory is assured’– do warrant comparison and find resonance in the Trumpian international economic playbook that stresses:

  1. The residual myth of American ‘exceptionalism’ (‘we are special’).
  2. That the US is disadvantaged by the cheating and free riding behaviour of its major trading partners (‘the country is threatened’).
  3. The presidential mission is to ‘Make America Great Again’ (MAGA as ‘a sacred mission’).
  4. In the economic domain, this has meant a turn to aggressive and unilateral protectionist measures addressed to competitors and allies alike and based on the premise that, in Trump’s own words, ‘trade wars are easy’ (‘victory is assured’).

The analogy permits two further discursive comparisons. First, Vladimir Putin believes Russia was betrayed by the West after the Cold War with its support for the ‘colour’ revolutions in regional neighbours and the eastward expansion of NATO. Similarly, this sense of betrayal is mirrored in the US President’s belief that European allies have been free-riders on US largesse in both the security domain (NATO) and the economic domain (trade imbalances). If his resentments reflect core elements of Trump’s world view, then they lend themselves to explaining his policy responses: bilateralism, transactionalism, aggressive competition, and punishment and retaliation rather than cooperation and multilateralism. In addition, the observation of Trump’s attitudes towards the US’s European allies (for example, his position on Brexit and suggestions to President Macron that France leave the EU) also suggests a willingness to sow division amongst allies where possible. Secondly, the MAGA discourse mirrors Xi Jingping’s emphasis on enhancing respect for China globally after years of humiliation. This theme –that the US must be respected– is to be found in much presidential rhetoric about the lack of deference paid to the US by ungrateful allies.

Richard Higgott, PhD, FRSA, FAcSS
Emeritus Professor of International Political Economy, University of Warwick
Research Professor, Institute of European Studies and Distinguished Professor of Diplomacy, Vesalius College of Global Affairs, Vrije Universiteit Brussel

1 The author is grateful to Luis Simon, Patrick Low, Simon Reich, Jaihong Chen, John Hart, Anthony Milner and Uli Penzkofer for their helpful comments.

2 See Navarros’s documentary, Death by China

<![CDATA[ Subject and object: Europe and the emerging great-power competition ]]> 2019-05-30T03:56:09Z

The growing rivalry between the US and China compels Europeans to wake up to some hard facts. One of them is that we live in a world that is increasingly defined by great-power competition, in which the norms and institutions Europeans hold so dear may well take a back seat. 

The growing rivalry between the US and China compels Europeans to wake up to some hard facts. One of them is that we live in a world that is increasingly defined by great-power competition, in which the norms and institutions Europeans hold so dear may well take a back seat. Another is that Europe itself may take a back seat in world politics.

Against a backdrop of tectonic geopolitical change, European experts and pundits are pondering about two sets of problems. The first relates to the specter of great power penetration on the European continent, and its negative impact on European unity and stability. The second is about how Europeans should position themselves vis-à-vis the world’s great powers. These are closely intertwined problems, which relate to the deeper question of whether Europe is a subject or an object in international politics –a debate that cannot possibly be framed in dichotomous (subject vs object) but rather complementary (subject and object) terms–.

"European cohesion is a precondition for the broader question of how the EU should position itself vis-à-vis the (other?) great powers"

The discussion on ‘Europe as a subject’ is often associated with the EU and the notion of European strategic autonomy. These days, it revolves primarily around the question of how the EU should position itself in Sino-US competition. To a lesser extent, it is also about how the EU should deal with an increasingly assertive Russia. Should the EU buddy up with the US in its global competition with China? Should it strive for some form of equidistance, and get closer to the US on some issues and to China on others? Or should it opt for a third way, and become a strategically autonomous actor? How about Russia? Should the EU align its Russia policy to that of the US? Or should it strike a different tone? Without getting into the nuances surrounding any of those questions, they all build on a fundamental premise: that of the EU as a coherent international actor. Incidentally, such a premise presupposes that the EU can consolidate its reach and influence within the European continent itself and that it is therefore in a position to prevent other external powers from penetrating Europe or significantly undermining European unity. After all, European cohesion is a precondition for the broader question of how the EU should position itself vis-à-vis the (other?) great powers.

The debate on Europe as a subject is surely a fascinating one, but it is muddied by the problem of ‘Europe as an object’ or battleground of great-power competition. This problem is about how external powers –notably Russia and China, but also, conceivably the US, and even the UK, should an acrimonious Brexit materialise– can leverage existing European divisions to maximise their influence on and over Europe.

Internal divisions and external penetration are two sides of the European coin: they feed off each other. And today’s Europe may well be experiencing the rough end of both. Over the last decade or so, the economic, migration, security and Brexit crises have fostered a number of cleavages in Europe, within and between countries, including but not limited to the north-south, east-west, and Britain vs continent divides. These cleavages are there for powerful external actors to leverage. From the perspective of an external meddler, always sniffing around for wedges to play divide-and-rule politics, today’s Europe is filled with opportunities.

An increasingly assertive Russia sees the division of Europe as a geopolitical asset, an opportunity to maximise its regional influence. Taking a cue from the Soviet-era concept of active measures, Russia is today following a strategy of identifying existing divisions within Europe and building on them. The Brexit referendum has been often cited as an example in this regard, and so has the rise of extremist parties in some western European countries. Perhaps more broadly, and more systemically, the migration crisis has offered Russia an opportunity to further a cultural and political cleavage within Europe, between west and east, but also within countries.

"The message coming from Washington is clear: Europeans who open their 5G gateways to Chinese companies should expect to be penalised in their intelligence and security cooperation with the US"

A confident China hopes that its economic largesse in Europe will translate into political influence. The question of how to deal with Beijing underscores a number of cleavages within Europe. One of them is transatlantic. The message coming from Washington is clear: Europeans who open their 5G gateways to Chinese companies should expect to be penalised in their intelligence and security cooperation with the US. But there is a second, China-related cleavage: should Europeans pursue an industrial policy, as traditionally advocated by France (especially when it comes to the digital domain and to new technologies), or should they continue to put their faith in open competition? The Germans appear to be revisiting their traditionally liberal, pro-competition stance, as they take note of Trump’s protectionist bent, and wake up to the fact that China is playing the free-trade system. Thus, the context seems ripe for a debate on an EU industrial policy. Yet no push in that direction will be hassle free. The European Commission will not quite so easily let go of its role as the guardian of competition. And other EU member states will worry about getting the rough end of the deal: neither cheap Chinese products nor any say over the direction of European (read Franco-German) champions. Such a dilemma may prove to be particularly acute for countries in eastern and southern Europe that have been showered by Chinese investment in recent years, some of which have also grown increasingly antagonistic towards the EU. The divisions are likely to remain there for China to leverage upon.

Last but not least, there are questions about the Trump Administration’s Europe policy, and more specifically its attitude towards the EU, which Trump himself has repeatedly labelled a foe of the US. This is a delicate and dangerous issue. Does President Trump calculate that, because Europe faces numerous challenges and is in a position of strategic dependence with Washington, he can renegotiate the transatlantic relationship from a position of strength? If so, he may be right. However, his approach of linking security and economics and openly lambasting the EU and some of its member states (notably Germany) may well encourage Europeans to push back, including through the EU.

"Europeans should be careful in framing their response to the US and, at any event, steer clear from the notion of resorting to other great powers (let alone China) to build up their diplomatic leverage on Washington"

It is certainly understandable, and even legitimate, for Europeans to stand up to Trumpian bullying, and reject the notion of a transactional relationship with the US. However, Europeans should be careful in framing their response to the US and, at any event, steer clear from the notion of resorting to other great powers (let alone China) to build up their diplomatic leverage on Washington. This could be politically suicidal, as it would prove highly divisive and corrosive within a Europe that is largely a by-product of US power. US power and US strategy played a key role in the genesis of the European Community, through the Marshall Plan, through US support for the re-industrialisation and re-militarisation of West Germany, and through the NATO security guarantee. This is not just ancient history. The US has also played a critical role in the configuration of today’s EU, notably through its key role in German reunification and eastern enlargement. Today, Central and Eastern European states form an integral part of the EU, and most of them see their bilateral relationship with the US as the foundation of their security and political autonomy. This links back to the underlying theme on the interdependence between internal divisions or cleavages and external penetration.

US penetration –labelled by some as mostly benevolent or ‘empire by invitation’– remains a fact of European life. And, as the world becomes increasingly competitive, its penetration may well prove to be an insurance against worse alternative futures, at least as long as Europe’s key powers continue to reject the notion of a pan-European state –which, incidentally, could very well meet the (concerted?) opposition of Washington, Moscow and London–. To be sure, insofar as both US penetration and European strategic autonomy are relative concepts, Europeans will do well to continue to lever their economic, technological and security cooperation (notably through the EU) to mitigate the spectre of total dependence on an Asia-bound US. But as the 21st century rolls in, the key question for Europe is not whether it will be subject or object, but how to reconcile the idea of being both at the same time.

Luis Simón
Director of the Elcano Royal Institute’s Office in Brussels and Senior Analyst

<![CDATA[ EU-Japan EPA and SPA: more than a partnership, a necessary turning point for both ]]> 2019-05-29T01:38:47Z

With just few weeks for the opening of the G20 summit in Osaka on 28-29 June, the stakes that the world economy faces are higher than ever. The current US-China trade turmoil is precisely what Japan and the EU are trying to avoid.

With just few weeks for the opening of the G20 summit in Osaka on 28-29 June, the stakes that the world economy faces are higher than ever. The current US-China trade turmoil is precisely what Japan and the EU are trying to avoid.

Since the 2008 financial crisis we have witnessed almost a decade of uninterrupted global economic growth with moderate inflation. However, with a downgraded 2.9% growth projection in 2019 by the World Bank we may be approaching the end of the cycle, whose effects might be aggravated if the biggest economies resort to protectionist measures.

This decade has seen many discussions about ways to achieve sustainable economic growth, fulfil the UN millennium goals and implement environmental commitments, first of the Kyoto Protocol and now of the Paris Agreement. It is in this framework that a new partnership has been established to respond to these challenges and send a clear message in defence of the liberal international economic order. In this light, the EU and Japan are actually walking together in the same direction . They share concerns that have arisen about the global economy since the 1990s : the post-Cold War order, the Financial Big Bang, the emergence of China and the ambivalent dynamics of the emerging markets and developing economies (EMDEs).

“the EU and Japan are actually walking together in the same direction. They share concerns that have arisen about the global economy since the 1990s”

It was precisely a day before the G20 meeting in Hamburg in 2017, where Japan was chosen to host the 2019 summit, when Shinzō Abe, Donald Tusk and Jean-Claude Juncker jointly announced that Japan and the EU had reached a broad consensus over an Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) and a Strategic Partnership Agreement (SPA) . It should not have come as a surprise given Abe’s intensive efforts to counterbalance the moves of his main foreign political ally, Donald Trump, who has however held completely opposite policy views regarding trade. Abe is adept at signalling his position regarding free trade and the preservation of the liberal economic order is part of his trademark economic policy, the so-called Abenomics. Only a day before Trump’s inauguration, the Japanese Diet ratified the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP), even though it was assumed that it would not come into effect once Trump took office and fulfilled his campaign promise of withdrawing the US from its commitment. Japan has since taken the lead to convert the failed TPP into the new Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) that tries to lure in the post-Brexit UK, South Korea and Taiwan, among others, including –paradoxically– the US.

It is interesting to see a sort of circular chain reaction in the various steps taken to ensure that a liberal ruled-based order continues to govern world trade. The new initiative in the Pacific area was in fact given a push by the upcoming creation of the largest free trade area, as the EU-Japan EPA was due to enter into force (1 February 2019). And the latter was precisely propelled by factors including the apparently impending conclusion of the TPP, which pushed the EU to negotiations with Japan after a rather successful EU-Korea Free Trade Agreement (in effect since 2011 and fully implemented from 2015), the dissipation of the TPP that jeopardised Japan’s economic future, the Brexit vote that put at risk Japanese companies’ leverage in Europe and the Australia-Japan Free Trade Agreement, which took more than seven years of negotiations to see the light in 2014 but had a key role in managing the difficult Japanese agricultural, pharmaceutical and auto industry lobbies, decisive sectors also in the EU negotiations.

The key to a successful and unusually fast conclusion to both economic and strategic partnership was, on the one hand, the similarity of the two mature markets with comparable protection structures and, on the other, the transparency of the negotiations in the trade agreement, not so much in the strategic partnership that relied on much more sensitive information.

Figure 1. Market sizes of current largest free-trade areas
EU-Japan EPA
[in effect from 1/II/2019]
  TPP-11 (CPTPP)
[in effect from 30/XII/2018]
640 Market in million people 499
27.8 World trade share (%) 14.4
35.8 World GDP share (%) 13.3
EU Real GDP Increase
(+0.10~0.76%) + 162,000 jobs
Japan Real GDP Increase
(+0.26~1%) + 260,000 jobs
Expected gain US$147 billion
Source: data from the EU Commission, Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, World Economic Forum and Peterson Institute for International Economics.

Though early to have data, with Japan being the 5th largest partner for the EU in both imports and exports, it is expected that EPA will provide a boost of €13 billion to European exports, which would reach 5% of Japan’s market share, up from the current 3%. The EU would increase its imports from Japan by €23 billion by 2035, the year of full implementation of the agreement, according to the EU DG Trade estimates. The EU will essentially scrap 99% of the tariff lines and liberalise 100% of imports in seven to 10 years while Japan will do the same for 97% of tariff lines and 99% of imports in 15 years. Some products, such as alcoholic beverages, textiles, chemicals, cosmetics or jewellery, have been fully liberalised since day one of the implementation of the agreement but most of the sensitive products, such as wood, leather, footwear and agricultural products in the case of Japan and vehicles and auto parts in the EU’s, remain to be freed from barriers by stages. Even import items not fully liberalised on the Japanese side have been granted concessions in tariff quotas. Some items have never been a subject of the negotiations, including rice, seaweed and whale meat. According to the research presented by Felbermayr e.a., 86% of the gains in mutual trade are owing to the elimination of non-tariff barriers (NTB), and half of that in the services sector alone. Only the remaining 14% result from the elimination of tariffs proper. For example, regarding sanitary and phyto-sanitary (SPS) measures, both sides have simplified approval and clearance procedures. In the EU this specially helps the value-added agri-food sector while in Japan the manufacturing and services sectors benefit. The adoption by Japan of around 200 European Protected Geographical Indications has been a major step forward.

In their final version, both the EPA and SPA deals address other key concerns too. In the first place, they include a clause safeguarding the compliance with the Paris Agreement on Climate, creating a precedent that aspires to set a standard for future trade agreements. Secondly, they attach great importance to data protection. It has been a major step for Japan to accept and model part of its procedures on the already comprehensive General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which commits Japanese companies to comply with European standards even when operating in third countries with information originating from European customers/clients/providers. In fact, the matter of safe data flows is considered the Data Movement Agreement or a third major agreement in its own right. Abe has taken the lead on world-wide data governance by putting on the agenda of the G20 summit in Osaka the commitment to work towards a regime built on Data Free Flow with Trust (DFFT) principle aiming at what he calls the Society 5.0 .

