Latest publications - Elcano Royal Institute empty_context Copyright (c), 2002-2018 Fundación Real Instituto Elcano Lotus Web Content Management <![CDATA[ Converging western cultural policy debates ]]> 2019-08-07T11:00:44Z

The last decades of the 20th century saw the emergence of culture as a scientific domain, as a public-policy issue and even as a range of professional profiles.

‘There was a need for broad expanses and long ages’ (borrowing a verse from the poet Ángel González’s Para que yo me llame Ángel González) for culture to become a central issue in the social sciences and in public policies. The last decades of the 20th century saw the emergence of culture as a scientific domain, as a public-policy issue and even as a range of professional profiles, stretching from a restricted conception of culture as the domain of the arts to the assumption that culture is everywhere, from the limited vision of culture as material to a broad understanding of culture as both material and immaterial, from an idea of better and worse cultures and the imposition on others in terms of supremacy to the protection and promotion of diversity, and from culture conceived as heritage to culture assumed to be permanently changing –the Foucault territory of the struggle to define power in societies–.1

As contemporary societies progressed in the acquisition of social rights, leisure time became a fact of life, particularly in urban environments, and was accompanied by the state’s growing consciousness about the importance of guaranteeing equal access to cultural resources. Two paradigms then emerged: one in the US, assuming a secondary role for the state and promoting both the market and the patronage of cultural institutions; and the other in Europe, stimulating both the market and excellence in cultural production, assigning the state the central responsibility of shaping a national culture to reinforce national identity, almost like a secular ‘cultural religion’.

“As the cultural market evolved in the second half of the 20th century, the idea of culture as the result of a brilliant creation had to coexist with a culture produced for rapid consumption”.

As the cultural market evolved in the second half of the 20th century, the idea of culture as the result of a brilliant creation had to coexist with a culture produced for rapid consumption, not necessarily marked by excellence but by market expectations and its accessibility to the many. Music records, cheap books, films and television showed not only the ability of culture to become a significant economic sector (as book publishing and the press had in previous decades) but also its impact on national public opinion, helping to establish common references, a shared mythology and a collective ‘imaginary’. An excessive foreign cultural presence could annihilate these objectives and cultural policies became the subject of a ‘cultural exception’, while the international markets were progressively opened to bilateral and multilateral agreements. A strong cultural policy to resist the new world-market paradigm became important.

Industrial culture was, at the time, identified as the only way to offer a functional leisure for mass societies, combining the political and economic goals of nation states. The emergence of postmodern thought also contributed to emancipating this new ‘popular culture’ from marginality to the social recognition of the value of its production and consumption as valuable democratic practices.

During this first stage, then: (a) urbanisation, a rising standard of living and the acquisition of social rights led to the appearance of a significant time for leisure; (b) culture became a recognisable economic and industrial player; (c) cultural policies became not only accepted but protected from the deregulation of markets during the 80s and 90s (what is known as the ‘cultural exception’); and (d) elitist views about the superiority of ‘high culture’ were displaced in favour of a more democratic and postmodern view of ‘popular culture’.

As a result, cultural policies tended to evolve towards a more active field, with more and more institutions progressively mixing arts, cultural and media assets, and taking into consideration their economic impact. As the French Minister Jack Lang famously said in 1981, ‘economy and culture are part of the same fight’.

“The emergence of the ‘creative industries’ mantra comes from a variety of contextual situations that have brought about the desperate search for a new growth paradigm in what are exhausted post-industrial economies”.

The emergence of the ‘creative industries’ mantra comes from a variety of contextual situations that have brought about the desperate search for a new growth paradigm in what are exhausted post-industrial economies. At the end of the 90s the rapidly evolving technological landscape offered the promise of ‘new niches’ of employment creation in the US and the EU. The ‘information superhighway’ initiative of Vice-President Al Gore in the US and the Bangemann report in the EU were not only strategies for developing telecommunications networks but also pointed to the core question: that the services flowing from these new infrastructures, the jobs created and the re-emergence of the economy would find in the interconnected cyberspace the promised land of recovery.

At the same time, the digital revolution is also providing a plethora of new forms of symbolic expressions generated by the digital ecosystem and barely conceivable under the traditional conditions of cultural production. From videogames to digital arts, from software to new Internet platforms, culture was at the doorstep of an enormous change, difficult to frame under the traditional coordinates of culture, many steps ahead of the old struggle between high and popular cultures and hard to fit into the traditional schemas of cultural training, cultural consumption or cultural regulation. This new territory quickly emerged from the interaction of three isolated fields: telecommunications, computer science and culture, quickly identified as the ‘convergence’.

The diversification of cultural work, access, production and consumption derived from post-industrial technological changes is behind this promising creative shift, which is both attractive and, at the same time, contradictory. First, because the undefined territory of creativity makes the definition of public policies initially very difficult in this field. When 20 years ago what was spoken about was basically ‘cultural industries’ (remembering Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer’s old oxymoron), later the talk focused on a content economy, a creative sector, a creative economy, a creative class, an ICT (information, communication and technology) economy, copyright industries and an ‘orange’ economy. In all cases, the primary extension of the cultural field derived from the idea of creativity, but not only. When thinking about industrial design, architecture or fashion, it is very clear that there has been a radical change: the massification of the goods market makes the differentiation a key issue and the ability to produce and connect to cultural and immaterial values becomes a strategic asset. There are objects, or beautiful objects; mere juice squeezers, or artistic marvels designed by the Italian studio of Carlo Alessi; plain motorbikes or vintage Vespas; phones or iPhones. The ‘design’ and ‘branding’ (as a process essential to global capitalism) are immaterial elements that are key to understanding both a product’s price and its ‘exchange value’.

The squeezer, the bike, the phone: the element they have in common is that cultural and creative factors are a vital part of their conception, and it is those elements that make the difference. Especially in price terms. But they are also elements of what Pierre Bourdieu, writing about cultural consumption, termed ‘distinction’. Cultural inputs take up a different place in the chain. Traditional cultural industries produced cultural goods, and those goods were different from one another, reusable copies of the original, with an uncertain demand and immaterial, based on symbols (and subsequently easily digitalised).

“The new creative industries produce goods (and services) that are not necessarily ‘cultural’, but that also use culture as an element of differentiation, of added value, placing the process of conception at the centre”.

However, the new creative industries produce goods (and services) that are not necessarily ‘cultural’, but that also use culture as an element of differentiation, of added value, placing the process of conception at the centre. Of course, we know from decades of cultural studies that norms of taste are social and then built up by varying conditions and actors in the struggle to define reality, in the struggle for power. Thus, the point at which culture can make things ‘cool’ (beautiful or ugly) is socially defined, but now in global terms, fighting for visibility in the clutter generated by millions of messages. The interaction between the traditional cultural industries (producing powerful symbolic messages and telling us ‘what is cool’ or, as Zizek would say, ‘what to desire’) and creativity is absolutely central. Think about leisure parks or Disneylands: they are a key sector in the new creative economy for the biggest media groups but their content is basically provided by the direct life experience of cultural discourses producing its core value.

And, also very importantly, if the key economic asset for this new field is the conception of ideas, the main territory for the new creative economy is the protection of these self-same ideas, blurring the limits between cultural copyright and industrial intellectual property. Copyright –not only industrial patents– becomes an essential issue in any international commerce agreement, as creativity becomes the centre of the new economies.

But what, in fact, is a creative industry? Is it automotive, fashion or tourism? At the base of this conceptual structure there are two main approaches. The US perspective focuses on the emergence of a ‘creative class’ (as described by Richard Florida) made up of scientists, consultancy and organisational specialists, lawyers and, of course, cultural workers. The European perspective offers a much clearer concept of the creative industries, broadening the traditional ‘cultural industries’ to embody the new fields of activity generated by technological changes, but not affecting traditional cultural sectors.

Are both the same thing? It is difficult to say, because national plans for cultural and creative industries sometimes point to highly diverse sectors, including tourism, toys, jewellery, musical instruments, software and fashion. And, in some cases, the political departments in charge of cultural and creative industries share the field with areas such as sport and gambling. This shows how the revision of cultural policies from an economic paradigm could evolve to embody highly diverse leisure activities.

Such a miscellaneous approach has made many of us fear the turn in creativity by considering it a techno-fascinating strategy that voids the traditional field of cultural policy, forcing it to make a hard transition to complete liberalisation. In fact, the essential origin of the international expansion of the ‘creative economy’ concept comes from a liberal turn in cultural policies in the 1990s and in the UK.