Thirdly, these agreements have been presented as a pillar of the Abenomics’ so-called third arrow of structural reform. The effect of their adoption could be called a positive upheaval where the exposure to liberalised trade is used as an opportunity to revamp primary and secondary sectors as well as to modernise the tertiary one by adapting to the new challenges. Akeda noted the difference between the Japanese approach at the negotiating table, more business-oriented and flexible compared with the more people-oriented and normative European style. Japan clearly pursues the improvement of economic efficiency through FTAs and one aspect that took longer in the negotiations were the European prescriptions such as those on adopting more international industrial standards (ISO). Currently, of the 10,773 Japan Industrial Standards (JIS), 6,062 correspond to international standards, with only 38% fully identical to ISO ones. This lack of international standardisation has been one of the NTBs that protected Japanese Small and Medium Enterprises (SME) that cater to a captive domestic market without the need to internationalise. In fact, SME productivity has been long under scrutiny. To force them to open up to the global market and embrace opportunities brought by the digital economy is part of the strategy of the third arrow.

The fourth important point of the agreements is EPA’s 20th chapter, devoted to the role of SMEs in global trade. Up to 88% of EU exporters to Japan are SMEs, which account for approximately 30% of trade volume. SMEs are predominantly responsible for agriculture, textile, apparel and leather products in the goods trade, and for information, communication, real-estate activities, construction, wholesale and retail in the services trade. Energy, auto, computer and electronics manufacturing as well as financial and insurance services rely on bigger corporations. The chapter tries to promote transparency of information, equal opportunities and specialised help to SMEs and their consortiums when, for example, bidding for public procurement, one of the Japanese markets that Europeans have newly gained entrance to. SMEs will see their position improved due to the reduction of NTBs and the decrease of the proportion of fixed costs of accessing the Japanese market.

Some issues have not yet been fully agreed upon, like the arbitration court and procedures in case of foreign direct investment. However, on balance, as already stated by a very comprehensive LSE study on the impact by sector of the EU-Japan EPA, ‘this new trade area would create a “smart, sustainable and inclusive growth”, jobs and welfare, with no negative impact on environmental indicators, and positive effects for the EU social indicators’.

“A challenge for two mature societies such as the sustainability of the welfare system need companion policies to a free trade agreement to ensure its accomplishment”.

This benevolent conclusion might take more to implement than just the free movement of goods and services. Part of the less known SPA leaves an ambiguous set of goals to cover, where the intentions have been signed but the mechanisms are yet to be designed. It has been stablished to promote policies in the areas of gender equality, consumer protection and safety and responsible consumption, but it would have been more encouraging if quantifiable goals and measures on these issues were mentioned. A challenge for two mature societies such as the sustainability of the welfare system need companion policies to a free trade agreement to ensure its accomplishment. There is a commitment to a coordinated emergency response as well as establishing prevention systems in the event of natural disasters, or the cooperation and mutual exchange in higher education and technology that could lead to shared research and outcomes. The common fight against cyberterrorism and the protection of intellectual property are some of the most discussed areas during the round tables. Common efforts in the designing of smart solutions for the future of mobility and urban living, or providing ideas on how to involve the local and regional economies in this new scenario will prove that the agreements that have been signed are just more than a simple partnership but a coalition for a future and stable set of rules.

Ana María Goy Yamamoto
Associate Professor, Center for East Asia Studies, Autonomous University of Madrid

<![CDATA[ Global norms, gender equality and development cooperation: the need to build on strong local support to change gender relations ]]> 2019-05-22T12:47:03Z

Do global norms on gender equality diffuse to all corners of the world? Based on a study of major organisations in international development cooperation this seems questionable.


Do global norms on gender equality diffuse to all corners of the world? Based on a study of major organisations in international development cooperation this seems questionable.


Much work is undertaken to establish global norms, not least in development cooperation. The 2030 Agenda and its 17 Sustainable Development Goals constitute a recent example, but to what extent do they influence development activities in individual societies? A study of how development organisations engage with global gender equality norms demonstrates that these organisations cannot avoid addressing the norms, but they do so in substantially different ways. Thus, global norms seem to diffuse only symbolically, whereas their specific contents are twisted and changed according to circumstances. Policy makers and stakeholders should acknowledge this and find local support to promote global norms on gender equality.


International development cooperation is a field of norm production and engagement. International meetings, negotiations and declarations provide an important framework for concrete development cooperation. For many years, actors have come together to discuss both the objectives and the instruments of development cooperation which could, accordingly, be seen as a field of excellence when it comes to norm diffusion. Some have argued that development organisations are ‘carriers’ of global norms seeking to use them and support them in projects and programmes and thereby bring them to most parts of the world2.

International discussions of gender equality go a long way back and from the mid-1970s to the mid-1990s many substantial declarations were adopted to specify a whole variety of principles, objectives and issues under the heading of gender equality. These agreements have provided frameworks stimulating the consideration of gender equality in development initiatives across the globe. However, gender equality has been described as an ‘empty signifier that takes as many meanings as the variety of visions and debates on the issue allow it to take’3. Accordingly, the term allows for interpretation, ‘translation’ and very diverse activities supposed to strengthen gender equality.

This is amplified by the fact that gender equality is a deeply political issue. While much can be done by changing traditional practices and ideas marginalising women but being of little benefit to men, there are also substantial issues of distribution of resources and opportunities from which men gain at the expense of women. Thus, global norms on gender equality are not harmless, but may challenge the existing distribution of advantages and disadvantages.

This analysis summarises some findings from a research programme studying specific development organisations and how they engage with global norms on gender equality. The cases have been selected to cover some of the diversity in contemporary development cooperation and include AMEXCID (Mexico), Danida (Denmark), Islamic Relief, Oxfam GB, South Africa’s Development Cooperation, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and the World Bank. This selection of development organisations comprises both newer and older organisations; governmental, non-governmental and multilateral institutions; and agencies from the global South and North. As such, the organisations cover a wide range of large aid agencies taking a comprehensive view on development.

The analysis begins with some points about the nature of global norms on gender equality. Subsequently, it turns to major observations from the study of development organisations and, finally, it discusses the future of the struggle for gender equality. This struggle is and should be local and contextualised, but development organisations may provide a helping hand.

The global normative regime on gender equality

Apart from rather few, very specific issues (eg, women’s suffrage), global gender equality norms consist of relatively diffuse, changing, sometimes contradictory, and often contested ideas about gender equality. The norms are diffuse in the sense that they can be interpreted in different ways. For instance, the question of whether women’s equal access to the labour market should imply parental leave for men may be interpreted very differently in distinct societies. Moreover, the very fundamental notion of gender equality may be differently understood as equal rights and opportunities, as making room for different gender identities or as deconstructing gender stereotypes.

Furthermore, gender equality norms are changing4. Also in the field of labour markets, norms have moved from emphasising the protection of women to viewing such practices as further marginalising women5. Likewise, norms regarding women’s political participation have changed from a focus on suffrage and access to political office to an equal number of political positions for women and men6.

An example of the contradictions between different aspects of these norms is the relationship between gender-balanced decision-making and gender mainstreaming, particularly as a consequence of their respective development since the Beijing conference in 1995. Whereas gender mainstreaming was then seen as a broad encompassing framework for many elements in gender equality, it has become a more technical term in development cooperation associated with the implementation of projects and programmes. It draws attention away from political processes and suggests that gender equality can be achieved with technical means in depoliticised development activities. Gender-balanced decision-making, on the contrary, is a clear political objective implying that more women and fewer men will have a seat at the table.

The issue of sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) is especially contested7. In international negotiations the issue continues to provoke resistance from a so-called unholy alliance composed of the Vatican, certain Islamic states, sometimes the US and recently Russia, whereas other countries (eg, Denmark) regard it as a primary concern to promote. The fact that one of the targets of SDG 5 refers specifically to SRHR is counted as a major achievement by some, given that the annual sessions of the Commission on the Status of Women repeatedly constitute a battleground, with SRHR among the most fiercely debated issues.

All in all, it is not possible to fix a particular meaning of global gender equality norms8. They do not constitute a coherent, unambiguous body of ideas about gender relations. Even so, this is not to say that ‘anything goes’. Certain practices and institutions are at odds with most (though not necessarily all) interpretations of gender equality norms. One may describe global gender equality norms as an ambiguous normative regime, open to interpretation, seeking to address gender-based discrimination; but despite the formal international agreements that it builds upon, the regime covers a wide range of interpretations, some of which clearly disagree over what can be described as acceptable or unacceptable gender-related practices. This obviously weakens the regime.

The origin, culture and structures of organisations

Turning to the question of how development organisations engage with these global norms, a first observation is that the history and the purpose with which these organisations were first established clearly influence how they take up questions of gender equality. When actors engage with norms in particular organisational contexts, this is done amid layers of practices, rules and ideas embedded in the institutional history. Having an historically religious, entrepreneurial, banking, anti-apartheid, ministerial or voluntary origin greatly shapes how gender equality will be conceptualised within an organisation. The framing of gender equality is highly dependent on how the organisational culture legitimises different arguments, ideas and concerns9.

Within the World Bank, the (re)turn to ‘gender equality as smart economics’ gained legitimacy and credibility by being framed in a way that was particularly appealing to the dominant logic of economists. Around 2000 a number of micro-economic studies emphasised gender in relation to the allocation of resources within households, making gender a legitimate research subject amongst micro-economists. Later, over the next decade, economists at the World Bank began to focus on different evaluation techniques, including randomised control trials, and micro-economic concerns increasingly dominated the Bank’s knowledge production. When economists were brought into the gender group in order to produce the Gender Action Plan in 2006, not only had an overall positive relationship between women’s activities and development outcomes already been established, but gender had become an important and acknowledged issue in the analysis of micro-economic processes. However, the way that gender-related issues were framed at the Bank clearly sought to fit its original purpose and organisation. Gender was interesting not in itself, except insofar as it helped to explain resource allocation and development outcomes.

Similarly, gender equality norms have had to assimilate to the dominant organisational culture characterised by ‘quantitative impact measurement’ and ‘technology-as-progress’ mantras at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. With the help of strong norm entrepreneurs and support from top management, gender was taken up and turned into a Gender Impact Strategy in 2008. However, gender equality proponents were careful to frame their concerns in line with the foundation’s origin and basic orientation ‘as something “right and smart” to do, not in a moral sense, but rather through the aim of increasing impact and results. Institutionalising gender equality notions should thus not be perceived by the programme officers as a new requirement being imposed, but rather as a logical extension of the foundation’s mission and nature’.

Its origins have also marked the ways in which Islamic Relief Worldwide has approached gender equality. Despite the fact that this NGO –one of the largest Muslim NGOs in the world today– has changed fundamentally, both quantitatively and qualitatively, since its creation by two medical students in 1984, its original purpose of channelling religious alms and donations to needy Muslim communities (as basic relief and support for the celebration of religious holidays) has framed how norm entrepreneurial staff members have sought to promote gender within the organisation. Three simultaneous processes characterise how global gender equality norms are addressed in the organisation: bridging, thinning and parallel co-existence. Norm entrepreneurs have done much to bridge global ideas about gender equality with their conservative Muslim counterparts, both by downplaying potentially provocative elements and by challenging religious authorities to rethink common Muslim ideas and interpretations of the Qu’ran. However, and particularly during the move from headquarters to country programmes, gender equality norms have been weakened to the extent that anything even slightly related to women has come to be described as gender-related activities. Moreover, clearly distinct normative ideas about women, gender and family co-exist within the organisation, due in part to organisational structures and insufficient communication across departments.

Contingent factors: organisational pressures and priorities

When norms are addressed within organisations, they are strongly influenced by the organisational pressures and priorities prevailing at the given time and place. Such pressures and priorities include management concerns and organisational threats or opportunities that staff may see as overriding the more immediate daily purposes of their work. Particularly in relation to new projects and policy-making, organisational pressures and priorities tend to set a determining framework for organisational processes. Organisational leaders may assess sudden significant windows of opportunity as being central to their organisation, but threats to organisational survival and organisational change are typically at the top of leaders’ and managers’ agendas. Thus, staff perceptions of both formal and informal priorities can influence whether and how gender equality norms acquire strong focus within concrete development programmes. When Warren Buffett granted US$30 billion to the Melinda and Bill Gates Foundation in 2006, that action sharply reframed the organisational context into which gender equality norms were being introduced at the time. In some organisations, disbursement pressure is significant, while gender equality is rarely a concern that can move a lot of money quickly. Conversely, thanks to continuous administrative cuts at the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, one significant organisational priority shaping the context of a new gender equality policy was that it require as little administrative capacity as possible.

Organisational culture and history do not change rapidly over the course of years or even decades. The organisational history of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, for example, reveals it to be deeply embedded in private sector practice and thought, with a strong belief in technology and measurability as cures for the world’s illnesses1011. Such cultures are not easily challenged or transformed. On the other hand, organisational pressures and priorities can experience rapid change as a consequence of change in leadership, or through the influence of stakeholders, or shifts in the normative environment. This is frequently the case with public aid agencies, where elections are a regular source of disruption in political priorities and a source of organisational pressures. At Oxfam GB, recent discussions of gender equality and its conceptualisation have been heavily influenced by both organisational restructuring and funding pressures. The Oxfam family is changing its organisational set-up in a strategic process lasting into 2020, and this is seen by staff as the paramount concern of top managers. At the same time, Oxfam’s fundraising has been challenged both politically and through increased competition. All this has led to the conceptualisation of a gender-related programme that has been likened to a tumbleweed –blown in all directions and never settling down12.

Normative environments

Normative environments refer to actors sharing organisational or social spheres with the organisation in question. These environments are characterised by specific values that influence the organisation, even though actors in normative environments may have no relation of formal authority with the organisation13. Actors may be part of a similar institutional or organisational field, or else be perceived as legitimate stakeholders, such as those representing civil society, the media or academic environments. Normative environments encourage particular forms of actions, logics and goals, and they may accordingly favour particular kinds of norm engagement, exerting indirect power through knowledge, legitimacy or prestige.

Responses to such forms of pressure from the normative environment may take many forms. ‘Decoupling’ is a central idea14, according to which organisations disconnect foreground (symbolic) changes from more structural or procedural changes in the organisation’s machinery. Pressure from (perhaps several different) normative environments creates multiple, often conflicting demands to which the organisation is expected to respond in timely fashion, which is not always possible. Moreover, public aid agencies are expected to respond simultaneously to the national political environment and the normative framework espoused by the international community of aid agency peers.

Several of the case studies emphasise how different normative environments entail the bridging of very distinct, sometimes contradictory sets of norms in order to appeal to different audiences. In building its identity as a regional development partner, South Africa is navigating between the normative environments of liberal internationalists (who believe that the country’s regional leadership would be best pursued through the promotion of human rights and democracy) and constituents (primarily concerned with non-interference and anti-imperialist discourses). Moreover, historical contestations in South Africa between feminists and nationalists over the meaning and interpretations associated with gender issues continue to shape gender discussions among actors inside and outside the administration (Cold-Ravnkilde, forthcoming).

In the case of Mexico’s Agency for International Development Cooperation, or AMEXCID, debates around gender equality and women’s rights are introduced and framed to simultaneously resonate with and address a national crisis of feminicide15. By emphasising its own national historical experiences with (unsuccessfully) addressing violence against women, gender policy-making has come to form an important part AMEXCID’s identity as a development partner in the region. Mexico’s gender-related South-South cooperation seeks to appeal to domestic constituencies, the international donor communities and targeted partner countries in the region. The bridging of these normative environments is far from unambiguous, nor is it moving in a definite direction. Support as well as opposition may arise in unforeseen ways and influence the ongoing framing of gender equality.


What does all this mean for the struggle to create a more gender-equal world? First, as international development cooperation is a field of norm production, policy makers and development organisations should be aware of the importance of international meetings, negotiations and declarations framing development discussions and policies. The current international normative struggles concerning the issue of sexual and reproductive health and rights clearly weaken the scope for promoting this significant aspect of gender equality. Thus, policy makers should invest efforts in global norm production.

Secondly, global norms on gender equality allows, however, different interpretations, implying that reticent governments and societal actors can legitimately interpret the norms in ways not producing the changes that, eg, women’s organisations sought when they fought for the adoption of the norms. Thus, women’s organisations and local organisations advocating gender equality are needed to put pressure on governments in order to ensure an interpretation of global norms that will correspond to their needs and concerns. Global norms do not diffuse automatically and political change does not come about easily. It requires work and political struggle.

Thirdly, even so-called ‘norm carriers’ like development organisations engage with global norms in very different ways shaped by their history, their normative environments and contingent factors. This has several implications. It is futile to expect, for instance, a bank concerned with growth and production to be a leader in political change enabling gender equality. Rather one should expect it to twist the issue to something manageable and understandable for itself, exactly like the World Bank has done when turning gender equality into a matter of ‘smart economics’. Moreover, as normative environments may influence organisations there are sometimes opportunities for organisations advocating gender equality to put pressure on public and private institutions to take global norms seriously. However, institutions may pay lip service to the norms and decouple their concrete activities from their official policies. Thus, getting the right policies in place is rarely enough. It is also necessary to check how they are implemented. Finally, contingent factors may overrule most other concerns. In cases of political, organisational or economic crises, actors may be significantly circumscribed from or, sometimes, induced to take action. This may create windows of opportunity or seriously close them, and advocates of gender equality need to be aware of such contingent factors which may change rapidly again.

The future of gender equality is basically determined by the amount of strength and support that advocates of gender equality can mobilise. Global norms do not by themselves create a more gender-equal world, but they do constitute reference points which can be used in local struggles everywhere to create more equal and fair relations between women and men. If development organisations take gender inequalities seriously, identify locally embedded actors and provide flexible, pragmatic support, they may significantly facilitate these struggles. As gender inequalities are lived and experienced in everyday life, it is also in those specific situations that they should be changed. This requires strong and sustained actions by women’s organisations and everybody else, including policy makers and development practitioners, who want to change one of the biggest and most tenacious injustices in the world.

Lars Engberg-Pedersen
Senior Researcher and Research Coordinator, Danish Institute for International Studies | @l_engberg

1 This analysis and the related debates organised by the Elcano Royal Institute in Madrid are part of a series of “sustainable development dialogues” which are funded by the Spanish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, European Union and Cooperation.

2 Swiss, L. (2018) The Globalization of Foreign Aid: Developing Consensus, Routledge, London.

3 Verloo, M., & E. Lombardo (2007), 'Contested gender equality and policy variety in Europe: introducing a critical frame analysis approach', in M. Verloo (Ed.), Multiple Meanings of Gender Equality: A Critical Frame Analysis of Gender Policies in Europe, Central European University Press, Budapest, p. 21-49.

4 Van Eerdewijk, A., and C. Roggeband (2014), 'Gender equality norm diffusion and actor constellations: a first exploration', in A. Van der Vleuten, A. Van Eerdewijk & C. Roggeband (Eds.), Gender Equality Norms in Regional Governance: Transnational Dynamics in Europe, South America and Southern Africa, Houndmills: , Palgrave Macmillan, Houndmills, p. 42-64.

5 Zwingel, S. (2016), Translating international women's rights: the CEDAW Convention in context, Palgrave Macmillan, London.

6 Krook, M.L., & J. True (2012), 'Rethinking the life cycles of international norms: the United Nations and the global promotion of gender equality', European Journal of International Relations, vol. 18, nr 1, p. 103-127.

7 Kabeer, N. (2015), 'Tracking the gender politics of the Millennium Development Goals: struggles for interpretive power in the international development agenda', Third World Quarterly, vol. 36, nr 2, p. 377-395.

8 Zwingel, S. (2019), Gender equality norms in international governance – actors, contexts, meanings', in L. Engberg-Pedersen, A.M. Fejerskov & S. M. Cold-Ravnkilde (Eds.), Rethinking Gender Equality in Global Governance: the Delusion of Norm Diffusion, Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke

9 Mosse, D. (2004), 'Is good policy unimplementable? Reflections on the ethnography of aid policy and practice', Development and Change , vol. 35, nr 4, p. 639-671.

10 Fejerskov, A.M. (2017), 'The influence of established ideas in emerging development organisations: gender equality and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation', Journal of Development Studies, vol. 53, nr 4, p. 584-599.

11 Fejerskov, A.M. (2018), 'Development as resistance and translation: remaking norms and ideas of the Gates Foundation', Progress in Development Studies, vol. 18, nr 2, p. 1-18.

12 Crewe, E. (2018), 'Flagships and tumbleweed: a history of the politics of gender justice work in Oxfam GB 1986-2015', Progress in Development Studies, vol. 18, nr 2, p. 110-125.

13 Meyer, J.W., & R. W. Scott (1983), Organizational Environments: Ritual and Rationality, Sage, Beverly Hills, CA.

14 Meyer, J.W., & B. Rowan (1977), 'Institutionalized organizations: formal structure as myth and ceremony', American Journal of Sociology, vol. 83, nr 2, p. 340-363.

15 Sørensen, N.N. (2018), 'Diffusing gender equality norms in the midst of a feminicide pandemic: the case of AMEXCID and decentralized Mexican South-South cooperation', Progress in Development Studies, vol. 18, nr 2, 95-109.

<![CDATA[ India in 2024: Narendra Modi once more, but to what end? ]]> 2019-05-21T11:00:14Z

This analysis argues that Narendra Modi will have to deliver much bolder reforms in his second term in order to allow India to reach its potential turning its rising working age population into a demographic dividend.


This analysis argues that Narendra Modi will have to deliver much bolder reforms in his second term in order to allow India to reach its potential turning its rising working age population into a demographic dividend.


  Prime Minister Modi shows a mix record in fulfilling his promises on economic reform during his first term.  He has made some progress in attracting capital and reforming the banking sector, but, much of the work is left unfinished as India still does not attract enough FDI in manufacturing to absorb its labor force. Moreover, India needs to also increase its savings rate to boost infrastructure investment. Both require Modi to deliver much bolder reforms in his second term that is certainly a strong leap from where it is today. That said, India is the only country comparable to that of China and any significant progress in India will be globally consequential.


Official results will not be published until 23 May , but Narendra Modi and his incumbent coalition government are set to retain power as suggested by a few exit polls after India concluded the final phase of its six-week ballot. The projections indicate that the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) will secure most seats in the Lok Sabha –the lower house of India’s parliament–. Meanwhile, exit polls are divided as to whether the BJP can win a parliamentary majority on its own, with several predicting that it will lose seats compared with its 2014 landslide victory.

While exit polls have a record of being inaccurate in past elections, the huge difference between the NDA’s projected seats versus the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) led by the opposition Congress means that each of the exit polls should be extremely unreliable for the case of an NDA loss. As the election is widely seen as a referendum on Modi’s leadership over the past five years, his victory would indicate that the public is generally willing to give him a second term to complete unfinished tasks, such as reducing the high unemployment rate.

That said, even with the recent economic slowdown, India still boasts Asia’s fastest-growing economy in 2018. But beneath the veneer of impressive GDP expansion, unease about India’s economic model clearly tempers enthusiasm. There is no doubt that the slowdown in the Indian economy casts a shadow over Modi’s second term and whether this time things will be different, for instance as to whether he will finally push through key economic promises to provide India with much-needed investment and jobs.

Growth is particularly important to India not only because of its need to converge on account of its low GDP per capita but also to pressure on employment creation on the back of its rapidly growing population. In fact, India struggles to generate enough formal jobs and lacks capital to invest in infrastructure to absorb its existing excess labour supply.

To assess what is at stake in Modi’s second term, this paper analyses India from two perspectives: (1) the progress the Modi government has so far made on key pillars of his pledges since coming to power in 2014 ; and (2) the scale of reforms that needed for India to reach its potential. For the latter, we use China as a comparison based on similar population size and, possibly, even –in many ways– global ambition.

(1) Modi has made progress but far from enough compared to what India needs

We have analysed Modi’s pledges within the framework of the Solow growth model, which looks at three output/production factors: labour, capital and productivity (soft infrastructure reforms). India does not have a challenge as regards the supply of labour, in contrast to countries in East Asia, since its working-age population is expected to expand rapidly, so much so that it needs to create millions of jobs per year in the next decade to absorb all its incoming labour (see Figure 1). Beyond its employment needs, India struggles in regard to total factor productivity, which requires capital to absorb existing and incoming labour into more productive sectors as well as reforms to reduce red tape. Reforms are required in all three aspects of the Solow growth model to escape from its current low middle-income trap.

India currently has a low labour participation rate, especially compared with China (see Figure 2). Worse still, within its employment population, the vast majority are still stuck in informal sectors, which equates to low total factor productivity. For China, informal employment takes up a significantly lower proportion of total. The situation can only get worse for India unless many more jobs are created.

Figure 1. India: population, 1950-2050 (millions)
Figure 1. India: population, 1950-2050 (millions)
Source: UN Population Statistics.
Figure 2. India: breakdown of the working-age population (%)
Figure 2. India: breakdown of the working-age population (%)
Sources: Natixis, ILO.

These challenges are well understood within India’s academic and political circles and have been sources of how to address the ills of India’s under-performance despite its great demographic potential. Modi and his BJP have made pledges on the country’s key economic challenges.

First, starting with the positive progress Modi has made since 2014, mainly pertaining to capital, while he underperforms on his labour and productivity promises. Capital is obviously important as the infrastructure deficit is a clear bottleneck to create more jobs. Regarding capital, there are two obvious ways to increase it: foreign capital and public investment. As for the former, Modi has tried to liberalise both FDI and portfolio with mixed results. Within his ‘Make in India’ campaign, a few measures to open up some sectors to foreign competition have been taken, which have helped increase FDI into India (see Figures 15 and 6). That said, it is still significantly less than what is really needed to increase demand for workers, particularly in the manufacturing sector, which only comprises a small percentage of GDP even compared to China’s in the early 2000s (Figure 11).

Moreover, Modi has backtracked on some of his reforms, particularly in opening up e-commerce given the backlash from small- and medium-sized retailers who make up a large part of the voting population. For instance, the recently announced e-commerce rule to cap the inventory sourcing of online retailers from a same supplier –many of them being stakeholders of these online retailers– has hurt Amazon to the benefit of domestic players and raised questions about the commitment and consistency of India’s foreign investment policy.

In addition to a relatively timid opening up to inward FDI, his government has also further liberalised portfolio investment. In particular, the quota for foreign investment in Indian government bonds has gradually been lifted. As regards public investment, Modi has tried to increase the tax base by introducing goods and services taxes (GST) that aim to harmonise existing taxes with much more simplified codes. This has resulted in improved ease-of-paying-taxes and ease-of-doing-business rankings for India (Figures 3 and 4).

Figure 3. India: improved ease-of-paying-taxes rankings, 2015-19
Figure 3. India: improved ease-of-paying-taxes rankings, 2015-19
Sources: World Bank, Natixis.
Figure 4. India and China: ease-of-doing-business ranking, 2015-19
Figure 4. India and China: ease-of-doing-business ranking, 2015-19
Sources: World Bank, Natixis.

Regarding management of capital, particularly banking sector reform, the Modi government approved an Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code to provide a clear framework for recovering debts. That said, the non-performing loans (NLP) ratio remains high for public banks. Modi also demonetised the economy in the hope of tracking down and bringing back black money stashed away in foreign banks and offshore accounts. This removed the majority of currency from the system but faced a backlash in that it disproportionately hurt small- and medium-sized enterprises and resulted in job losses. Based on data from the Centre for Monitoring the Indian Economy, both GST and demonetisation caused massive job losses in 2018.

While Modi has made progress on whatever concerns capital as a factor of production, he has clearly fallen short on both labour and productivity reforms. On the labour side, his government has discontinued the collection of meaningful comprehensive labour data, but our estimate is that the Indian economy is far from delivering much-needed jobs for the its massive labour supply. Modi promised 10 million new jobs per year but new payroll records from EPFO point to a huge gap in jobs created in 2018 (Figure 5). Moreover, the ILO estimates for informal labour have worsened over the years as the size of vulnerable employment has risen and that is in addition to half of the working-age population being idle.

Figure 5. India: job creation by sector, 2018 (million). Figure 6. India: FDI by sector, 2010-18 (US$ million)

The weakness of the job scenario is supported by incorporating FDI inflows into the manufacturing sector. The Make in India slogan primarily attracts services and information & communication technology while not enough manufacturing FDI (Figure 6). In other words, it is a mere drop in the bucket of what is needed for India to become self-sufficient in manufacturing, let alone to becoming a manufacturing centre of the world. For example, India exported a comparable volume of manufacturing goods in 2018 as Vietnam, a country significantly smaller in size. It does not help that Modi’s pledge to improve infrastructure is held back by limited public funding and a banking sector saddled with bad loans and dominated by state-owned banks. In fact, the quality of India’s infrastructure has seen little improvement over the past five years (Figure 7). Moreover, India’s infrastructure spending has been stuck in low gear since 2014 too (Figure 8).