The exhaustive deregulation introduced in the UK by Margaret Thatcher after 1979 in many areas of public life redefined the role of Britain’s cultural policy, ending the tradition of the ‘gradual expansion of the state’s role in culture’. The centrality of the economic paradigm during the 80s deepened even further when Labour took it on board in the creation of cultural clusters or cultural quarters, such as the Greater London Council initiative, and later in the replication of Australia’s ‘Creative Nation’ perspective in the ‘Create the Future’ manifesto (1997). Combined with the nation-branding motto ‘Cool Britannia’, the creative turn in cultural policy placed the UK at the vanguard of the new international paradigm on creative industries, transforming the perspective of the ‘expediency of culture as a resource’, positing culture as an instrument with solutions for social, political or economic problems (as explained by George Yúdice).

The creative economy paradigm in cultural policy has both succeeded internationally and received intense criticism, as the creative turn became more decisively ‘a self-sustaining, self-referential framework of ideas [that] has developed that has become largely impervious to critique’ (as Philip Schlesinger wrote). Still, most of the countries around the world began their own ‘creative economy’ programmes, changed the name of their respective departments to ‘cultural and creative’ and stimulated these new activity sectors in the British way.

Let me, then, summarise the ‘creative turn’ in cultural policies as follows: (a) the consequence of the impact of technological change in many fields of production, and particularly in the diversification of the cultural field itself; (b) the power struggles to define ‘cool’ and associate it to the products and services of the creative economy exploiting synergies between cultural and creative sectors; (c) the centrality of copyright, since in many cases creative industries are called ‘copyright-related industries’; and (d) the centrality of economic issues, creating the danger of ‘culture as a resource’ for creating jobs and making the economy grow.

“While culture became a powerful economic sector, while it diversified and filled leisure time in a variety of ways, most countries discovered that the global circulation of culture directly and strongly affected their image”.

There is, still, a third shift in cultural policies, the most recent and influential of all, because it affects the geopolitics of culture. It is what is usually known as ‘soft power’. While culture became a powerful economic sector, while it diversified and filled leisure time in a variety of ways, most countries discovered that the global circulation of culture directly and strongly affected their image. The US reinforced its cultural industries as the key instrument for ‘winning hearts and minds’ and then, without an explicit cultural policy, gained an immense and positive result in terms of influence by projecting its entertainment to the world, with Disney, Fox and Time Warner obtaining huge economic revenues.

As the world becomes a more interconnected place, culture becomes not only a national policy asset but a crucial resource for world influence. As a result, cultural policies are now becoming not only the field of national objectives such as promoting identity or stimulating job creation but also a domain of synergies between the national and the foreign level to promote a form of power different to the traditional ‘hard’ form of armies and economics. ‘Soft power’, as Joseph Nye calls it, or rayonnement using the French term, is essentially a new domain for cultural policies that had traditionally neglected the foreign aspect. The idea of an overcrowded global sphere has made new forms of promotion appear in cities or territories, marketing themselves as products to attract visitors, investments or consumers. Nation branding or city branding are, in fact, some of the most visible manifestations of the ‘soft power’ turn in cultural policies. Inheriting the logic of traditional cultural policies, soft-power tools include public culture; inheriting the logic of the creative turn, foreign markets are perceived as key areas to expand and develop national structures of cultural and creative production, promoting economic and political goals at the same time.

We are, thus, stepping onto new ground: a communication ground, because national projection is basically an exercise of marketing and communication targeting foreign audiences; but also a cultural ground, because it shapes the traditional fields of cultural policies (and others, of course), now expanded from the national to the foreign level. And it is, finally, a field of foreign policy.

The synergies produced by the ‘access and excellence’ logic of traditional cultural policies, the ‘growth, innovation and diversification’ of the creative turn, and the ‘influence and soft power’ of the foreign dimension of cultural policies are the key to understand the metamorphosis of the cultural field, and should be taken into account by any review of public policies in this context.

Ángel Badillo Matos
Senior Analyst at Elcano Royal Institute and Professor at the School of Social Sciences of the University of Salamanca
| @angelbadillo

1 This analysis was presented as a keynote speech at Zhejiang Sci-Tech University in Hangzhou (China) in December 2018.

<![CDATA[ Strategic autonomy in a new era: a Cold-War risk assessment of China’s involvement in the EU’s 5G networks ]]> 2019-08-06T10:28:56Z

This paper suggests studying the relations between the EU and China through a Cold War analysis framework.


This paper suggests studying the relations between the EU and China through a Cold War analysis framework. It challenges the assumption that the latter has become obsolete in an international system (re)shaped by interdependence. Rather, the Cold War experience can prove to be useful to determine the EU’s position within the emerging Sino-US duopoly and to assess the strategic implications of China’s engagement in the EU’s 5G networks.


China’s sustained rise and worldwide engagement has recently led to a redefinition of EU-China relations. Faced with an emerging Sino-US duopoly –combining top world economic, military and technological investments and capabilities– and with uncertainties related to Huawei’s involvement in 5G networks, the EU would be advised not to overlook the Cold War experience. This paper aims to highlight that asymmetric interdependence in the context of a shifting global economy, combined with the doubtful implications of cross-cultural interdependence in international relations, do not entail changes substantial enough to completely disregard a Cold War framework of analysis. Therefore, strategic caution is advisable, especially if 5G were to affect critical infrastructures. Although positioning between China and the US should not occur at the expense of economic relations or cooperation towards global common goods, it should also be emphasised that contrary to China, the US, forever an economic competitor, remains the EU’s long-term strategic partner.


Introduction: the EU seeks its own path in a new era

The relations between the EU and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) have entered a new stage. After more than a decade of scrutiny and calls against China’s protectionist and unfair competition, and faced with its economic rise and increasing worldwide engagement, the EU finally seems to have started a redefinition of its relations with the PRC, no longer merely a developing country but an emerging global power. While half of the member states have endorsed the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), there is also increased concern about China’s current and potential engagement within EU infrastructures and strategic sectors, as illustrated by the implementation of an EU screening mechanism of foreign direct investment. In this context, the European Commission has qualified the PRC as an economic partner but also an ‘economic competitor’ and ‘systemic rival’ –promoting alternative models of political, social and economic governance–.

5G and technology as a whole highlight that the EU not only faces a new framework of relations with China, but that globally it will have to position itself within an emerging new Sino-US duopoly, two economic, military, technological and geopolitical leading powers. This is the case regardless of the ups and downs in Sino-US rivalry such as the recent agreement on the sidelines of the G20 summit between Trump and Xi to restart trade talks.

It could be said that this is everything but a new Cold War, and that looking through outdated lenses is pointless, but the Cold War can certainly provide some very useful insights at a time of strategic choices and positioning in relation to both China and the US.

A Cold War spectre? Power politics resilience in an interdependent world

What made the Cold War a unique case was the global and multidimensional confrontation between two economically and ideologically antagonistic closed systems. The confrontation was limited through nuclear deterrence, making war itself ‘improbable [but] peace impossible’. The recent cooling of US-Chinese relations has fostered the revival and diffusion of the concept, raising a debate about whether they are heading towards a new Cold War or not. Critics point at unprecedent levels of interdependence, the absence of a critical military standoff, the existence of areas of common interest and a different distribution of power –multipolarity rather than a renewed bipolarity–. On the opposite side are an increased ideological competition between an illiberal authoritarian China and a liberal democracy, the continuity of irreconcilable ‘focal points’ such as Taiwan and the shaping of a bifurcated technological world.

Today, while China and the US appear to be ideological competitors, they share crucial economic ties and areas of cooperation. But are their differences likely to lead to a different competition framework? According to John Mearsheimer, what might actually occur is the very return of a Cold War structure of competition between two ‘bounded orders’ –US and China-led– within a ‘thin international order’ maintaining arms control and economic cooperation. US-China cooperation can be highlighted but it has recently suffered from several setbacks. The momentum fostered by the 2014 US-China Joint Announcement on Climate Change and the signing of the Paris Agreement in 2015 has ground to a halt due to Donald Trump’s backtracking and further cooperation might be jeopardised by current economic tensions. The same goes for higher education and academic cooperation, which the US has started targeting in order to prevent sensitive technology transfers: the duration of Chinese STEM graduate student’s visas has been limited while the US Department of Energy is seeking to cut interpersonal ties with Chinese public programmes. Cooperation in other areas, such as counter-terrorism, remains limited. In its day, Cold War fluctuations between heightened tensions and détente also provided opportunities for cooperation between the US and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (Soviet Union or USSR). In particular, the two countries managed to establish strategic and non-strategic arms-control agreements: the 1972 Strategic arms limitations talks (SALT 1) and the 1987 Intermediate-range nuclear forces (INF) Treaty. While limited, other examples include scientific cooperation, space cooperation, with the Apollo-Soyuz project that started in 1975, and environmental cooperation, with the signing of the Agreement on Cooperation in the field of environmental protection in 1972. Another major milestone was the Antarctic Treaty, signed in December 1959, which demilitarised the continent, suspended territorial claims and paved the way for free and public scientific investigation.