Figure 7. India and China: reliability of infrastructure index, 2015-19
Figure 7. India and China: reliability of infrastructure index, 2015-19
Sources: World Bank, Natixis.
Figure 8. India: infrastructure spending to GDP, 2012-18 (%)
Figure 8. India: infrastructure spending to GDP, 2012-18 (%)
Sources: Natixis, CEIC; NB. Infrastructure spending of India is derived from the sum of gross capital formation of railway, road transport, water transport, air transport, strorage, electricity, gas, water Supply & other Utility Services and construction.

One of the key challenges to investment and development in India is its restrictive land and labour laws. Modi had promised to repeal the Amend the Land Acquisition Act of 2013, which is a barrier to investment and development, but on 31 August 2015 Modi decided not to go forward. Modi also promised to review and amend Labour laws, which are onerous, but has not done so. For instance, India requires any firm employing more than 100 workers to seek and receive government permission before dismissing any employee. Employers therefore hire informally to get around the law and, as a result, most of India’s workforce is informal.

In short, while the Modi government has made progress in attracting capital, its pace has been agonisingly slow for what is needed to allow India to turn its rising working-age population into a demographic dividend. The following section discusses what is needed for India to do so.

Figure 9. India: population growth, 1955-2050 (millions)
Figure 9. India: population growth, 1955-2050 (millions)
Sources: UN Projection,Natixis.
Figure 10. India: employment, 1991-2017 (millions)
Figure 10. India: employment, 1991-2017 (millions)
Sources: ILO Estimates, World Bank, Natixis.

(2) What is needed to take India to the next level: savings and investment

The only country comparable to India is China due to their massive sub-continental population and their geographical size. For India, the road forward is clear: it needs to raise its capital stock per worker, but the debate is how to do so. China’s experience in the early 2000s may prove to be an important lesson for India. There are two key differentiating factors between the two countries: (1) the rapid urbanisation of China’s rural population by moving farmers into factories by attracting FDI in manufacturing to capitalise on its comparative advantage in labour; and (2) the rise in China’s savings rate to finance necessary infrastructure projects and to develop sectors needed for industrialisation.

The previous section showed that the key challenges to India are well understood, such as labour and land reforms. That said, the scale of progress needed is not often discussed. Although India is the only country that can absorb the labour-intensive manufacturing that is increasingly uncompetitive in China, it only attracts as much manufacturing FDI as Vietnam, a country a tenth of its size.

India currently attracts small amounts of manufacturing FDI, having remained at the same level over the past eight years. If compared to China when it joined the WTO in 2001, India’s level is too low to attract much-needed capital, particularly the kind of capital that demands large numbers of workers. As a share of fixed asset investment (FAI), manufacturing FDI in India also lagged behind. As an aggregate, India has not done so badly, but, as mentioned, most is not in much-needed manufacturing, with the result that India needs to absorb much more capital from the rest of the world than it currently does to boost labour demand in manufacturing.

Figure 11. Manufacturing FDI as a % of GDP: China (2000-08) and India (2010-18)
Figure 11. Manufacturing FDI as a % of GDP: China (2000-08) and India (2010-18)
Sources: CEIC, Bloomberg, Natixis.
Figure 12. Manufacturing FDI as a % of Investment: China (2000-08) and India (2011-18)
Figure 12. Manufacturing FDI as a % of Investment: China (2000-08) and India (2011-18)
Sources: CEIC, Bloomberg, Natixis.

Beyond using its labour surplus advantage to attract labour-intensive manufacturing, India also needs to increase its savings rate to be able to fund much-needed infrastructure development. Such a gap is particularly noticeable when compared to China in the early 2000s. The country’s persistent current account deficit makes it vulnerable to volatile capital flows, another key reason why it needs to attract more FDI and also raise the savings rate. Because of this capital deficit, the Indian government cannot engage in public-led investment without significantly raising the deficit. The previous administration forced the state-owned bank to lend to infrastructure firms and caused a large increase in NPLs. Since then, investment in infrastructure has declined. Our assessment of India’s significantly lower investment than China means there is much scope to increase.

Figure 13. China and India: Gross Domestic Saving as a % of GDP, 2000-18
Figure 13. China and India: Gross Domestic Saving as a % of GDP, 2000-18
Sources: CEIC, Natixis.
Figure 14. Investment as a % of GDP: China (2000-08) and India (2010-18)
Figure 14. Investment as a % of GDP: China (2000-08) and India (2010-18)
Sources: CEIC, Bloomberg, Natixis.
Figure 15. The Modi government’s progress report
Figure 15. The Modi government’s progress report
Sources: Natixis, ILO, CMIE, EPFO, World Bank, CEIC, Transparency International.


Our analysis of Modi’s progress report shows that he has made some progress in attracting capital and reforming the banking sector. That said, much of the work remains unfinished as India still does not attract enough FDI in manufacturing to absorb its labour force. Indeed, India needs to attract 2% more of GDP than it currently does. This should help it leverage its excess labour supply to absorb much-needed capital from the rest of the world and close the financing gap. Moreover, India also needs to increase its savings rate to boost infrastructure investment. Both require Modi to deliver much bolder reforms in his second term, in what should be a significant leap from where it is today. India is the only country comparable to China and any significant progress it makes will have global consequences.

Alicia García Herrero
Senior Research Fellow, Elcano Royal Institute | @Aligarciaherrer

Trinh Nguyen
Senior Economist Natixis
| @Trinhomics

<![CDATA[ Spain’s influence in the European Parliament: an historical survey and predictions for the new political cycle ]]> 2019-05-21T10:48:10Z

The European parliamentary elections in May 2019 represent a major opportunity for Spain to increase its influence in the EU.

Original version in Spanish: El peso de España en el Parlamento Europeo: panorama histórico y predicciones para el nuevo ciclo político.


The European parliamentary elections in May 2019 represent a major opportunity for Spain to increase its influence in the EU.


The EU’s modus operandi over the last decade has seen it going through a series of existential crises. Given the threat represented by Brexit to the future of integration, the role of predominantly pro-European countries is even more important for moving the project forward. The European Parliament, as the only institution whose members are directly elected, provides a stage on which Spain can try to increase its influence in the decision-making process. This analysis reviews the role of the country in the European Parliament since it joined the Union on 1 January 1986 up to the present day and compares the positions of its political parties and their members with large EU countries. It concludes with some predictions for the May 2019 elections and sets out a roadmap for increasing Spain’s influence. Finally, it should be noted that this paper is part of a wider project by the Elcano Royal Institute focusing on Spain’s presence in the EU and by the working group set up by its office in Brussels to analyse how to improve the country’s influence in the in the 2019-24 cycle.1 This is the fifth paper in a series of publications based on the group’s presentations and debates.2



Since the first European elections held in 1979, the European Parliament has been consolidating its essential role in the EU’s decision-making process. Its powers increased significantly with the Lisbon Treaty. It now shares legislative powers with the Council of the EU, fulfils other major functions and is important player in the EU’s power map. Moreover, as the only institution whose members are directly elected by European citizens, it is an essential source of legitimacy for the Union.

European elections have traditionally been viewed as secondary by many voters and turnouts have been lower than in national elections. Electorates often punish their national governments in European elections and there is more tactical voting for small parties.3 In the elections scheduled for 23-26 May, a higher turnout is expected after years of politicisation and crisis on the continent. The repeated shocks that the EU has endured in the last decade (crises involving economics, migration and cohesion – the prime example being Brexit) will be evident in greater public interest during the campaign, the ballot and the new parliament. In Spain these elections come at a time when the country wishes and is striving to improve its influence in the EU. Clearly, the internal situation will play a very important role in the form such ambition takes, but it is an opportunity that must undoubtedly be seized.

A European scenario characterised by Brexit on the one hand and the eurosceptic Italian government on the other could enable Spain to present itself as an indispensable partner to the Franco-German axis in advancing towards integration. The Spanish presence in the European Parliament will be a key element in taking advantage of this favourable context for a Spanish push in Europe. The question of how Spanish MEPs are chosen, which committees they sit on and which posts they occupy in the European Parliament is thus of the utmost importance.

It should not however be forgotten that MEPs owe their allegiance to different political groups within the European Parliament. They have two loyalties: one is to the voters in the country that elected them and the other is to the European political family to which they belong. On many issues they act in a coordinated fashion within the political group and not in accordance with national criteria. However, in cases where something important is at stake for the interests of Spain, they act along national lines, as has been seen in recent years in relation to the crisis in Catalonia and the coordinated response of Spanish MEPs from the main parties.

Bearing all this in mind, the main task of the Spanish political parties is to play a significant role within their political groups. It is thus very important to have MEPs who are well prepared and knowledgeable about European affairs, with clear ideas and ideals about the future of Europe. For these reasons, the selection of appropriate candidates by the parties (likewise their choice of relevant committees and well-prepared advisors), the campaign for the European election and the subsequent work undertaken by the representatives present an opportunity to improve Spain’s influence in the EU.

This analysis reviews the role Spain has played in the European Parliament since it joined the EU and compares the important posts that its representatives have held with those of similar countries. Next, the profile of Spanish political parties in the European Parliament over recent decades is reviewed and some predictions are made for the elections in May 2019. It concludes with suggestions for enhancing Spanish influence in the EU.

Spain in the European Parliament: an historical survey

Spain’s entry to the EU in 1986 and the arrival of its first directly-elected MEPs in 1987 coincided with a period when the European Parliament was extending its powers. The first direct elections had taken place just seven years earlier (until 1979, members of the European Parliament were drawn from national assemblies). Secondly, the Single European Act (1986) awarded new powers to the institution, establishing the procedure of legislative cooperation in a large number of areas and giving the European Parliament the power of veto over accession and association treaties.

In 1986 the number of seats in the European Parliament rose from 434 to 518 with the arrival of 60 Spanish and 24 Portuguese MEPs, initially appointed from among their national MPs and subsequently, in 1987, elected in the first European elections in these two countries. Over the last three decades Spanish MEPs have played an important role in the European Parliament, although before reviewing the leadership positions they have occupied it is worth pointing out that Spain has been underrepresented in this institution.

As Carlos Carnero, Victoriano Ramírez González and Ignacio Molina have explained,4 Spain elected 64 MEPs in the 1999 election, but the following year, when the Nice Treaty was being drawn up, prime minister José María Aznar chose to sacrifice seats in exchange for greater influence in the Council of the EU (an ill-judged gambit given that the Council’s voting system changed shortly thereafter and the number of Spanish MEPs has never been restored).

Spain currently has 54 representatives, fewer than it should have in relation to its 46 million inhabitants. The 82 million inhabitants of Germany elect 96 representatives while 66 million French nationals return 74. The seat/population ratio works out worse for Spain, above all when compared to Germany, the most populous country in the EU. With Brexit and the departure of the British MEPs, Spain’s underrepresentation was corrected to some extent when it was allotted an additional five representatives (taking it from 54 to 59 MEPs). The problem is that with Brexit having stalled, the most likely scenario involves retaining the current distribution of seats and Spain remaining underrepresented with 54 MEPs.

In any event, its political parties can play an important role in their respective groups. In the wake of the results of the national election held on 28 April, an attempt may be made to estimate the breakdown of MEPs and thereby maximise influence in the European Parliament. Before turning to this, it is worth comparing Spain to other countries of similar size in terms of the European Parliament’s key posts. This exercise will help to shed light on how Spain should position itself in the next legislative term.

Comparison of country profiles: what position does Spain occupy?5

A comparative look at the role played by Spanish representatives in relation to their German, French, Italian and British counterparts6 places them in mid-ranking position, notable in certain key roles and playing a more low-profile part in others. The presidency is obviously the most influential job and most symbolic in the European Parliament. The power of the president has grown as the institution itself has acquired more areas of responsibility. Particularly notable are the role of the president in arranging the debates in the chamber, presiding over the key decision-making body (the Conference of Presidents) and representing the European Parliament, especially at European Council meetings, where the president addresses the participants at the start of each meeting.

As Figure 1 shows, over the last three decades Spanish representatives have presided over the European Parliament on three occasions: the socialist Enrique Barón from 1989 to 1992; José María Gil Robles, of the People’s Party, from 1997 to 1999; and the socialist Josep Borrell from 2004 to 2007. Spaniards have only been outnumbered in this post by Germans (who have presided over the institution on five occasions). Representatives from France, Italy and the UK have held the presidency on one occasion.

Figure 1. Distribution of key posts in the European Parliament

  Spain Germany France UK Italy
Presidents 3 5 1 1 1
Vice-presidents 28 27 25 19 27
Committee Chairs 32 51 39 40 50
Subcommittee Chairs 1 10 7 1 1
Temporary Committees 3 5 4 2 2
Committee Chairs of Joint Delegations 5 14 9 15 16
Delegation Chairs 49 88 49 67 66
Parliamentary Assembly Chairs 4 4 6 4
Total 125 204 134 151 167
Note: for purposes of comparison all the posts for all the countries are counted starting from 1986, the year in which Spain jointed the EU.
Source: database provided by the Directorate General of the Presidency of the European Parliament.

In terms of the vice-presidents of the European Parliament, Spain is ranked first. Its representatives have held this post on 28 occasions, compared to 27 German, 25 French, 19 British and 27 Italian vice-presidents. By contrast, if one looks at the chairs of committees – another key role, given that chairs wield considerable influence over the agenda and the procedures surrounding the issuing of reports – Spaniards are ranked last (holding 32 chairs, compared with 51 German, 39 French, 40 British and 50 Italian chairs).

Turning to other, less influential posts, such as the chairs of subcommittees, temporary committees, joint delegations, delegations and parliamentary assemblies, Spanish representatives occupy a low to mid-ranking position compared to their counterparts.

In terms of the presidencies of the political groups – another fundamental role in the European Parliament’s power games, given that they operate as spokespeople in the key debates and take part in the Conference of Presidents, the main internal political body – the only Spaniard to have held this post is the socialist Enrique Barón, from 1999 to 2004. It is a post that Spaniards should undoubtedly run for more frequently. In the legislative term now ending, German representatives, once again at the forefront, have led four of the eight political blocs: EPP, S&D, GUE/NGL and the Greens (co-chair). As far as the role of Spanish parties in the next legislative term is concerned, one of the chief ambitions ought to be to secure the leadership of one of these blocs.

Spanish political parties in the European Parliament

Of all the European institutions it is undoubtedly the Parliament where Spain can play a more important role. Thanks to the size of its population and the possibility of Brexit,7 it could have the fourth-largest national delegation in the forthcoming legislative term (or fifth-largest in the event that the UK decides to remain longer in the institution, although its cohort will in any event be weaker owing to the situation of political limbo).

As is well known, the seats are allotted proportionately in accordance with population size. Spain is fifth on the list, which is headed by Germany with 96 seats, followed by France, with 74, and the UK and Italy, both with 73. Spanish MEPs –the majority belonging to pro-European parties– are well placed to play an important and constructive role in the new political cycle.

It is important to emphasise that Spain has been a pro-European country since its return to democracy in the 1970s. Accession to the EU was fundamental in the process of consolidating democracy, the rule of law and fundamental rights. There has been a cross-party consensus on the attitude towards the EU stretching back decades. Up until now, and enduring such upheavals as economic crises, Brexit and the inflows of immigrants that have created a profound identity debate within Europe, the consensus Spanish response has consistently been ‘more integration’. The fact that a far-right party has entered the Spanish Congress for the first time, with VOX winning 24 seats in the general election held on 28 April, suggests that it will secure representation in the European Parliament, thereby challenging this cross-party, pro-European consensus. For the first time, Spanish MEPs may belong to the same group as the French National Rally and the Italian Northern League, although this will only apply to a limited number of the Spanish intake.

Historically, Spanish MEPs have formed part of the European Parliament in the last seven legislative terms, starting with that of 1984-1989.8 The first direct election to the European Parliament in Spain was that of 1987 –when an individual election was held together with Portugal, after Spain joined the year before– and since then it has taken part in the rest of the elections alongside the other member states.

As can be seen in Figure 2, during these seven legislative terms the majority of Spanish seats have had an allegiance to the European People’s Party (EPP) or the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D). Given that an imperfect two-party regime has predominated over recent decades, the vast majority of MEPs have been drawn from the People’s Party (PP) or the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE).

Figure 2. Spanish seats classified by political groups in the European Parliament, 1984-2019
Group Abbreviation 84-89 89-94 94-99 99-04 04-09 09-14 14-19
European People’s Party EPP 18 17 29 18 24 25 17
Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats S&D 29 27 21 24 24 23 14
European United Left/Nordic Green Left GUE/NGL 1 3 9 4 1 1 10
Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe ADLE 2 7 2 2 2 2 8
The Greens/European Free Alliance Greens/EFA 1 3 5 3 2 5
Communists and allies COM 3
Not registered NR 7 5 1 1
Total   60 60 64 64 54 54 54
Note: the groups have changed names over time and are classified here along political lines, distributing the seats accordingly.
Source: authors’ compilation from European Parliament data.

The 2008 economic and financial crisis brought changes to the political parties in Spain. With the advent of Podemos and Ciudadanos, Spanish MEPs have also diversified. This accounts for the fact that Figure 2 shows a current national profile that differs from previous legislative terms. Whereas the number of MEPs affiliated to the EPP and S&D have fallen, members of GUE/NGL (likewise the Greens/EFA) and ALDE have risen –precisely because of the success of Podemos and Ciudadanos. The election in May will act as a barometer for measuring the extent to which the multi-party system and the current positions of the parties in the European Parliament has been consolidated.

Predictions for the new political cycle: 2019-2024

For the second time in the history of its direct elections the European Parliament has published detailed opinion polls9 with forecasts of results. The report is based on polls carried out in all the member states, including Spain. According to the new report, published on 18 April, and in line with what has happened in national elections in recent years, an increase in parliamentary fragmentation can be expected, with falls in support for the centre-right and centre-left.

In the new parliament the groups will need to redouble their efforts to secure a majority. The socialist-Christian democrat consensus of recent decades will no longer be decisive when it comes to shaping the European Parliament. For the first time in the history of the elections the two central blocs will not command a majority in the European Parliament. Moreover, the VoteWatch Europe organisation10 estimates that 55%-60% of MEPs will be new. Put another way, more than half of MEPs will require time to adapt to the institution and a significant part of the collective institutional experience will be lost in this parliament.

Turning to Spain in particular, as Figure 3 shows, the predictions suggest that PSOE will be the largest political party, with 18 seats, followed by PP, with 13. The third largest group will be the coalition of Podemos and Izquierda Unida (United Left), which is running in the election as the Unidas Podemos coalition (UP). Ciudadanos and VOX will follow hard on their heels but, given the time that still remains before the election, this order could change. Lastly, the Ahora Repúblicas (Republics Now) coalition is forecast to win two seats.

Figure 3. Predictions for the new legislative term, 2019-2024
National Party Abbreviation Group in the European Parliament Number of MEPs (prediction for May 2019)
Unidas Podemos Coalition UP coalition GUE/NGL & Greens/EFA 8
Ciudadanos Cs ADLE 7
Coalición Ahora Repúblicas Ahora Repúblicas coalition Greens/EFA 2
Source: Report of the European Parliament, April 2019.

If all the member states are taken together, according to the European Parliament report PSOE could become the largest component (or the second-largest, in competition with the British Labour Party) in the S&D group in the European Parliament. Similarly, Spain could have the greatest number of MEPs in the federal European United Left/Nordic Green Left (GUE/NGL) group with its representatives from the Unidas Podemos coalition.

Ciudadanos will be among the three largest parties that make up the Alliance of Democrats and Liberals for Europe (ALDE). PP will be able to claim a place as one of the three main political forces in the European People’s Party, vying for this role with Fidesz of Hungary and the Republicans of France. Bearing this in mind, Spanish political parties stand a good chance of playing more important roles in their future political groupings. This could represent a major opportunity for enhancing Spain’s impact on the European Parliament and, by extension, joining forces to ensure a greater degree of influence for Spain in Europe.

The day after 26 May: what does Spain need?

If Spain is to secure greater room for manoeuvre it needs an EU strategy that takes advantage of its strengths and minimises its weaknesses. Such a strategy, which needs to be state-driven rather than party-driven, does not currently exist. A joint strategy has never been hammered out between all the political parties, although it is true that they are capable of close cooperation when some ‘flare-up’ breaks out threatening Spanish interests. Elaborating a strategy would help the country increase its impact in Brussels and the other centres of EU power.

It is worth pondering which areas a grand agreement should cover. Clearly the creation of a strategy, including foreign policy, requires a consensus between political parties. This links to the internal situation in the country. It is important to emphasise that national stability will also determine the role that Spain can play at a European level. If it continues to be hostage to the separatist tensions in Catalonia, its efforts on the European political stage will be affected. It should not be forgotten that just as the separatist movement strives to internationalise the Catalan procés, Spain exerts energy in rebutting it; energy that could very well be expended on other issues. Settling this crisis would therefore pave the way to greater Spanish influence abroad.

The parties should study which areas need to be prioritised to determine their European strategy. As far as foreign policy is concerned, is it the fight against climate change, renewable energy policy or controlling borders? It will be very important to set out the areas where Spain enjoys comparative advantages. The lack of an internal debate about the future of integration and the role of Spain in the project –European politics as an issue was completely absent from the parties’ campaigns in the general election– restricts the likelihood of having an impact. Without a major debate about Spain’s influence abroad, setting out clear and feasible aspirations, it will not be possible to have an effective strategy capable of being put into practice.

Another possible approach would be to create synergy between the countries of southern Europe. There are examples of influence exerted by regional groups of countries, such as the Visegrád Group and the New Hanseatic League. These groups defend their positions on key issues and try to exert the greatest influence possible by taking advantage of their geographical position. Spain could start to construct its regional role, turning first towards Portugal. The creation of an Iberian strategy could be beneficial for both countries.

Lastly it is important to underline that Spanish MEPs will need to secure key posts in the European Parliament, starting with the group presidencies and followed by the rapporteur postson major issues, thereby strengthening their influence in parliament. This is why it will be necessary to lay the groundwork and make preparations before and after the election, choosing the battles between the political parties and preparing to fight within the political groups. Spain should not miss the boat when it comes to securing greater influence.


This analysis summarises the situation of Spain in the European Parliament over recent decades. It refers not only to the key posts that Spaniards have occupied but also the role of its political parties. An overview of the past may serve as the basis for strategy in the forthcoming parliament. There are three key suggestions for the future:

  • The European election campaign will need to ensure that the Spanish parties set out their European aspirations and that the candidates explain the role that the European Parliament plays and how this institution can provide leverage leading to greater influence abroad. In the absence of this it is impossible for the electorate to appreciate the importance of their votes.
  • There will need to be a period of reflection among the parties after the European election to design a joint strategy aimed at enhancing Spain’s influence. We all know the oft-repeated refrain: the country punches below its weight, but very rarely does it engage in dialogue and joint endeavour in a strategic and concerted manner to meet this challenge.
  • Of utmost importance for the first two suggestions, it will be necessary to overcome fragmentation and tap into the relative strength of PSOE, UP, PP and Cs in their respective political groups in the European Parliament. Despite the highly polarised nature of national politics at this juncture, the parties will need to try to overcome this abroad. By agreeing a joint national strategy, each party will be able to play an important role in shaping committees, reports and certain key posts.

Ilke Toygür
Analyst, Elcano Royal Institute | @ ilketoygur

Carlos Carnicero Urabayen
Journalist | @CC_Urabayen

1 The working group comprises Spanish players with a permanent or habitual presence in Brussels, including MEPs, Spanish civil servants at European institutions, business managers, members of other civil society entities, press correspondents and representatives of the Spanish government and administration, particularly staff at Spain’s Permanent Representation at the EU (REPER). The identity of members is confidential in order to encourage a greater atmosphere of trust and understanding.

2 The currently available publications are: (1) L. Simón, I. Molina, E. Lledó & N. Martín (2019), ‘Hacia un ecosistema de influencia española en Bruselas’, ARI nr 30/2019, Elcano Royal Institute, 11/III/2019; (2) E. Lledó & M. Otero Iglesias (2019), ‘Los intereses españoles en la agenda digital y la política industrial de la UE’, ARI nr 39/2019, Elcano Royal Institute, 5/IV/2019; (3) I. Molina & N. Martín (2019), ‘La crisis catalana y la influencia de España en Bruselas’, ARI nº 42/2019, Elcano Royal Institute, 25/IV/2019; and (4) F. Steinberg (2019), ‘La influencia de España en la política económica de la UE’, ARI nr 43/2019, Elcano Royal Institute, 29/IV/2019.

5 For the present purposes a series of key posts at the European Parliament have been chosen (the president of the institution, the vice-presidents, the chairs of the committees, subcommittees, temporary committees, committees of joint delegations, delegations and parliamentary assemblies) to measure the influence of the Spanish representatives. The authors would like to thank the Office of the European Parliament in Madrid for its help in compiling these data.

6 German, French, Italian and British MEPs were used for the purposes of comparison because these, together with Spain, represent the five largest countries in the EU. The data only encompass the period starting in 1986, when Spain joined the EU. All the figures are drawn from this period.

7 The UK has announced that it is going to hold elections to the European Parliament and therefore Spain will once again have 54 seats. In the event of the UK’s departure, Spain will send five more MEPs (in accordance with the results of the election on 26 May 2019).

8 Spain joined the EU in 1986 and held elections to the European Parliament in 1987. Simultaneous municipal and regional elections were held with the aim of improving the turnout (electing the 60 MEPs that were allotted to Spain at this time).

9 For the most recent report see ‘European Elections 2019’.

<![CDATA[ Jihadists who left Spain for Syria as foreign terrorist fighters but have returned ]]> 2019-05-20T02:18:11Z

Around one fifth of the 230 to 235 jihadists who between 2012 and 2018 travelled from Spain to Syria and Iraq as foreign terrorist fighters (FTFs) have already returned. 

Around one fifth of the 230 to 235 jihadists who between 2012 and 2018 travelled from Spain to Syria and Iraq as foreign terrorist fighters (FTFs) have already returned. There are currently 40 to 50 of these returnees. Most of them travelled initially with the purpose of joining the ranks of Islamic State –also known as ISIL or ISIS– or, to a lesser extent, organisations related to al-Qaeda. But some travelled in order to settle within territories where these jihadist organisations had either managed to temporarily impose their control or at least to establish a notable and influential presence.

"Not all returnees received training in the use of weapons and explosives or engaged in acts of violence and terrorism"

However, not all returnees received training in the use of weapons and explosives or engaged in acts of violence and terrorism while they were in Syria and Iraq. That is the case, for example, of several among the approximately 30 women who were part of the FTF contingent who left Spain for these two Middle-Eastern countries –around 13% of the total– but have returned. There are, for instance, women who came back, even as widows and with young children, after leaving Spain for reasons having to do more with their marital status or their early age than with a militant commitment.

However, among the Jihadist FTFs from Spain, there are men like Abdeluahid Sadik Mohamed who did not prove capable of dealing psychologically with the situation in which they found themselves immersed and returned. But there are also those who, like Ahmed Samsam, returned only to go back again onto the battlefield; and those who, like Benaissa Laghmouchi Baghdadi, returned to help send more FTFs recruited in Spain; or even those who, like Abdeljail Ait El Kaid, returned with the purpose of participating in the preparation and execution of attacks, including attacks on Spanish soil.

Some 20 of these returnees are now in prison, but only half of them are held in Spanish penitentiaries, where six were already serving sentences by the end of 2018, including all four of those mentioned above. The rest are imprisoned in Morocco, which is unsurprising because a majority of FTFs from Spain were Moroccan nationals. Moreover, only a few returnees imprisoned in Spain were arrested within the country. Most were apprehended in Turkey –the usual transit country for jihadists entering or exiting Syria–, but a few in Belgium, Bulgaria or Poland and then handed over to the Spanish authorities thanks to international arrest warrants.

Criminalisation is the first response in Spain to the phenomenon of returnees, given that they have committed crimes as defined by the national Criminal Code. Crimes such as, for instance, travelling to a foreign territory controlled by a terrorist organisation and settling in a foreign territory to receive training or to collaborate with a terrorist organisation. Yet enforcement of the law can be modulated according to the characteristics of returnees and the circumstances under which they originally departed, as in the case of women who returned to Spain with children in need of very special attention.

"Since 2016, an intervention programme has been underway in Spanish prisons with the purpose of distancing radicalised prisoners from extremism"

Furthermore, the incrimination of returnees, usually involving incarceration, does not exclude rehabilitation. Since 2016, an intervention programme has been underway in Spanish prisons with the purpose of distancing radicalised prisoners from extremism and bringing them closer to democratic values so that, once freed, they pose no danger to society. These radicalised inmates include returning FTFs who nevertheless remain adhered to the attitudes and beliefs of Salafi Jihadism. The problem is that more than half of the returnees who initially travelled from Spain to Syria and Iraq are not in prison.

Indeed, some 20 to 30 of these returnees remain at large. This typically occurs when, even though security forces or intelligence services are aware of the trajectory of such individuals, investigation into their activity fails to produce sufficient incriminating evidence. Such a situation implies a potential danger because returnees who maintain their jihadist ideas are likely to pose a terrorist threat in the short or medium term. It is known that the participation of foreign-fighter returnees tends to make the planning and preparation of attacks within western societies more effective and lethal.

Terrorists of these characteristics were among those making up the Jihadist network behind the 11 March 2004 Madrid train bombings. In any case, only around 10 of the returnees still at large are thought to be within Spain’s national territory. Some 10 to 20 more are now located outside Spain, mainly –though not exclusively– in Morocco. This suggests the extent to which the Spanish authorities can manage the problem of returned FTFs taking into account the phenomenon’s international dimension, highlighting the importance of counterterrorism cooperation with other countries, in this case especially with Morocco.