It is also interesting to note that ideological factors might be emphasised in the case of the Soviet Union, yet, except in discourses and perhaps the initial stages of the Cold War, ideology did not prevent it from being a rational actor. Of course, Communism’s power of appeal may appear to be greater than China’s ‘Authoritarian capitalism’, but, to date, the latter still represents a viable alternative to Liberal Democracy. China’s model may not be ‘exportable’ but the country can still foster authoritarianism worldwide by providing a ‘legitimate’ alternative model of development and through direct institutional and economic assistance. Moreover, the appeal of the ‘Chinese model’ (with the prospects of fast economic growth, technological upgrading and poverty reduction) may be further strengthened if China were to successfully overcome the middle-income trap thanks to new drivers of growth. As Francis Fukuyama himself foresaw (even though he was thinking about Russia), China is far from turning into a liberal society. There is almost a consensus that China deeply differed from the USSR when it chose to open its economy. But China’s ‘Socialism with Chinese characteristics’ and Authoritarian Capitalism still constrain economic liberalisation while perpetuating protectionism and a statist economic approach. Market features remain secondary, with limited economic liberalisation and openness being subordinate to state planning. And this is not expected to change, since state control is not simply an economic model but also a necessary tool for the Communist Party of China (CPC) to monitor socioeconomic development, its main source of legitimacy. Further marketisation would deprive the CPC of crucial economic levers allowing it to exert a tight control on the course of the Chinese economy. China did not abandon state planning and neither did it turn away from the heavy industry that boosted its development in the 2000s. And it might not have been much more pragmatic than the USRR. The latter was aware of the importance of light industry and a diversified economy, but institutional and structural factors together with its geopolitical competition with the US led soviet leaders to prioritise fast-growing and geopolitically significant sectors, mainly heavy and military industry. Heavy industry provided sustained growth until the 1970s, before economic imbalances led the soviet economy to stagnation. On the other hand, China benefited from a US-led rapprochement –a way to weaken the communist block– but the focus on fast and sustained growth led China to experience similar social, environmental and organisational drawbacks, compounded by institutional factors. For China is not that much different from the USSR in that respect. Although it economically reframed socialist ideology, a main priority remains the continuity of the Communist Party of China. Economic growth, social stability and environmental sustainability are not considered per se, but are mediated through the interests of the ruling party.

What may prove crucial is the issue of interdependence –furthermore, between different ‘cultures’–, although this assumption might not entail fundamental differences. Take as an example the contemporary World Order envisioned by Henry Kissinger. Although acknowledging the multiplicity of conceptions of world orders, the analysis still revolves about the interaction between power and legitimacy, advocating the continued relevance of a classic Balance of Power. Henry Kissinger’s analysis in the old and the new era leads to similar recommendations, highlighting that the integration of historical and cultural differences in international relations do not translate into structurally different parameters. Although such an analysis remains enshrined in realism (and does not exhaust all international relations theory), it still offers a hint that the rules of the game do not radically differ from the past. And they are less likely to do so as both the US and China indeed embrace a realistic vision. Furthermore, cultural differences should not be overestimated and they might not induce greater challenges than Cold War ideological and strategical differences did. Among others, views that China’s international relations differ in the absence of an imperialist record or on the ground of alternative world visions like Tianxia are likely to have a limited relevance. On the one hand, China’s history is far from peaceful. Despite the literature on the ‘demilitarisation’ of Chinese history –no less for ideological than for political reasons– intra and inter-state conflict has occurred since Huaxia territorial consolidation. On the other hand, Tianxia is not only an idealised version of a harmonious past and a benevolent China, but also an ill-suited one to analyse current international relations and China’s foreign policy. Plus, imperial and transcendental concepts are not specific to China or Chinese culture. Excluding merely expansionist nation-states, such as the Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, French and British colonial empires, other historical European and Mediterranean empires, including the Roman Empire, the Holy Roman Empire and the Ottoman Empire, offer similar hierarchical, transcendental and universal views of the international order. On a more contemporaneous note, whatever cultural-induced misunderstanding there might be, they should not conceal the crucial strategic differences faced during the Cold War between the two superpowers on matters as crucial as nuclear deterrence and the use of military power.

Yet it is undeniable that economic-led interdependence establishes a rather different framework than the Cold War. However, the underlying assumption that interdependence rules out a Cold-War analysis should be carefully scrutinised, in order not to replicate the failure and disillusions of liberal theories and beliefs that China’s economic and institutional integration would ‘inevitably’ turn it into a liberal democracy. The issue is that if there is interdependence, it remains uneven and asymmetrical, both structurally and on a sectoral basis. Commercial trade imbalances, or China’s nascent technological leadership, may actually lead to tensions, with a narrowing technology and financial gap between China and the West jeopardising the latter’s position within the global economy. Global interdependence has indeed been a relatively alien feature during the Cold War era, but not in the context of European and World history. At the opening of the 20th century Europe witnessed multidimensional interdependence, with levels of financial integration, trade openness and labour migration as high as those of the 1980s. This did not prevent it from escalating into war. The peace factor in interdependence should not be taken for granted or, for that matter, its continuity. The current US-China trade might entail a reduction of interdependence between the two economies, if not a ‘bipolarisation of globalisation’. Measures like Huawei’s trade ban may very well turn dependency into vulnerability and prompt China’s leaders to seek self-reliance in innovation and digital technologies through protectionist policies. Although this is nowhere near advocating geopolitical confrontation, a peaceful resolution and cooperation must be promoted. There is no doubt that shared economic development and a safe and secure future for the coming generations are far more important issues than great-power competition, especially while climate change threatens to disrupt mankind’s environment. Nevertheless, it is worth noting that the Cold War preserved a shaky stability and prevent global confrontation through nuclear deterrence. The period also managed to accommodate state interests to address what was then the main existential threat to the world: nuclear-weapon proliferation. The need for a multilateral response to address a global issue was successfully acknowledged and built around the near universal Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). Despite significant failures, mainly the absence of endorsement by India, Israel, Pakistan and North Korea, the agreement thrived to become a ‘highly developed example of International Law’. It could very well be a template for the global climate regime after the US withdrawal from the Paris agreement and the difficulty in managing core economic and strategic state self-interests.

Cold War lessons for the EU: 5G strategic risks and indirect coercion

From a European perspective, EU-China relations offer a different outlook from the Cold War’s East-West antagonism. During the latter, the USSR posed a major threat to Western Europe, which faced the risk of direct military confrontation and periodic fears of both soviet conventional and nuclear superiority, as during the 1977-82 ‘Euromissile crisis’. Moreover, the Soviet Union also threatened European colonial interests as it opposed them and assisted insurgent liberation and communist movements. To date, this is not the case with China. The ‘China threat’ is unevenly distributed across the EU –absent in Greece while relatively salient in Germany– and it remains secondary, framed in economic terms and far beyond the concerns raised by jihadism, an assertive Russia, climate change or even US power and influence. Economic divergences are also significant. Despite protectionist policies and a lack of reciprocal market access, China remains a major trading partner and a ‘strategic market’ for the EU –an inexistent prospect in the case of the USSR– even if the ‘balance of challenges and [economic] opportunities… has [recently] shifted’. Yet, if not perfect, the Cold-War analogy should be considered as a useful framework of analysis to assess and address the current challenges, all the more because Europe is faced with the preservation of its social, environmental and political model, which calls for careful strategic action. Therefore, what lessons can be drawn from the Cold War confrontation?