Concerning its domestic dimension, the basic challenge is applying the law in an individualised and appropriate manner to foreign-fighter returnees whose offences can be proved. This must be done while, on the one hand, developing initiatives aimed at facilitating the de-radicalisation and social integration of returned FTFs who are imprisoned in Spain, and, on the other, continuing to track returnees who remain at large in the country but for whose criminal offences there is as yet insufficient evidence, and improving the state’s ability to detect potential FTFs before they leave or, indeed, disrupt them in transit.

Fernando Reinares
Director of the Programme on Violent Radicalisation and Global Terrorism at the Elcano Royal Institute | @F_Reinares

<![CDATA[ Legal challenges and the practicability of disembarkation centres for illegal migrants outside the EU ]]> 2019-05-16T02:54:13Z

This paper analyses the legal challenges and practicability of establishing of disembarkation centres for illegal migrants outside EU territory.


This paper analyses the legal challenges and practicability of establishing of disembarkation centres for illegal migrants outside EU territory.


To ensure the EU does not again face a situation like the refugee crisis of 2015-16 various options are being discussed. One solution might be the establishment of disembarkation centres for illegal migrants outside EU territory. This paper analyses the legal challenges and practicability of such centres, taking into account the following: (1) the establishment of disembarkation centres outside the EU by international treaties; (2) the exercise of sovereign powers in these centres; (3) the establishment of a common mechanism of distribution and compensation for the admission of migrants; and (4) the readmission of refused migrants from these centres.



In the aftermath of the migration crisis of 2015 within the EU and its Member States, many ideas were discussed as to how to get the uncontrolled mass immigration into EU territory under control. All players, no matter whether officials from the EU or its Member States, agreed that there should be no repeat of the situation of 2015-16.

Although all relevant players, apart from some human-rights activists, shared the same goal, the way to reach it remained controversial. Some countries preferred a common European solution to the challenges of illegal mass migration, some relied on themselves, or on cooperation with other countries with similar political convictions, in order to stop incoming illegal migrants. The most prominent measure on the EU level was the conclusion of the so-called Refugee Deal with Turkey of 18 March 2016. On the national level, the closure of the Balkan route by the Eastern European countries of Macedonia, Slovenia, Serbia and Croatia on 9 March 2016 marked the most prominent measure against the uncontrolled flow of illegal migrants into the EU.

Echoing the discussions elsewhere in the developed world on how to outsource the contentious asylum process and how to cut down on the flow of arrivals of illegal migrants, the heads of State or government of the EU Member States discussed at the EU summit in Brussels on 28 June 2018 the possibility of establishing centres for illegal migrants outside EU territory. The heads of State or government of the EU Member States agreed on exploring ways to build new centres, probably in Africa, where migrants could be screened for asylum and from where only legitimate refugees might move on to the EU. Although they said that these centres in outside countries would operate in ‘full respect of international law’,1 the European Council addressed neither the question of the legal admissibility and practicability of their establishment nor the question of how and where refugees would be resettled. Exploring the legal and political practicability of the so-called concept of regional disembarkation platforms was left to the Council of the EU and the EU Commission. The answer to both open questions remains crucial to further EU asylum policy. In the event of non-conformity with international law, the EU’s concept of regional disembarkation platforms will not serve as a possible resort for a common asylum strategy at all. But even if these regional disembarkation platforms outside the EU are in conformity with international law, it would continue to be difficult to establish them because some countries in the bloc have refused to accept them2 and swift handling of asylum seekers is necessary to prevent a backlog.

It is the aim of this paper to provide an analysis of the legal challenges and practicability of centres for illegal migrants outside the EU, or, in the words of the European Council: regional disembarkation platforms. This paper should serve as a solid legal basis for further discussion about whether these centres can be a possible option for a common asylum strategy within the EU to provide a more effective handling of illegal migration to EU countries. The paper does not aim to assess the political chances of success of the EU’s concept of regional disembarkation platforms.

Our examination of the legal practicability of disembarkation centres for illegal migrants outside the EU starts with the question of whether these centres for illegal migrants to the EU –for example in Africa– can be established by international treaties. Secondly, we examine if the EU can exercise sovereign powers in these centres, ie, apply asylum procedures on its own authority. Thirdly, we discuss the possibility of a common EU mechanism of distribution and compensation for the admission of migrants. Finally, we demonstrate how the re-admission of refused migrants from the centres can be carried out in compliance with international law.

Is the establishment of disembarkation centres for illegal migrants outside the EU subject to international treaties?

As the establishment of disembarkation centres for illegal migrants outside the EU would concern the exercise of sovereign power outside EU territory, these proposed centres could only be legally created if created by an international treaty. An international treaty is an international agreement concluded between States or international legal personalities in written form and governed by international law, whether embodied in a single instrument or in two or more related instruments and whatever its particular designation.3 The basic rules for the signing of international treaties are laid down in the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties (VCLT) of 1969 .

Accordingly, the establishment of disembarkation centres for illegal migrants outside the EU would have to be an approvable subject of an international treaty between the EU and the host countries for the proposed centres. In general, States and other international legal personalities can freely determine the subject matter of their international treaty to be signed. However, according to Arts. 34 and 35 of the VCLT, such a treaty may not create any obligations for a third State without its consent, unless the third State expressly accepts that obligation in writing. As a treaty on the establishment of a centre for illegal migrants outside the EU would be signed by the EU as one party to the treaty and the host State of the disembarkation centre as the other party, it would not create any obligation for a third State. As such, there is no problem with third States not being involved in the agreement. Therefore, these Articles do not serve as an obstacle to such a treaty.

Furthermore, a treaty on the establishment of disembarkation centres for illegal migrants outside the EU must not violate public international law. According to Art. 53 of the VCLT the treaty must not conflict with a peremptory norm of general international law. A peremptory norm of general international law is a norm accepted and recognised by the international community of States as a whole, as a norm from which no derogation is permitted and which can be modified only by a subsequent norm of general international law having the same character. Consequently, a treaty on the establishment of disembarkation centres for illegal migrants outside the EU would have to be in conformity with a peremptory norm of general international law, the so-called ius cogens. Part of the internationally recognised ius cogens are first and foremost the minimum standards of human rights that can be derived from the core constituents of international documents on the protection of human rights. These include, for instance: the prohibition of the use of violence (Art. 2 IV of the UN Charter); the prohibition of genocide and crimes against humanity (Art 3 of the  Geneva Conventions); the right to life (Art. 6 of the ICCPR); the prohibition of race discrimination (Art. 4 of the ICCPR); and the prohibition of torture and of slavery ( Arts. 7 and 8 of the ICCPR). As the establishment of disembarkation centres for illegal migrants outside the EU does not imply the violation of any of these human rights, it is not in breach of any peremptory norm of general international law. There is currently no newly emerging peremptory norm of general international law that might lead to the nullification and termination of the treaty, as stated in Art. 64 of the VCLT.

In addition, Art. 42 I of the Geneva Convention must be taken into account. Due to that provision, in an international treaty on refugees no reservations to Articles 1, 3,4, 16 I, 33 and 36-46 may be made. These articles forbid the treaty to narrow the definition of the term ‘refugee’ as laid down in Art. 1 of the 1951 Refugee Convention. Likewise, they prohibit the treaty from violating the equal treatment of refugees (Art. 3), their right to practice their religion and freedom as regards the religious education of their children (Art. 4), and their free access to the courts of law on the territory of all Contracting States of the 1951 Refugee Convention (Art. 16 I). Furthermore, and this is a crucial point for any international treaty on the establishment of disembarkation centres for illegal migrants outside the EU, the treaty cannot violate the non-refoulement principle. This principle is guaranteed in Art 33.1 of the 1951 Refugee Convention and states that ‘no Contracting State shall expel or return (refouler) a refugee in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion”. Arts. 36-46 of the 1951 Refugee Convention are procedural final clauses with no relevance to the content of any international treaty on the establishment of disembarkation centres for illegal migrants outside the EU. Accordingly, any international treaty on the establishment of disembarkation centres for illegal migrants outside the EU has to guarantee the illegal migrants in these centres (ie, refugees and asylum seekers) equal treatment, freedom of religion, free access to courts of the EU and non-refoulement in the event of their lives or freedom being threatened in another territory. Complying with these requirements, an international treaty establishing disembarkation centres for illegal migrants outside the EU could be signed if in line with the aforementioned requirements of international law.

The next question is if the EU, as an international governmental organisation, has the competence for signing such an international treaty with a possible host country. Article 47 of the Treaty on the European Union (TEU) explicitly recognises the legal personality of the EU, making it an independent entity in its own right. Accordingly, as laid out in Art. 216 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU), the EU has the ability to negotiate and sign international agreements ‘with one or more third countries or international organisations where the Treaties so provide or where the conclusion of an agreement is necessary in order to achieve, within the framework of the Union’s policies, one of the objectives referred to in the Treaties’. As opposed to individual Member States, the EU is not a State party to the Geneva Convention of 1951. To date, the EU’s formal accession to the Convention has not been realised. Therefore, the EU itself is not bound by the Convention as a matter of public international law. Nevertheless, Art. 78 I of the TFEU states that the EU’s ‘common policy on asylum, subsidiary protection and temporary protection with a view to offering appropriate status to any third-country national requiring international protection… must be in accordance with the Geneva Convention of 28 July 1951 and the Protocol of 31 January 1967 relating to the status of refugees, and other relevant treaties’. These other relevant treaties include the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment and the European Convention for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. In line with the general principles of EU law, this also encompasses other potential treaties that might be signed in future by all EU Member States.4 Accordingly, any EU asylum acquis must be in compliance with the Geneva Convention and the 1967 Protocol. Non-compliance constitutes an infringement of Art. 78 I of the TFEU. As an integral part of EU law, the Geneva Convention of 1951 remains a subject to the interpretative principles of public international law.

Article 78 of the TFEU (signed in Lisbon in 2007) raised the Common European Asylum System (CEAS), first introduced by the European Council in Tampere in 1999, to a legally-binding objective of the EU’s primary law. According to Art. 78 II of the TFEU, the EU legislation on asylum is part of the shared competences between the EU and its Member States. This requires that any EU legislation in this area must comply with the principles of subsidiarity and proportionality. A shared competence consequently limits EU action to initiatives that cannot be sufficiently achieved at the national level and remain limited in terms of regulatory intensity to what is necessary to achieve legitimate policy objectives. However, as the far-reaching Common European Asylum System is a specific objective of the Lisbon Treaty, the application of these principles of subsidiarity and proportionality requires a certain generosity.5 In other words: in this case, the principles cannot be applied strictly, because otherwise the Treaty objective could not be reached at all. Article 78 II (a) of the TFEU explicitly allows the agreement on a ‘uniform status of asylum’. Consequently, the objective of a uniform asylum status implies that the principles of subsidiarity and proportionality do not prevent EU action in normal circumstances. As the drafting history and the general scheme of the EU Treaties argue in support of a substantive congruence of the EU’s asylum status and the refugee status of the 1951 Geneva Convention, the Common European Asylum System is, therefore, founded on the Convention.6 This is confirmed by the reference in Art. 78 I of the TFEU. Thus, EU legislation on the basis of Art. 78 II (a) of the TFEU must specify the meaning of the 1951 Geneva Convention. EU secondary legislation concerning asylum, such as the Asylum Qualification Directive 2011/95/EU, the Asylum Procedure Directive 2013/32/EU, the Asylum Reception Conditions Directive 2013/33/EU, the Dublin III Regulation (EU) No 604/2013 and the Regulation (EU) No 439/2010 establishing the European Asylum Support Office (EASO) in Malta must be interpreted in the light of the 1951 Geneva Convention.

The TFEU does not restrict the geographical scope of the provision on asylum procedures. In particular, it does not specify whether common ‘procedures for the granting and withdrawing of uniform asylum or subsidiary protection status’ should necessarily apply within the territories of the Member States. Specifically, the drafting history of Art. 78 II (d) of the TFEU shows that the exterritorial processing of asylum applications is also covered by the TFEU, always taking into account that these procedures, wherever they take place, must comply with international refugee law and human rights.7 However, in accordance with the EU’s supranational structure, the EU is only authorised to legislative harmonisation and administrative support in cases of asylum. The decisions on granting asylum to an individual are still taken at the national level by the Member States. At present, Art. 78 of the TFEU does not provide a sufficient legal basis for examining asylum applications by EU authorities, such as EASO, instead of national authorities of each Member State. Establishing a specific EU authority to decide upon asylum applications replacing the Member States’ asylum bureaucracy, would require a Treaty change in accordance with Art. 48 of the TFEU. However, on the basis of the existing Art. 78 II (d) of the TFEU, the EU can support transnational cooperation between the Member States.

Article 78 II (g) of the TFEU established an explicit legal basis for ‘partnership and cooperation with third countries’. This offers the EU the possibility of cooperating with third countries even in situations in which the adaption of secondary legislation does not result in an exclusive external treaty-making competence. However, Art. 78 II (g) of the TFEU itself does not provide sufficient legal basis for the establishment of disembarkation centres for illegal migrants outside the EU on the territory of third countries. It only serves as a legal basis for cooperation with third countries on the level of EU competences. As mentioned above, the EU does not have the competence to run asylum procedures on its own instead of the Member States’ authorities. Therefore, only in combination with Art. 78 II (d) of the TFEU could the EU justify future EU legislation providing for external asylum processing centres that would have to be run by the Member States. Art. 78 II (g) of the TFEU could be used to guarantee a favourable political and administrative context by cooperation with the possible host States of the disembarkation centres for illegal migrants, to enable its Member States to run the centres outside the EU themselves with the financial and operative support by the EU. For that purpose, the EU would have the competence to sign an international treaty with a possible host country on the establishment of disembarkation centres for illegal migrants outside EU territory.

Fulfilling all the aforementioned requirements of an international treaty, the signing of a treaty on the establishment of centres for illegal migrants outside the EU would be in accordance with international law and would be binding to its parties, according to Art. 26 of the VCLT. None of the parties, ie, neither the EU nor the country hosting the disembarkation centre, could, according to Art. 27 of the VCLT, invoke the provisions of its internal law as justification for its failure to execute a treaty. The binding effect for the EU and its Member States is explicitly guaranteed in Art. 216 II of the TFEU that states that ‘agreements concluded by the Union are binding upon the institutions of the Union and on its Member State’.

Can the EU exercise sovereign powers in these centres?