More specifically, what can the Cold War teach about the strategic implications of China’s potential engagement in the EU’s critical infrastructures, and how should the EU seek strategic autonomy within the Sino-US duopoly? The US has frequently highlighted the risks of Huawei’s involvement in its allies’ infrastructures, without clear supporting evidence but going so far as to issue blackmail-like statements directed against some allies, such as Italy. Why have Huawei’s 5G capabilities become such an issue? First, because 5G is expected to penetrate a wide range of economic and social sectors –many of them of strategic value– and to bolster the development of industry 4.0. This has been due to enhanced connectivity capabilities and network latency for data-intensive and quasi-real-time applications, making it a critical infrastructure in itself, central to the economic competition between China, the EU and the US. Secondly, because of the feared potential risks of collusion between Huawei and the CPC –Huawei’s ownership structure and China’s institutional framework suggest indirect control by the CPC– and the facilitation of Chinese espionage and acts of sabotage. Despite the absence of public evidence that Huawei is installing back doors in its network architecture, concerns arise from ‘technological known unknowns’ and the difficulty of detecting –and addressing– illegitimate data flows. The 5th Annual report by Huawei’s cyber security evaluation centre notes ‘significant risks’ for UK operators while only providing ‘limited assurance’ that the risks raised by already deployed Huawei equipment can be managed. Espionage appears as a mainstream issue but increasing sabotage capabilities would be a different matter. It would be tempting to be reassured by China’s apparent unwillingness to engage in acts of war or equivalent acts. Yet the Cold War shows that the absence of ‘war’ or direct confrontation does not entail an absence of power politics and indirect coercion.

The Cold War was not a direct war between the US and the USSR. Conflicts were limited to proxy wars despite several occasions of the risk of a real war breaking out between the two superpowers. But it was still a Clausewitzian duel between two contenders or a war through means other than direct confrontation, where power politics were partly channelled through nuclear deterrence and military power not only threatened a direct attack but also political blackmail. So even in the absence of a direct war, it was still possible to coerce or gain compliance by using state power. Technology might entail the same logic. Foreign involvement in strategic sectors might pose the risk of the disruption of crucial infrastructures threatening state integrity. It should be pointed out that the latter is the main concern of nuclear doctrines around the globe. The 2014 military doctrine of the Russian Federation maintains a lowered threshold to deter conventional aggression, putting ‘the very existence of the State in jeopardy’. Official Pakistani statements suggest that the country’s nuclear deterrence covers not only conventional aggression but also economic ‘strangulation’ and the disruption of major lines of communication. These examples show that nuclear doctrines encompass security threats of a nature different to the nuclear threat itself, but considered significant from a state security perspective. Technological disruption might be one of these. As a nuclear power, China still lags behind Russia and the US despite a renewed process of nuclear modernisation. China’s nuclear arsenal remains smaller and the country still has to consolidate its second-strike capability. A secondary factor of China’s assertive posture in the South China Sea may be the need for a safe maritime access for its Jin Class/Type 094 nuclear powered ballistic-missile submarines. Hence China’s reaction against US surveillance activities and its deployment in the South China Sea. But China’s deep access to Western infrastructures would be a game changer, offering an indirect non-military but potentially militarised way to threaten core state infrastructure and disrupt military capabilities. This would be a very complex scenario –adding technological deterrents to conventional and nuclear ones– better avoided.

In a new international panorama shaped by the Sino-US duopoly, the EU will not only have to position itself vis-à-vis China, but also the US. The latter now faces a renewed ‘sputnik’ moment with China, adding pressure on the EU to position itself between the two contenders. Mainly, the US has catalysed economic tensions with China, leading to a sort of commercial war. While this move is indeed a way to tackle economic imbalances, it also shows several limitations and adds to recent shortcomings in the US’s new diplomacy, pushing its allies to the edge, such as: the official recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, jeopardising Middle-Eastern stability, the implementation of new extraterritorial sanctions, the undermining of the EU’s political and economic interests in Iran and Cuba and action against Central American populations. There is also a significantly apparent disregard for multilateralism, ranging from the US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, the INF nuclear treaty, and the Iran Nuclear Deal, to criticism of NATO and the WTO. Nevertheless, this scenario of uncertainty should not entail a similar assessment of the US and China at time when the EU finds its strategic position and continues on its quest for strategic autonomy. The latter might be the ideal outcome but significant issues remain, including how to develop it and what to do meanwhile, as it is a goal that will not be reached in the foreseeable future.

Despite the EU’s awareness that 5G is an issue of strategic autonomy and that there are viable European alternatives to Huawei and US operators, mainly Erikson and Nokia. But without addressing market and regulatory fragmentation and with insufficient levels of investment, the EU runs the risk of falling into a trap and lagging behind the Sino-US duopoly. This, again, is nothing new from a European perspective. Back in the 1950s, amid the nuclear competition between the US and Soviet superpowers, military nuclear capabilities were considered a necessity to ensure strategic autonomy. Both the UK and France achieved their objective through divergent courses of action. The UK chose to jump on the US bandwagon, which quickly provided it with nuclear capabilities at the expense of real strategic autonomy. Initially, France had to face an uncooperative US, as the latter did not favour European strategic autonomy, as it does not now, until geopolitics led it to revise its position. Back in the 50s, the US opposed cooperation on nuclear technology, restricted by the Atomic Energy Act and political and administrative reluctance. The French decision to develop a fully independent nuclear force worsened the prospects for cooperation until 1970, when President Richard Nixon and National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger reversed the US position on the assumption –and understanding– that enhanced French nuclear capabilities strengthened the US strategic position itself. Subsequent US assistance encompassed the design of thermonuclear weapons and the development of French MIRved missiles M4. No matter the path, both countries strategically sided with the US, targeting the USSR as their main threat.

Between then and now, two crucial differences remain between the US, the USSR and China. First, the US and the EU shared a broad consensus on how to manage economic competition; neither the USSR nor China shared that consensus. This is not going to change in the foreseeable future as China embraces state capitalism. Moreover, the US is, and always has been the EU’s economic competitors but not a strategic rival. After a period of generous support for reconstruction, motivated by US strategic interests, the US and the EU, like Japan, again became economic competitors during the Cold War but remained strategic allies. That cannot be said about China, despite the so-called ‘Comprehensive Strategic Partnership’ announced between the EU and China in 2003. The EU shares more common interests with the US than with China, particularly given their similar political systems and values. On the other hand, China’s illiberal political system, associated with uncertainties regarding China’s ambitions, nurture strategic mistrust. Opposition to China extends to the economic field and its model of statist capitalism, contrary to the principles of a market economy, free trade and public procurement. Last but not least, the US is the EU’s defence partner and ally, while the EU engages in a very limited defence and security cooperation with China. Cooperation prospects face several challenges, including the legacy of the Tiananmen repression and the subsequent European arms embargo against the PRC, and divergent threat perceptions and responses to common security concerns, such as cybersecurity.


The redefinition of EU-China relations is taking place within an emerging Sino-American duopoly that raises renewed security and technological challenges and highlights the issue of the EU’s strategic autonomy. The onset of a US-China commercial war, technological competition and ideological opposition, together with uncertainties regarding global economic interdependence, call for a meaningful recourse to a Cold-War analysis framework. The latter should help to simultaneously grasp both an emerging pattern of bipolar competition and the need for international cooperation to address common challenges and preserve common goods. EU-China relations do indeed offer a different pattern to Western Europe-USSR relations, yet a Cold-War analysis framework would help to cautiously assess current strategic issues, mainly China’s involvement in EU’s 5G telecommunications networks, highlighting the risks of political and technological blackmail that threatens the EU’s interests. The upcoming common EU approach to the security of 5G networks should take this into account.

Therefore, faced with the prospect of a difficult positioning between China and the US, the EU would be well advised to remember its privileged ties with the latter, an ally with whom it shares fundamental political and economic similarities that are absent in EU-China relations. Both the EU and the US share common political systems and values, a strong and long-term security partnership, and similar economic perspectives at odds with China’s political and economic model. This is not to imply that the EU and the US share the same strategic goals and interests, nor that Europe can blindly rely on the US for its security and should sever its economic links with China. This is not about securitising the EU’s economic relationship with China but about drawing attention to the strategic challenges posed by some of its dimensions and the costs that European citizens might have to face in order to overcome these challenges. How much money should the EU spend –o be willing to spend– to guarantee the security of critical infrastructures such as 5G networks?

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

Ugo Armanini
Research assistant at the Elcano Royal Institute

<![CDATA[ A strategic look at the position of High Representative and Commission Vice-President ]]> 2019-08-05T11:11:56Z

What is the potential, and which are the shortcomings and possible ways of strengthening the post of High Representative for Foreign Affairs (and Vice-President of the European Commission) in order to improve the efficiency and standing of the EU as a global player?

Original version in Spanish: Una mirada estratégica al puesto de alto representante y vicepresidente de la Comisión


What is the potential, and which are the shortcomings and possible ways of strengthening the post of High Representative for Foreign Affairs (and Vice-President of the European Commission) in order to improve the efficiency and standing of the EU as a global player?