In its international treaty with a possible host country on the establishment of disembarkation centres for illegal migrants outside EU territory, the EU could receive the permission of the host State to exercise its own sovereign powers in these disembarkation centres. Within the freedom of contract, the host State is entitled to assign this power to the EU. However, as the EU –on the basis of the existing TEU and TFEU– currently does not have the competence to run asylum procedures on its own instead of the Member States’ authorities, it could only provide its Member States with the financial and operative support to establish and run these external asylum processing centres. Within the Common European Asylum System (CEAS), the EU could only function as contract party to the host State for the establishment of such disembarkation centres, which would be run by the Member States and its asylum authorities. The sovereignty in these disembarkation centres for illegal migrants would, in fact, be exercised by the Member States as long as there is no Treaty change in accordance with Art. 48 of the TEU replacing the Member States’ asylum bureaucracy and giving the authority to decide upon asylum applications to the EU.

Exercising their sovereign rights in these disembarkation centres, the EU Member States would be responsible for the organisational and institutional framework. In accordance with their national asylum law, they could either operate the centres on their own using their national administrative staff or they could licence Intergovernmental Organisations (IGOs) like the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) with the operation. Crucial for the operation of these disembarkation centres for illegal migrants outside the territory of the EU is that they are run in accordance with the obligations of fundamental and human rights laid down in international human rights documents, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and the Geneva Convention, as well as in the national constitutions of the Member States.

The EU Member States that run these disembarkation centres outside the EU would have to decide for themselves if the extra-territorial asylum procedure carried out in these centres should complement, or replace, their national asylum procedure. This decision is crucial as regards the legal consequences of the asylum decisions being made in the disembarkation centres outside the Member State’s own territory.

The first option is a complementary extra-territorial asylum procedure. This could serve either as an additional offer, or as a freely selectable alternative to the existing national asylum procedure. If the services of the Member States in the disembarkation centres are not only offering help or advice, it means that the services performed are acts of sovereignty. In this case, as acts of sovereignty, they must be in accordance with the fundamental rights guaranteed in the constitution of that Member State. Making use of this complementary extra-territorial asylum procedure, the asylum applicant’s domestic position in the Member State must not deteriorate. It may only be applied to give the applicant an additional option strengthening his legal position. The complementary extra-territorial asylum procedure could be operated in analogy to the airport procedure of asylum cases (Art. 43 of Directive 2013/32/EU on common procedures for granting and withdrawing international protection), where the asylum procedure is conducted in a transit zone before the asylum seeker is allowed to enter the country in which he or she applies for asylum. According to Chapter II of Directive 2013/32/EU, in this transit zone the asylum seeker has to be given free access to effective legal remedies, such as independent consulting and advisory services in the national asylum law (Art. 8, 12 I (c), Arts. 20-23). Accordingly, in the extra-territorial disembarkation centres each EU Member State would have to guarantee the asylum seekers the same amount and quality of legal remedies as on its own State territory. The complementary extra-territorial asylum procedure would have to be in compliance with the minimum procedural requirements laid down in Chapter II of Directive 2013/32/EU, such as free access to interpreters, legal consultancy and official hearings. All legal remedies being offered in the Member State’s asylum law must be guaranteed, including the access to the appropriate administrative courts. In addition, the disembarkation centres would have to offer the asylum seeker accommodation and services (eg, food and healthcare) for the duration of the entire asylum procedure.

The second option is a replacing extra-territorial asylum procedure. This option would relocate the entire asylum procedure from the territory of the EU Member State to the territory of a third country. Consequently, all asylum seekers who seek asylum in a specific Member State would be expelled, or deported, from that Member State’s territory to the disembarkation centre abroad where they could only apply for asylum and where their asylum procedure would be executed. As no asylum procedures would be carried out on the Member State’s own territory anymore, each EU Member State would have to establish an entry ban for newly incoming asylum seekers to its own State territory and an obligation to leave the State territory for the duration of the asylum procedure in the event of the asylum seeker having already entered the country. This would also apply in the complementary extra-territorial asylum procedure. In replacing the extra-territorial asylum procedure the disembarkation centres in third countries would have to be operated in compliance with the Member State’s national asylum laws, guaranteeing the asylum seeker an asylum procedure in accordance with the rule of law, including free access to interpretation services, legal consultancy and official hearings, as well as offering him or her accommodation and services for the duration of the entire asylum procedure.

However, there would be no need for the protection of the EU and its Member States in the event of the asylum seeker entering from a safe third country, or in the event he or she enjoys sufficient protection in a third country from where they enter the EU.

It could be argued that disembarkation centres for illegal migrants outside the territory of the EU fulfil the requirements of safe third countries, with the consequence that no EU Member State would have to grant asylum to asylum seekers who apply for it in these centres. According to Art. 3 III of the Dublin III Regulation ‘any Member State shall retain the right to send an applicant to a safe third country, subject to the rules and safeguards laid down in Directive 2013/32/EU’. However, the concept of a safe third country in Art. 38 of Directive 2013/32/EU explicitly mentions only a ‘safe third country’. A disembarkation centre in a safe third country is not a country in the formal sense of the term, because it does not fulfil any of the legal requirements of a State (State territory, State population and government authority). Therefore, a disembarkation centre outside the EU cannot be considered as being covered under the term ‘safe third country’ in Art. 38 of Directive 2013/32/EU. This interpretation would go beyond the wording of the Article.

Not falling under the concept of safe third country of Art. 38 of Directive 2013/32/EU, disembarkation centres for illegal migrants outside the territory of the EU could be considered a ‘flight alternative’ in the sense of the Directive. In that case, EU Member States could consider an asylum seeker’s application for asylum inadmissible if he or she comes from ‘a country which is not a Member State [and which] is considered as a first country of asylum for the applicant’. According to the concept of safe third country in Art. 35 (b) of Directive 2013/32/EU, ‘a country can be considered to be a first country of asylum for a particular applicant if he or she enjoys sufficient protection in that country, including benefiting from the principle of non-refoulement’. An asylum seeker in a disembarkation centre run by an EU Member State would definitely enjoy sufficient protection in that centre. However, under Art. 38 of Directive 2013/32/EU, the disembarkation centre does not fulfil the legal requirements of a country. Therefore, a disembarkation centre outside the EU, where EU Member States run extra-territorial asylum procedures, cannot be considered a country providing the asylum applicant with sufficient protection. Consequently, the EU Member States would be obliged to proceed with any asylum application being made in these centres as if the application had been received on their own national territory.

How can the EU legally establish a common mechanism of distribution and compensation for the admission of migrants?

To prevent ‘forum shopping’ and the phenomenon of ‘refugees in orbit’,8 where asylum seekers are referred from one Member State to another by claiming it is not responsible for them, the EU was in need of determining which Member State is responsible for examining asylum applications. Article 78 II (e) of the TFEU gives the EU legislator (the European Parliament and the Council of the EU) the competence to set up ‘criteria and mechanisms for determining which Member State is responsible for considering an application for asylum or subsidiary protection’. On these legal grounds the so-called Dublin III Regulation was enacted. Using the terms ‘criteria’ and ‘mechanisms’, and Art. 78 II (e) of the TFEU itself, does not set narrow confines for modifying existing rules. For instance, it enables the EU legislator in accordance with the ordinary legislative procedure to establish a quota system allocating asylum seekers among Member States on the basis of a specific distribution key, or certain relocation mechanisms.

Therefore, parallel to the establishment of disembarkation centres for illegal migrants outside the EU, an appropriate common EU mechanism for the distribution of the incoming legal migrants could be created, taking into account the factual burden of each Member State in terms of asylum applicants in the disembarkation centres. In realisation of the purpose of a Common European Asylum System (CEAS) such a mechanism would be subject to EU secondary legislation in accordance with Art. 78 II (e) of the TFEU. On the initiative of the EU Commission, the European Parliament and the Council of the EU could adopt appropriate measures in accordance with the ordinary legislative procedure. The EU legislator would have to agree on a specific distribution or relocation mechanism, including a distribution/relocation key among the EU Member States that participate in the disembarkation centres for illegal migrants outside the territory of the EU.

In the event that not all EU Member States participate in running these disembarkation centres and allow recognised asylum seekers to enter their territory, the EU could oblige the non-participating Member States to contribute to handling the asylum issue. In this respect, the EU could refer to the principle of solidarity laid down in Art. 80 of the TFEU, which generally obliges other Member States to support those that take more responsibilities upon themselves in managing the Common European Asylum System. Art. 80 of the TFEU refers to the policies of the EU laid down in Arts. 77-79 and states that ‘their implementation shall be governed by the principle of solidarity and fair sharing of responsibility, including its financial implications, between the Member States’. The implementation of this obligation can be effected in various ways, for instance, by financial or operational support. Accordingly, the EU could agree on a certain compensation mechanism for the Member States that do not participate in running the disembarkation centres. They could be obliged by the EU legislator in accordance with the ordinary legislative procedure to pay financial compensation for not taking part in the asylum procedure run in the disembarkation centres, or to provide operational or logistical support for the participating Member States.

How can readmission of refused migrants from the centres legally take place?

At the end of each asylum procedure being conducted by the EU Member States in the disembarkation centres for illegal migrants outside EU territory EU according to their national asylum law, there will be a final decision: either the asylum seeker is granted asylum or the application is rejected. In cases of asylum being granted, the asylum seeker is entitled to enter the country that granted him or her asylum status and he or she is given residence status. In the other cases, when the asylum seeker’s application is rejected in a legally binding way, he or she would have to leave the disembarkation centre. In these cases, the EU Member States must have ways of deporting the rejected applicants.

An agreement on repatriating rejected asylum seekers to their transit countries, or countries of origin, must be a subject in any international treaty regarding centres outside the EU. As with the establishment of disembarkation centres for illegal migrants outside the EU, the agreement would have to be in accordance with the relevant provisions of the VCLT of 1969. As the rejected asylum seekers’ transit countries, or countries of origin, would sign the readmission agreement voluntarily and as it would create obligations only between the signatory States, the agreement would be in accordance with Art. 34 & Art. 35 of the VCLT, according to which a treaty may not create any obligations for a third State without its consent unless the third State expressly accepts that obligation in writing. According to Art. 53 VCLT, a readmission agreement may not conflict with a peremptory norm of general international law. As the readmission of rejected asylum seekers does generally not imply the violation of any of the human rights mentioned above, it is not in breach of any peremptory norm of general international law. However, since the principle of non-refoulement is not only part of international customary law but also laid down in Art. 33 I of the 1951 Refugee Convention, in EU primary law in Art. 19 of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, in Art. 78 I of the TFEU and as in EU secondary law in Art. 5 of the EU Repatriation Directive 2008/115/EC, these laws have to be adhered to in the text and implementation of any readmission agreement. Accordingly, such an agreement would not violate any norm of international law and could, therefore, be signed effectively into law. Due to Art. 26 of the VCLT, it would be binding to its parties and none of the signatories could, according to Art. 27 of the VCLT, invoke the provisions of its internal law as justification for its failure to perform a treaty.

As the signing of readmission agreements with rejected asylum-seekers’ transit countries, or countries of origin, is in accordance with international law, it is questionable who is competent to conclude these agreements: essentially, whether it is within the competence of the Member States who run the disembarkation centres or within the competence of the EU? Due to Art. 79 III of the TFEU, ‘the [European] Union may conclude agreements with third countries for the readmission to their countries of origin or provenance of third-country nationals who do not or who no longer fulfil the conditions for entry, presence or residence in the territory of one of the Member States’. Accordingly, the EU has the competence to sign readmission agreements with third countries in order to return rejected asylum seekers from the disembarkation centres abroad to either their countries of origin or their transit countries. According to Art. 4 I (j) of the TFEU, this competence to sign readmission agreements with third countries is part of the shared competence between the EU and its Member States. That means that the Member States can conclude their own readmission agreements with third countries in accordance with the principles of subsidiarity and proportionality, as long as the EU does not negotiate, or sign, a readmission agreement with the same country. EU agreements precede the agreements of Member States in this area.

The EU has already negotiated and signed readmission agreements with several countries of origin and transit with a view to returning illegal migrants and cooperating in the fight against trafficking in human beings.9 Usually, these agreements are linked to visa facilitation agreements, which aim to provide the necessary incentive for readmission negotiations in the third country concerned, without increasing illegal migration. In practice, for its readmission agreements with third countries the EU Commission uses an unpublished model readmission agreement which is constantly adapted and developed further in coordination with the Member States.10 In its eight chapters, these EU readmission agreements with third countries deal with procedural and technical arrangements concerning readmission, the obligation of receiving, the means of providing proof and furnishing prima facie evidence, deadlines and time targets, as well as the distribution of costs in the readmission procedure.


As result of the legal analysis presented in this paper, it can be stated that the EU, as an international governmental organisation with its own legal personality, has the competence for signing an international treaty with a possible host country on the establishment of disembarkation centres for illegal migrants outside EU territory. This treaty would be in accordance with the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties (VCLT) of 1969, and its content would have to be in compliance with the Geneva Convention of 28 July 1951 and the 1967 Protocol. However, in accordance with the status quo of the Common European Asylum System (CEAS), where –on the basis of the existing TEWU and TFEU– the EU currently does not have the competence to run asylum procedures on its own instead of the Member-State authorities, it can only sign a treaty with a third country on the establishment of disembarkation centres for illegal migrants outside EU territory. As long as there is no Treaty change replacing the Member States’ asylum bureaucracy and giving the authority to decide upon asylum applications to the EU, the EU can only function as a contract party to the host state for the establishment of such centres. The disembarkation centres themselves would have to be run by the EU Member States and their asylum authorities. As such, only the EU Member States can exercise their sovereignty in asylum issues in these disembarkation centres for illegal migrants. The Member States –no matter if they opt for a complementary or replacing extra-territorial asylum procedure– would have to provide the asylum applicant with sufficient rights and protection during the entire asylum procedure and they would be obliged to proceed with any asylum application being made in these centres as if the application had been received on their own national territory. The EU can only financially and operatively support the Member States in this procedure but is not entitled to interfere in their asylum procedures. However, the EU legislator can agree on a specific distribution, or relocation mechanism, including a distribution/relocation key among the EU Member States that participate in the disembarkation centres for illegal migrants outside EU territory. The Member States that do not participate in running the disembarkation centres can be obliged by the EU legislator to pay a financial compensation for not taking part in the asylum procedure run in the disembarkation centres or to provide operational or logistical support for the participating Member States. For cases where, in accordance with the Member State’s national asylum law, the asylum seeker’s application in the disembarkation centres is rejected in a legally binding way, the EU has the competence to sign readmission agreements with third countries in order to return the rejected asylum seekers from the disembarkation centres abroad to either their countries of origin or their transit countries. In conclusion, from the legal point of view, there are no obstacles to the European Council’s plan of establishing disembarkation centres for illegal migrants outside EU territory. However, whether the plan is also politically practicable and can find the necessary support among EU institutions, the Member States and the possible contractual partners, remains unclear.