Ten years have passed since the creation of the post of High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, the holder of which also acts as Vice-President of the Commission. It was –and remains– an office with great potential for providing Europe with more cohesion, efficiency and influence, both among its neighbours and on the global stage. There have been major achievements in the intervening period, but the three goals established when the post was designed are yet far from being attained. There are still: (a) shortcomings in the coordination of the various foreign policy dimensions undertaken by the EU as an organisation; (b) numerous instances of fragmentation between the latter and individual member states’ diplomatic efforts that hamper the business of speaking with a single voice in the world; and, in turn, (c) a limited capacity for inserting the EU effectively into an increasingly competitive and fraught international context, thereby revealing the shortcomings of a European foreign policy model that continues to focus on multilateralism and soft power. To help Europe respond to this threefold challenge it would be convenient to rethink and bolster the post of High Representative. The content and importance of the post are not predetermined, since they depend on two factors: (a) the specific powers assigned to it in relation to the other portfolios in the Commission; and (b) the specific personal influence of the individual who holds it. There is a degree of consensus that neither of its first two occupants were as effective as might have been wished on either count, thereby weakening the EU’s external action.

The proposal offered here involves taking advantage of the high political profile of the person nominated to be the High Representative for the 2019-24 legislative term, Josep Borrell, and to combine it with a broadening of his responsibilities as Vice-President of the Commission (as well as some suggestions for improvements in the common foreign and security policy domain). To secure this, now is the time to strike a sort of grand deal whereby the High Representative would refrain from vying with the future President of the Commission over who has the authority to take the initiative on common policies of international scope and, in exchange, obtain new powers over these and the resources allocated to them. It would be a matter of, in those key foreign policy areas where the commissioners have been acting unconnectedly from the High Representative, starting to accept the coordination of the latter (for example, trade and the foreign dimensions of immigration, climate and technology) and in other areas even taking on direct supervision (development, humanitarian aid and defence). In a world where the great powers combine these activities with strategic logic and foreign policy, the EU cannot hope to present itself as a global actor unless it can ensure coherence across its diplomatic efforts, cooperation, trade, progress in security (where the recently launched European Defence Fund stands out) and the foreign dimension of innovation and migration policies.


Since the end of the Cold War, the EU has taken three strategic lines of approach to further its aspiration of gaining global relevance: (a) pursuing its own foreign policy, one that properly connects the international dimension of the so-called EU pillar –where the Commission takes the lead– with the domain of intergovernmental cooperation on diplomatic and military issues known as the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP), overseen by the Council; (b) subsuming under a single position (and, if applicable, a single joint course of action too) all the member states’ individual positions; and (c) convincing the international community that, despite its obvious idiosyncrasies that differentiate it from a state, the EU is a good deal more than a run-of-the-mill international organisation and, therefore, may be accepted as a participant comparable on certain occasions to the great world powers.

Only the first of these three major goals is the exclusive responsibility of the EU, because the second requires the cooperation of 28 national capitals, while the third relies on the acquiescence of almost 200 sovereign states. Not surprisingly, the progress that has been made over the years is directly proportionate to this scale of difficulty. Indeed, despite the persistent shortcomings that will be examined in more detail below, significant advances have been made in recent years to ensure that the EU’s foreign policy as such is better coordinated internally and more active. Considerable headway has also been made in terms of ensuring that the member states and the joint institutions act together (climate change, the agreement with Iran and even sanctions against Russia, to name a few cases in point), although there are still many issues where there is either no unanimity (Israel, the status of Kosovo, recognition of the opposition in Venezuela, etc.) or the loudest European voice does not emanate from Brussels but rather Paris, London or Berlin. Lastly, there is still a very long way to go before securing the third goal, that of ensuring that the EU is viewed as a power capable of shaping international politics. Here it is not simply the fact that there are both failures (the 2010 United Nations vote rejecting the idea of the EU speaking to the General Assembly) and successes (for example, the EU being granted full membership of the G7 and G20, and eventually, in May 2011, being allowed to address the UN General Assembly), but rather that the most recent trends in international relations follow a ‘neo-Westphalian’ line, which diverges from the approach hitherto favoured by the EU: one of multilateral governance, free trade and international law.2

So important is it for the EU to improve its role in this increasingly complex (and, in recent times, hostile) setting that it is here where efforts have been made to instigate the main substantive advance in the process towards integration. Following the Single European Act (1986), which ushered in the Internal Market, the Maastricht Treaty (1993), which launched the euro, and the Treaty of Amsterdam (1997), which paved the way to the freedom, security and justice area, the great policy contribution of the ill-fated Constitutional Treaty (2004), subsequently reflected in the Lisbon Treaty (2007), comprises external action. It is true that it has been done without the member states making explicit new transfers of sovereignty to the EU, even if the interesting provisions included regarding security and defence are developed, but the institutional innovations that came into force rather more than 10 years ago brought about a significant qualitative change in the vague power arrangements of the CFSP and the international perception of EU policies. The idea (the genesis of which goes back to the 2002 Convention on the Future of Europe) consisted of connecting the two spheres better and hence the decision to formally abandon the notion of pillars, providing the EU with a status as a single legal entity, creating a stable President of the European Council who would share the task of foreign representation with the Commission President and, above all, creating an authentic EU ‘Foreign Affairs Minister’.

Although the job title is different, just such a post has existed since 2009: the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, who also acts as the Vice-President of the Commission (HR/VP). It is a post that effectively amalgamates the duties discharged up to that point by three distinct offices: the High Representative for CFSP (which was created in 1999 and for 10 years was held by Javier Solana), the Commissioner for Foreign Relations and the rotating Presidency of the Council. But it was not simply a case of getting rid of the dysfunctional aspects of the old ‘Troika’ and uniting in a single figure the former ‘Mr CFSP’, the coordinator of the EU’s international policies in the Commission and the President of the Council in its Foreign Affairs configuration (separated in 2010 from the General Affairs Council, which would continue with a rotating six-monthly presidency). In addition, new competences were given to the HR/VP, notable among which were oversight of his own new and ambitious diplomatic corps, the capacity to initiate and implement CFSP matters and the responsibility of coordinating EU foreign policy as a whole through the strengthening of his status in the College of Commissioners by virtue of becoming its Vice-President.

Ten years have elapsed and, while it is possible to point to a range of achievements and an incipient positioning on the global stage of the EU in its own right, any assessment made of the post following the performance of its first two holders (Catherine Ashton and Federica Mogherini) reveals a mixed picture attributable to its rather low political profile and, above all, an inappropriate allocation of its responsibilities, particularly in terms of the coordination of the Commission’s foreign policy. This is why it makes sense to use Josep Borrell’s appointment as the new HR/VP by the European Council to revisit the enormous potential implicit in the post and to place it in the context of the ideas circulating at the heart of the institutions regarding how to deal with the way the office fits into the Commission. Moreover, the current juncture (with the organisational jigsaw of the College of Commissioners for the 2019-24 term still being decided) offers a unique window of opportunity, which can be seized to ensure that the post has a wider remit than it has hitherto enjoyed. As the only job on the Commission (apart from the presidency) to be underwritten by treaty and given that the appointment is made before the other commissioners, there is scope for political autonomy that should not be squandered if the goal is to provide the HR/VP with more resources in order to implement more effective foreign policies in an extremely complex context.

Indeed, the contemporary political landscape has become increasingly fraught, characterised by growing competition between the great powers. Specifically, the geopolitical rivalry between the US and China looks set to become the main focal point of international relations in the decades ahead. And episodes such as the recent tariff spat between the Trump Administration and the Xi Jinping regime in China and the US embargo on the Chinese tech company Huawei throw into sharp relief the close interdependence between different parts of political activity, namely trade policy, industrial and technology policy, and foreign and defence policy. If it is to navigate such a world, it is important that the EU understands each of these areas of competition not in isolation but rather within the framework of broader geostrategic competition, one that looks beyond the ‘trees’ of sectoral policies and sees the ‘wood’ of global competition. This demonstrates the need for greater integration of any EU policies with an international dimension, ideally under the coordination and supervision of the HR/VP. Meanwhile, an international context characterised by the growing geostrategic rivalry between large blocs further underlines the importance of such key EU policy areas as trade, technology, industry and defence not being determined solely by economic considerations, but that they should also be anchored in a strategic vision of foreign policy.

As mentioned above, the pertinent provision of the EU’s regulations since the Treaty of Lisbon came into effect states that the HR/VP shall conduct the CFSP and ensure the consistency of the Union’s external action.3 ‘External action’ is an extremely broad concept. It includes the CFSP, of course, covering diplomacy and issues related to security and defence (CSDP), but also common policies of an external nature such as trade, international cooperation and development, humanitarian aid, enlargement and neighbourhood policies. It should also include the important international aspects of many other policies such as those concerning migration, industry, economy, finance, digitalisation, energy, climate, environment, agriculture, fishing and justice. Bearing in mind the breadth of the EU’s action in its entirety, it is evident that in reality the CFSP constitutes a relatively small part of it.

The HR/VP is appointed by the European Council, by qualified majority voting, with the approval of the President of the Commission.4 His term of office may only be ended by the same procedure. This entails that, politically, the HR/VP is accountable in the first instance to the European Council and the President of the Commission. He is also accountable to the Foreign Affairs Council (which he also chairs) for all matters relating to the execution of the CFSP. The HR/VP has the right to make proposals for the CFSP and as Vice-President contributes to the Commission’s unique right of making proposals for EU policies. The European External Action Service (EEAS) assists the HR/VP in all his functions. Bearing all these factors in mind, it is clear that the treaties bestow a key role on the HR/VP, with the potential to be one of the most influential in the EU. He has ample autonomy, various special prerogatives (for example, the right to attend European Council meetings) and abundant administrative resources, notable among which is, of course, leadership of the EEAS, but also the fact that he can count on two Secretary-Generals (Commission and Council) and an 11-member cabinet, almost twice the size of the commissioners’ teams.5

The problem…

In practice, however, there is a certain perception that the HR/VP plays a somewhat representative and diplomatic role, lacking real power. There are two main reasons for this. The first is the lack of the CFSP’s effectiveness, attributable to such deep-seated problems as the complex decision-making structures, the requirement (and culture) of unanimity in the Council, the strategic differences between member states and the major capitals’ persistent habit of prioritising their role over that of the EU in many instances. Ten years after the Treaty of Lisbon came into force, Foreign Affairs Ministers still jealously guard their exclusive responsibility for foreign policy and tend to view themselves as principals and the HR as an agent. Nor did it help that the coming into force of the Treaty of Lisbon, the main substantial innovation of which was the commitment to a more effective and proactive European foreign policy, coincided with five years of severe economic crisis, which diverted resources and political will to tackle other emergencies.

The second problem, already alluded to, is the insufficient use of the vice-presidential role in the European Commission. Indeed, since the creation of the post in 2010, various of the basic principles mentioned above have been neglected. The first HR/VP (2010-14) devoted her term in office almost exclusively to the CFSP and setting up a diplomatic service as complex as the EEAS from scratch, leaving to one side her role in the common policies overseen by the Commission. The second HR/VP (2014-19) sought to exercise her vice-presidential function better, and certain steps were taken in this regard at the beginning of her term in office,6 paving the way to rather more influence over common policies of a foreign nature –except trade– but with very limited say on the international dimension of the EU’s internal policies. At any event, she continued to maintain a distant relationship with the rest of the Commission, with a certain lack of acceptance of her (and the EEAS’s) authority at the heart of the institution, and in consequence a prioritisation of the CFSP. The result is that in many of the large political dossiers the Commission frequently side-lined the HR/VP and awarded the visibility and credit to other members of the College,7 thereby contributing to the perception of the post’s lack of influence.

… and the solution

The 2019-24 Strategic Agenda approved by the European Council prioritises ‘promoting European interests and values on a global stage’ and to this end being ‘more determined and effective in exerting our influence… giving a clearer priority to European economic, political and security interests, leveraging all policies to that end’. This constitutes the first political framework in the new institutional cycle for embarking upon wide-reaching reform, constructed on a twofold foundation: (1) enhancing the stature of the HR as the VP of the Commission; and (2) improving the way the CFSP operates.

(1) Enhancing the stature of the HR as the VP of the Commission

The priority should be to maximise the potential of the HR’s role as the Vice-President of the Commission. To do this, it is necessary to have an agreement from the outset between the HR/VP and the Commission President, who has ample powers to organise the structure and working methods of the institution. This agreement should be based on a sort of grand bargain, whereby the HR/VP would more explicitly accept his place in the strategic initiative and the hierarchical authority of his superior in the Commission on a day-to-day basis, including the work of the EEAS. In exchange for this, the President would agree to establish more explicitly the HR/VP’s responsibility for coordination in the realm of the Commission’s foreign competences and in the foreign aspects of the EU’s internal policies, placing at his disposal the services and structures necessary for wielding such authority effectively, including access to the Secretary-General of the Commission.8 While this grand bargain would not affect the autonomy of the HR/VP or his special relationship with the Council and the European Council in terms of CFSP and CSDP matters, it would lay the foundations for greater input from the Commission on such questions, thereby underpinning the EU’s overall cohesion as an international player.

To bring about this change in the organisational structure it would be worth considering the possibility of creating geographically-focused commissioners for external action, under the hierarchy of the HR/VP and replacing the current thematic posts (enlargement and neighbourhood, development and humanitarian aid).9 The HR/VP would coordinate their work through project groups, based on the current Commissioners’ Group on External Action but with more flexibility and access to internal policies, given that all Commissioners would have as part of their formal mission the responsibility to coordinate their external action with the HR/VP. 10 At the administrative level, the geographical commissioners would be supported not only by the Secretary-General but also working groups coordinated by the EEAS where all the pertinent directorates-general would be included.11

This model would ensure the HR/VP’s overall control and coordination role, while removing the burden of travel and management (whether involving attendance at high-level meetings or crisis management), enabling him to focus on strategic dossiers and reduce non-attendance of meetings of the College of Commissioners to a minimum.12 The HR/VP would effectively have the power to oversee all the EU’s policies with an international dimension, facilitating the creation of ‘incentive packages’, by being able to use in a coherent manner the entire arsenal of diplomatic, economic and other resources (visas, for example) that may be deployed to attain the EU’s goals and interests in non-member countries.

In the realm of defence, the HR/VP would be responsible not only for the CSDP (and the Military Committee, which is in charge of all the EU’s military missions) but also all the other defence-related policies pursued by the Commission. These policies (such as the European Defence Fund and the Military Mobility policy) fall within the remit of other commissioners, under the Vice-President for Industry Katainen. This is an especially important point, since one of the major threats to the EU’s defence is the lack of connection between the its technological-industrial arm and its political-strategic arm. This was brought to the fore when the Commission launched the European Defence Fund, which is set to spend €13 billion between 2021 and 2027 on supporting research projects in the defence domain and co-funding capabilities.13 This initiative has revitalised the debate about defence in Europe after years of lethargy. By way of illustration, the money the Commission expects to spend on funding defence research is greater than that earmarked by most member states (with the sole exception of France and Germany). This means that virtually all of them will start to structure their defence R&D policy around the Commission’s European Defence Fund. It is important to ensure, however, that the Fund pursues a strategic and not an exclusively industrial or economic approach.

It is true that the EEAS has launched a series of initiatives in recent years geared towards establishing a political-strategic framework that would provide a foundation to the European Defence Fund. Specifically, Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) and the Coordinated Annual Review on Defence (CARD) seek to set the parameters of Europe’s strategic ambition and stimulate cooperation processes that equip European countries with the capabilities and structures needed to exercise greater strategic autonomy.14 Such initiatives are of a markedly intergovernmental character however, and their scope raises serious questions, given the persistent discrepancies between member states on issues as fundamental as the role of force in international relations and the threats and geographical areas to be prioritised. Against this background, doubts emerge about the extent to which the Commission’s initiatives in the domain of defence industry policy are truly anchored in a strategic-political vision that is coherent and shared by all member states.

The possibility of setting up a Directorate General for Defence in the Commission (and even a Vice-President and Commissioner for Security and Defence) could aggravate this problem, inasmuch as it could pave the way to a situation of dual leadership, with one Vice-President and Commissioner in charge of the technological-industrial aspects of European defence, and another (the HR/VP) in charge of the political-strategic aspects, thereby creating a recipe for institutional rivalry and political disjointedness. The solution to this problem may involve the previously-mentioned grand bargain between the Commission President and the HR/VP, whereby the latter would submit to the political authority of the Commission in the area of defence industry policy in exchange for overseeing the management of the European Defence Fund, as well as the Commission services earmarked for managing it. It would be quite different if the potential new Commissioner for Security and Defence came clearly under the authority of the HR/VP because, in this case, he or she could even be considered to be an assistant high representative in charge of defence, space and cybersecurity, which would give the HR/VP additional oversight of significant budgetary allocations.15

As a quid pro quo, the HR/VP would need to accept the prospect of giving more space to the Commission, which would be unlikely to give the HR/VP access to its resources without getting something in exchange. Thus, for example, the HR/VP could consult the Commission and seek ratification for his proposals and initiatives prior to submitting them to the Council. In this way, such proposals would have the assurance of the full backing of the Commission and its resources, which in turn would strengthen the HR/VP’s position in the Council.