Prof Dr Dr Arndt Künnecke
Federal University of Applied Sciences for Public Administration, Brühl, Germany

1 European Council meeting (28 June 2018) – Conclusions, EUCO 9/18, p. 2, (accessed 14/I/2019).

2 See Alfred Hackensberger & Christian Putsch (2019), “Asylzentren außerhalb der EU – das sagen die betroffenen Staaten”, WELT Online, (accessed 15/I/2019).

3 Art. 2 VCLT.

4 See Kay Hailbronner & Daniel Thym (2016), ‘Constitutional framework and principles for interpretation’, in Kay Hailbronner & Daniel Thym (Eds.), EU Immigration and Asylum Law, 2nd edition, München, MN 55.

5 See Steve Peers (2016), EU Justice and Home Affairs Law: EU Immigration and Asylum Law, 4th edition, Oxford, p. 393; and Matthias Rossi (2016), ‘Article 78 TFEU’, in Christian Calliess & Mattias Ruffert (Eds.), EUV/AEUV, 5th edition, München, para. 11.

6 Hailbronner & Thym (2016), op. cit., p. 1032, FN 54.

7 Ibid, p. 1037.

8 Hailbronner & Thym (2016), op. cit., p. 1024.

9 So far the EU has signed readmission agreements with the following States, all being now in force: Albania (1/V/2006), Bosnia and Herzegovina (1/I/2008), Georgia (1/III/2011), Hong Kong (1/III/2004), Macao (1/VI/2004), Macedonia (1/I/2008), Moldova (1/I/2008), Montenegro (1/I/2008), Pakistan (1/XII/2010), Russian Federation (1/VI/2007), Serbia (1/I/2008), Sri Lanka (1/V/2005), Ukraine (1/I/2008), Armenia (1/I/2014), Azerbaijan (1/IX/2014), Turkey (1/X/2014) and Cape Verde (1/XII/2014). The readmission agreement with Kazakhstan was signed on 10/XII/2009 but has not yet entered into force.

10 Nils Coleman (2009), European Readmission Policy, Leiden, p. 88.

<![CDATA[ The US and the Iran Nuclear Deal: rejoining is wiser than destroying ]]> 2019-05-09T08:49:34Z

Twenty one Directors and Senior Fellows of leading European think tanks calls on the US to reconsider its approach to the JCPOA and preserve the nuclear deal.

A European joint call on the US to reconsider its approach to the JCPOA.

One year ago, on 8 May 2018, President Donald Trump announced that the United States would cease compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the nuclear agreement struck in July 2015 by the United States and Iran, along with China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom and the European Union. 

President Trump has argued that the JCPOA’s provisions are insufficient to block Iran’s progress towards a nuclear weapons capability, do not address Iran’s expanding missile arsenal and do nothing to counter Iran’s activities in the Middle East. He maintains that a strategy of ‘maximum pressure’ is the only way forward and has consequently re-imposed all the US sanctions that were suspended under the deal, including measures targeting foreign companies doing business with Iran (so-called secondary sanctions). 

President Trump’s concerns are not entirely misplaced. Withdrawing from the deal, however, will hardly contribute to achieving any of his stated objectives. In fact, his decision has been harmful in several respects. 

First, it has undercut global non-proliferation efforts. The JCPOA is a technically sound agreement that has established significant constraints on Iran’s ability to develop a nuclear weapons capability. As certified by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN nuclear watchdog, and publicly acknowledged by top officials from the US intelligence community, Iran has continued to comply with the deal. However, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s announcement that Iran is ready to restart certain activities prohibited by the JCPOA shows that, following the US withdrawal, the benefits to Iran of staying in it diminish by the day. If Tehran restarts the full nuclear programme and limits the IAEA’s inspection powers, that would leave only far weaker mechanisms for monitoring its work, including the work reflected in the nuclear archive that Israel claims to have seized from Iran. Other states in the region – notably Saudi Arabia – might be tempted to emulate it and engage in a regional nuclear arms race. 

Second, President Trump’s decision has undermined the value of multilateral diplomacy. The JCPOA is a significant instance of effective multilateralism and successful diplomacy, involving countries with very different foreign policy outlooks such as the US and its European allies, Russia and China, and Iran itself. Whereas sanctions coupled with dialogue have proved to be effective in several international crises, the US choice of ‘maximum pressure’ over compromise devalues diplomacy as an effective way to address international disputes among rival states. 

Third, the decision has weakened international law and institutions. The JCPOA derives its legitimacy from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which bans Iran from ever seeking a nuclear weapons capability, and its authority from the United Nations Security Council, which has endorsed the deal through its Resolution 2231. By reneging on US commitments without proper cause, Washington has conveyed the message that international obligations can be disposed of at will. 

Fourth, it has harmed transatlantic solidarity. The JCPOA was the culmination of over thirteen years of hard, unremitting transatlantic coordination. By pulling out from it and, worse still, by threatening to punish EU companies and banks for doing business with Iran, President Trump has shown utter disregard for Europe’s foreign policy interests and eroded trust in the transatlantic partnership. 

Fifth, it has contributed to exacerbating regional tensions. The JCPOA has removed the imminent prospect of a nuclear-capable Iran from a regional landscape deeply fraught with geopolitical tensions. By replacing it with a strategy of ‘maximum pressure’, the US has galvanised Iran’s rivals and reduced the appeal of compromise solutions in Tehran. If Iran leaves the JCPOA, there will be far fewer diplomatic avenues to contain the risk of a military escalation that would plunge the region into further conflict. 

Sixth, President Trump’s decision has inflicted undue pain on the Iranian population, whom he claims to support. The JCPOA was supposed to end Iran’s economic isolation in exchange for strict and verified limitations on its nuclear activities. By re-imposing sanctions with extraterritorial effects, the US has scared companies and banks around the world into reducing, ceasing or not starting business with Iranian counterparts. Ordinary Iranians have seen living standards decrease because of a combination of inflation, higher costs for imports, scarcity of available goods (including food and medicine), and the impossibility of finalising transactions that were started before the re-imposition of sanctions. 

The JCPOA is doing what it was designed to do: preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. As such, the deal is too important to be allowed to die. Although all remaining parties to the JCPOA say they are committed to the agreement, current efforts to sustain it have not been enough to guarantee its survival. 

Europeans should be applauded for the implementation of a Special Purpose Vehicle, called INSTEX, to help facilitate humanitarian trade. However, they should do more to ensure businesses have the clarity they need to conduct trade and should speed up the participation of other countries in the special vehicle. Europe should work to establish another special purpose vehicle expanding the scope of trade to include oil imports from Iran, again open to participation by other countries. Europe should also deepen its technical and political consultations with Iran to reduce risks and build resilience on a range of topics including regional flashpoints and disaster relief. 

Overall, JCPOA supporters across the world should increase coordination to make sure that US sanctions do not hamper the economic stability and technical nuclear cooperation Iran needs to comply with the deal. 

Most importantly, JCPOA supporters in Europe and elsewhere should re-articulate the merits of the agreement to various US audiences – in the administration, Congress, the expert community and media – so it is clear that the only way to reap the full benefits of the JCPOA and build upon it is for the US to rejoin it. 

A US return to the JCPOA would help contain the negative consequences mentioned above. It would also recreate a more cohesive international coalition applying pressure on Iran to curb activities – specifically its development of ballistic capabilities and support to its proxies – that contribute so much to instability in the region. That pressure would then be combined with a credible diplomatic attempt to lay the groundwork for détente and lead to a regional initiative on missile threats and an intra-regional dialogue on a security architecture for the Gulf. 

All of this stands a much better chance of success if the US reconsiders its approach to the JCPOA. Much as Europeans spearheaded the process that eventually led to the agreement, so they could lead the way on any future diplomatic initiative with Iran. But for multilateralism to be effective, international law and agreements must be respected. 

The signatories of this Joint Call have signed it in their personal capacity. The opinions expressed in the text do not reflect the position of their institutions of affiliation.

Charles Powell
Real Instituto Elcano / Elcano Royal Institute

Nathalie Tocci
Istituto Affari Internazionali - IAI

Des Browne
European Leadership Network - ELN

Adam Thomson
European Leadership Network - ELN

Esfandyar Batmanghelidj
Bourse & Bazaar London

Steven Blockmans
Head of EU Foreign Policy
Centre for European Policy Studies - CEPS

Ian Bond
Director of Foreign Policy
Centre for European Reform - CER

Ondrej Ditrych
Institute of International Relations - IIR

Thanos Dokos
Director General
Hellenic Foundation for European & Foreign Policy - ELIAMEP

Michel Duclos
Special Advisor
Institut Montaigne

Thomas Gomart
Institut Français des Relations Internationales - IFRI

Charles Grant
Centre for European Reform - CER

Mark Leonard
Co-founder and
European Council on Foreign Relations - ECFR

Pol Morillas
Barcelona Centre for International Affairs - CIDOB

Robin Niblett
Chatham House

Laura Rockwood
Executive Director
Vienna Center for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation - VCDNP

Daniela Schwarzer
Deutsche Gesellschaft für Auswãrtige Politik - DGAP

Andris Spruds
Latvian Institute of International Affairs - LIIA

Teija Tiilikainen
Finnish Institute for International Affairs - FIIA

The initiative was coordinated by:

Riccardo Alcaro
Research Coordinator
Istituto Affari Internazionali - IAI

Shatabhisha Shetty
Deputy Director
European Leadership Network - ELN

See also: Instituto Affari Internazionali.

<![CDATA[ The bundle of sticks: a stronger European defence to face global challenges ]]> 2019-05-07T03:51:30Z

This paper describes some of the main initiatives developed by the EU in the field of security and defence during the last three years and how this has led to a stronger engagement with key international partners. It concludes with some reflections regarding the value of the EU as a platform for cooperation to face global challenges and on strategic autonomy.


After an overview of external challenges, this paper will describe some of the main initiatives developed by the EU in the field of security and defence during the last three years and how this has led to a stronger engagement with key international partners. It will conclude with some reflections regarding the value of the EU as a platform for cooperation to face global challenges and on strategic autonomy.


Introduction – 5
1. The challenges – 9
2. Addressing the challenges – 13
3. Cooperating with partners – 27
4. The EU: an unparalleled platform for cooperation on security and defence – 31
5. To conclude – 33

‘… then, handing the bundle to each of his sons in turn, he told them to try to
break it. But although each one tried his best, none was able to do so. The father
then untied the bundle and gave the sticks to his sons to break one by one. This
they did very easily’ (Aesop).


The past three years have seen significant developments in the field of European security and defence. Mostly, they have been pursued in the framework of the implementation of the Global Strategy presented by the High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy and Vice-President of the European Commission (HRVP), Federica Mogherini, in June 2016. The main aim is to improve the EU’s capacity to promote its interests and values in an increasingly challenging international environment.

Terrorism, irregular migration, cyber-attacks and foreign interference, including disinformation, figure among the most pressing security concerns of European citizens and societies. Some of these issues are having a significant impact on Europe’s national political landscapes. But to tackle them properly it is key to have a clear and common understanding of their causes.

The Arab Spring revolutions of 2011, and resulting conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya, as well as destabilisation in the Sahel, have unsettled regional balances and provided space for a new wave of terrorism. Instability and refugees fleeing from conflict have contributed to opening new routes for irregular migration. Organised crime has found a fertile ground in which to spawn, strengthening links to terrorist groups and promoting migrant smuggling and trafficking in human beings. To the East, the 2014 annexation of Crimea and the conflict in Ukraine has brought back into Europe pressing threats to sovereignty and territorial integrity. Hybrid methods of aggression have shown the need to respond in a more complex manner and to enhance societal resilience. A return to global strategic competition further interferes with regional crises and adds new transnational dimensions to challenges and threats.

The EU and its Member States are directly affected and concerned. The level of threat at their doorstep has increased exponentially in the past decade. And they are inevitably part of the broader strategic competition. During the past few years they have been actively developing security and defence instruments and capabilities, they have enhanced their engagement with their partners, notably with NATO, and they have continued to pursue multilateral track to reinforce international peace and security.

Cooperation on development of defence capabilities has, no doubt, been one of the areas of greater expansion, notably through the establishment of Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) and work on a European Defence Fund (EDF). But the EU is also increasing its crisis-management effectiveness with initiatives such as the Military Planning and Conduct Capability (MPCC), the Civilian Compact and the proposal for a European Peace Facility (EPF). The EU is looking more strategically at its deployments to maximise the impact of its efforts, be it in the Sahel or on the high seas, or in other regions, including the Middle East. Conscious of the complex nature of the challenges, it is also developing instruments to face hybrid threats and enhance awareness, including improved cyber security and defence capabilities. The protection of strategic sectors and infrastructure has become a priority.

While enhancing its capacity to act, including autonomously if required, the EU is convinced of the need to cooperate with its partners in addressing security challenges.

The Transatlantic relationship remains crucial to Europe’s security. Ties with NATO have been strengthened considerably through Joint Declarations in 2016 and 2018, co-signed by Secretary General Stoltenberg, President of the European Council Tusk and President of the European Commission Juncker. In fact, much of what the EU has developed recently in the field of defence will support NATO directly, notably as regards capabilities and military mobility. It will also contribute to an improved burden-sharing, particularly as regards hybrid threats and challenges coming from the South.

And a new and strong relationship in the field of security and defence will need to be built with the UK after the latter’s departure from the EU. Challenges and interests will remain common. Most of the EU’s security and defence instruments, including those developed more recently, foresee openings for cooperation with third States. It is to be hoped and expected that the UK will wish to avail itself of such possibilities.

Finally, the EU has continued pursuing a multilateral approach to international peace and security, seeking to strengthen common understandings of the challenges within the international community and develop common approaches to contain proliferation, promote disarmament and prevent an arms race, including in outer-space and in the use of artificial intelligence.

The EU offers its Member States an unparalleled platform for cooperation on all these matters. The breadth of its scope for action and variety of tools allow it to develop integrated approaches covering the complex nature of today’s challenges and linking the internal and external dimensions of security. Jointly, the EU and its Member States are among the world’s most powerful actors. They can project a capacity that dwarfs most others. But having such a capacity is not enough. Tyrtaeus, a Spartan poet, sung that it is not the athletic, artistic or intellectual qualities of a soldier that will bring victory, but his fortitude when faced with the terrible sights of war and his courage in fighting the enemy. The success of the EU will ultimately depend on its Member States’ commitment to promote and defend their common interests and on their determination in this collective engagement. The EU and its Member States are reaching a watershed moment. It is important that this be clearly understood and acted upon.

After an overview of external challenges, this paper will describe some of the main initiatives developed by the EU in the field of security and defence during the last three years and how this has led to a stronger engagement with key international partners. It will conclude with some reflections regarding the value of the EU as a platform for cooperation to face global challenges and on strategic autonomy.

Pedro A. Serrano de Haro
Deputy Secretary-General, European External Action Service

1 This paper expresses the author’s personal views, which are not necessarily those of either the European External Action Service or the EU itself.