(2) Improving the way the CFSP operates

With all the developments set out in the preceding section, the HR/VP would underpin his coordination role in the Commission’s external action, but maintain his autonomy in the CFSP, the latter being something that is underwritten by the treaty. It is also necessary to carry out improvements within the domain of the CFSP, however. Solving the deep-seated problems here is an enormously complex challenge requiring profound and detailed reflection, including perhaps reform of the treaties. There are certain steps that the HR/VP could take almost immediately, however, within the prerogatives the treaty bestows upon him:

  • Designing a more functional Foreign Affairs Council. The Council’s agenda could be designed in such a way as to discourage grandiose theoretical debates and focus on practical questions of representation, use of financial instruments and other policies such as incentivisation, the planning of joint initiatives with and between member states, the coordination of multilateral negotiations and positions in international bodies, etc. Instead of rambling, inefficient conclusions, the HR/VP could put forward short, structured conclusions, separating declaratory parts from operational parts.
  • Encouraging the use of qualified majority voting in the CFSP. Invoking the ‘passerelle clause’ of the Treaty16 requires unanimity in the European Council and is, as things currently stand, totally unrealistic. There are, however, parts of the CFSP where qualified majority voting may be used without recourse to this clause, and there is an ever-growing number of capitals interested in extending its use. For example, the HR and the Commission could decide to structure the legal initiatives on sanctions in such a way that the decision to impose sanctions continues to be taken by unanimity, but the names of the people to be sanctioned and the specific economic measures are taken by qualified majority voting.17 In addition, the HR and the Commission could submit themed or regional strategies for the approval of the European Council, in accordance with TEU article 22.1. Once approved, all the Council’s decisions and positions within the framework of these strategies would be by qualified majority voting.18
  • Reforming the EEAS (which currently has some 140 delegations and some 5,600 bureaucrats) to encourage better administrative organisation and coordination, a less theoretical/academic and geographic approach and a more functional, thematic and horizontal orientation, better capacity for making use of the EU instruments in support of the CFSP, and a more coordinated and strategic use of the EU Delegations as sources of information and agents for the promotion of interests.
  • Encouraging coordination with member states’ embassies through the EU Delegations in third-party countries.


The post of High Representative and Vice-President of the Commission contains elements of immense value for advancing towards a European external action characterised by greater cohesion, visibility and influence. In its first 10 years of existence however, the holders of the position have largely wasted its potential. Expectations have been thwarted, partly because of problems inherent to the CFSP but above all because its first two holders were not capable of leveraging the rank and the coordinating functions implicit in the fact of also being Vice-President of the Commission. It is therefore a question of the future HR/VP being able to effectively manage and oversee the entire international dimension of the common policies and having access to the Commission’s financial instruments and services in key areas with a direct impact on his competences and power.

The treaties and organisational structure of the EU are sufficiently flexible to enable the HR/VP to have direct access to the Commission’s instruments. Ultimately this will depend on a political agreement with the new President, which ought to be concluded without delay, before she takes decisions about the structure of the various portfolios; these will create a series of faits accomplis and force the HR/VP into a defensive and reactive position.

If an appropriate arrangement of these coordinating functions is achieved, the 2019-24 legislative term currently getting under way will see not only an exponential increase in the influence of the HR/VP but it could also, much more importantly, have a simultaneous and positive impact on the three strategic goals of European external action set out at the start of this analysis: (1) a real (and not simply theoretical) use of the ‘two hats’ as Vice-President of the Commission and chair of the Council would almost automatically ensure the first goal of the EU itself being better coordinated; (2) greater cohesion between the external work undertaken by both institutions and improvements in the operations of an external service where EU bureaucrats and national diplomats coexist would help to generate dynamics of continuity and trust with the member states, which would reduce and, over the medium term, tend to eliminate the fragmentation of almost 30 foreign policies; and (3) this greater cohesion would bolster the efficacy and visibility of the EU as an international actor.

Ignacio Molina
Senior European Analyst, Elcano Royal Institute
| @_ignaciomolina

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

1 The authors would like to express their gratitude for the very valuable contributions made to this text by three EU official who prefer to remain anonymous owing to their current responsibilities.

2 See L. Simón (2018), The Spectre of a Westphalian Europe, Whitehall Paper, nr 90, Routledge, Abingdon.

3 TEU Article 18.

4 Although the extraordinary European Council meeting of 2 July 2019 has nominated Josep Borrell as the next HR/VP, the official appointment has not yet taken place; this will only occur when the European Parliament gives its blessing to the appointment of the person proposed to preside over the Commission (in principle, the German politician Ursula von der Leyen) and subsequently ratifies the new College of Commissioners.

5 For the importance of having access to this wide-ranging team of cabinet members, see L. Simón, I. Molina, E. Lledó & N. Martín (2019), ‘Hacia un ecosistema de influencia española en Bruselas’, ARI nr 30/2019, Elcano Royal Institute.

6 Her office was relocated to the Berlaymont building, next to the other members of the Commission, and the Commissioners’ Group on External Action, chaired by the HR/VP, to coordinate foreign policies.

7 For example, the agreement with Turkey on migration (First Vice-President Timmermans), the Paris Agreement (Energy Commissioner Arias Cañete), the European Defence Fund (Vice-President Katainen) and the institutional agreement with Switzerland (Enlargement Commissioner Hahn).

8 Especially during the Juncker Commission, the Secretary-General of the Commission has been steadily acquiring power and today constitutes the single lever by which the activity of the entire institution can be controlled.

9 The Trade Commissioner would be retained in any event, owing to the exclusive nature of this post in the treaties. It is important however to emphasise the hybrid character of this portfolio (which above all affects foreign and industrial policy) and therefore to strengthen its links to the HR/VP. This could be achieved by, for example, making the HR/VP the (co-) chair of a project group on trade policy, replacing the current Commissioners’ Group on Trade and Globalisation.

10 Given that the HR/VP would not have the right to appoint or remove geographical commissioners, it would be important to create the necessary mechanisms to ensure that they would be subject to the HR/VP’s authority. One way, already mentioned, would involve creating transversal working groups with representatives from all the Directorates-General (DGs) that have responsibilities in each geographical region (for example, migration, energy, climate for Africa, etc.). This would involve the existing DGs and avoid creating a bureaucratically disruptive structure. Such working groups would be chaired by a geographical commissioner who would in turn come under the hierarchy of the HR/VP.

11 It is worth noting the risk that the creation of geographical commissioners could incur in terms of pigeonholing the UE’s foreign policy, particularly bearing in mind the existing connections between the major regions. In order to offset such risks, it would be necessary to ensure an oversight role for the HR/VP and to create the mechanisms needed to guarantee the geographical commissioners’ hierarchical inferiority to the HR/VP, whose responsibility it would be to ensure the cohesion of the EU’s external action.

12 Even if the replacement of thematic by geographical commissioners were not to take place (either because it is deemed inappropriate or the continued existence of International Cooperation and Development and Enlargement portfolios, in addition to the Trade portfolio, is deemed indispensable) the role could be created within the EEAS of four or five special envoys for the major regions, thereby reducing the travel burden on the HR/VP.

13 See Félix Arteaga & Luis Simón (2019), ‘El Fondo Europeo de Defensa y el futuro de la industria española’, Elcano Policy Paper, January.

14 Pedro Serrano (2019), ‘The bundle of sticks: a stronger European defence to face global challenges’, Working Paper, nr 03/2019, Elcano Royal Institute.

15 Moreover, greater cohesion between the Commission and the EEAS in the defence realm would facilitate the integration of the European Defence Agency (EDA) in the management of European Defence Fund projects, thereby ensuring a greater strategic orientation in the management of the Fund (given the experience of the EDA in this field) as well as greater overall cohesion in the EU’s defence policy.

16 TEU Article 31.3 permits the invocation of qualified majority voting in any part of the CFSP except military or defence decisions, if unanimously agreed by the European Council.

17 TEU Article 31.2, third paragraph.

18 TEU Article 31.2, first paragraph.

<![CDATA[ In virality we trust! The quest for authenticity in digital diplomacy ]]> 2019-07-08T07:05:15Z

Virality in digital diplomacy is the new black. For Ministers of Foreign Affairs and diplomats, being on social media is no longer only about presence and networking, but about standing out through the virality of their messages.


Virality in digital diplomacy is the new black. For Ministers of Foreign Affairs and diplomats, being on social media is no longer only about presence and networking, but about standing out through the virality of their messages.


For Ministers of Foreign Affairs (MFA) and embassies, being on social media is no longer only about presence and networking, but about standing out through the virality of their messages. Virality allows digital diplomats to step out of their immediate ‘bubble’ and reach out to unfamiliar audiences, showcase their position on important policy issues or normative claims, and enhance their social authority in front of their peers or the online public. The challenge for digital diplomacy lies in achieving the proper know-how and technical capacity to make their messages ‘go viral’. This ARI provides some clues and rules to improve the virality in digital diplomacy.

The Studium and the Punctum

Virality in digital diplomacy is the new black, and rightly so, one may add! For Ministers of Foreign Affairs (MFA) and embassies, being on social media is no longer only about presence and networking, but about standing out through the virality of their messages. Creating content that is shared exponentially on social media, in a very short timeframe, with multiple levels of reactions from a mosaic of audiences is, to put is simply, ‘pure gold’ from a communicational perspective.

Virality allows digital diplomats to step out of their immediate ‘bubble’ and reach out to unfamiliar audiences, showcase their position on important policy issues or normative claims, and enhance their social authority in front of their peers or the online public. In the attention-deficit space of the digital medium, virality promises to inject a high-dose of authenticity and engagement, even though, the outcome often has a short-lifespan and generates transient effects. The challenge lies, of course, with the fact that viral content is not that easily to create, especially by MFAs and embassies who generally lack the human, know-how and technical capacity to make their messages ‘go viral’.

As a first step towards addressing this challenge, we need to develop a good theoretical understanding of how virality works in the context of digital diplomacy. Roland Barthes’ reflections on the study of photography may assist us with this task, as they provide some useful clues about how to think analytically about the issue of virality.1 More specifically, Barthes argues that the way in which we make sense of the meaning of a photograph much depends on the distinction we draw between the studium and the punctum aspects of the image. The studium represents the contextual reading of the image that is, the historical, social or cultural details that the picture makes available to the viewer. The punctum, on the other hand, is the ‘out of place’ aspect of the photo that punctuates the studium and ‘pierces’ the viewer with an unexpected arrow of acuity. Put it differently, while the studium tells the viewer what the image is about in a manner that can be similarly understood by many, the punctum disrupts the studium and establishes a personal connection between the viewer and the image.

For example, Barthes finds that the picture taken by a Dutch reporter of a military unit patrolling a street in an unnamed Nicaraguan city during the uprising in 1978-79 (see Image 1) resembles well the duality and co-presence of the studium and punctum. The studium informs us about the gravity of the political situation, the desolation and destruction produced by the insurrection, the casual display of military force, and the bleakness of the future. The punctum, on the other hand, reveals, at least for Barthes, an unexpected contrast between two elements that do not usually belong together, the nuns and the soldiers, which seems to invite the reader to reflect on questions about war and death, violence and religion, destruction and reconstruction. The studium makes available to viewers a particular narrative about a historical situation with the goal to stimulate his/her interest and take notice of the human tragedy unfolding in Nicaragua at that time. However, it is the punctum that makes the photo transcend its state of general interest and connect it more intimately with the viewer by reaching out to Barthes’ subjectivity and rendering the image personally meaningful to him.

Image 1: Koen Wessing, Nicaragua, 1978
Image 1: Koen Wessing, Nicaragua, 1978

Barthes’ reflections on the art of photography carry good analytical value for the study of online virality as well. It offers us a framework for deconstructing viral content into tangible components by which to capture the interplay between the general and the specific, the common and the personal, the informative and the emotional, the inconsequential and the meaningful. Understanding the studium of viral content can give us a better sense of the themes, compositions, formats and approaches that makes certain messages highly popular. Understanding the punctum can reveal us the “out of place” profile of viral messages and their propensity for personalisation and micro-engagement. Drawing on relevant case studies of viral digital diplomacy, the next two sections will integrate the concepts of studium and the punctum into the discussion of two important aspects of online virality: contextual dimensions of viral dissemination (external vs internal) and rules of operation (information, emotions and personalisation).

External vs Internal Virality

A tweet by the former UK Ambassador to Egypt, John Casson, showing him strolling in Cairo, shortly before ending his tenure in Sept 2018, gathered 1.4k Reactions,  1.7k ReTweets and 11k Likes. By contrast, the tweet of the High Commissioner of Cyprus to the UK, Euripides Evriviades, showing him posing in front of the residence of the British Prime Minister as a memento before his departure from the post, garnered only 28 reactions, 25 ReTweets and 294 Likes (see Image 2). The question this example invites us to address is threefold: a) to what extent the virality of the two tweets is comparable?, b) how well each tweet performs relative to other messages produced by the same author? and c) what characteristics of the two tweets explain their virality? The first part of the question concerns itself with the issue of ‘external virality’ (cross-source comparison), the second with the issue of ‘internal virality’ (same source comparison) and the third part with the application of the stadium/punctum framework.

Image 2. Tweets with asymmetrical viral content

ماينفعش امشي من غير ماسلم عليكم

مفيش مع السلامة إنما إلى القاء #منورة_باهلها
🙏🏼👋❤️ 🇪🇬 🇬🇧

— John Casson (@JohnCassonUK) 31 August 2018

No. I am not in the race to become the next PM of #UK. Just had my pic taken as #Cyprus HC, in front of one of the most famous doors in the world. A keepsake of my tenure in 🇬🇧 & in this mega metropolis called London.

— Euripides Evriviades 🇨🇾🇪🇺 (@eevriviades) 12 June 2019

Many would be probably tempted to consider the tweet of Amb. Casson as being decisively more viral in its outlook than that of HC Evriviades given its sizeable lead in quantitative metrics. However, closer scrutiny reveals the two tweets are somewhat similar in terms of online influence once the number of followers is considered (see Table 1). More specifically, Amb. Casson’s tweet has only a small lead in terms of RT, but a stronger presence in terms of likes and reactions. This is so because the number of followers distorts the quality of the virality metrics by amplifying the randomness of the reactions. Put differently, it is clearly impressive when an account with 100 followers generates 1000 RTs, but arguably less so when the same number of RTs come from an account with 1 million followers. Therefore, RT/Likes/Reactions per follower provides a better basis of comparison of the ‘external’ virality of competing accounts.

Table 1. External virality adjusted by the number of followers
  Amb. John Casson HC Euripides Evriviades
Number of followers 1.26M 16.6K
Number of RT per follower 741 664
Number of Likes per follower 114 56
Number of Reactions per follower 900 592

At the same time, it is important to observe the ‘internal’ dimension of virality that is, the extent to which a tweet aligns itself or diverge from the average reach of other messages generated by the same source. For illustration purposes, the average number of RT, Likes and Reactions of a sample of the most recent ten tweets produced by Amb. Casson (28 Aug – 5 Sept, 2018) and HC Evriviades (21-23 June 2019) fall well outside the normal distribution, between 2-3 standard deviations in the case of Amb. Casson and even further in the case of HC Evriviades. In other words, while both Tweets have performed extremely well relative to other tweets posted by the same author, the one posted by HC Evriviades is a clear outlier, especially in terms of Likes and Reactions.

Table 2. Internal virality relative to the average tweet reach in each account
  Amb. John Casson HC Euripides Evriviades
  Average Standard Deviation Average Standard Deviation
RT 370 473 6 6
Likes 3993 3466 24 27
Reactions 420 404 2 1

This brings us back to Barthes’ distinction between the studium and the punctum and its role as an analytical tool for explaining the performance of these two tweets. From a studium perspective, both tweets speak to traditional themes about what it means to be a diplomat. Engaging with people and cultivating issues of common interest in the case of Amb. Casson and building political relationships in the case of HC Evriviades. However, it is not the conventionalism of the stories that makes the difference in terms of the reception by the audience, but the punctum by which the viewer is invited to interpret the message. The casualness and naturalness by which Amb. Casson mingles with regular Egyptian citizens stands in clear contrast with its official position, while the note of subtle humour that HC Evriviades drops in his message acts as a relaxing counterpoint to the solemnity that the 10 Downing Street door conveys as the centre of political power in UK.

The stadium/punctum framework also adds an interesting reflexive angle to the discussion regarding the influence of external vs internal virality. As the audience gradually becomes familiar with the style of the author, internal validity can sustain itself if the punctum constantly refreshes itself. For example, the casualness shown by Amb. Casson in his public interactions can demonstrate its viral value if it continues to surprise the viewer, by engaging, for instance, with unexpected guests, or changing the dynamic of the interaction with the public. In the same way, the light/solemn punctum adopted by HC Evriviades will require creatively updated formats of expression so as to maintain the attention of the audience. From the perspective of external virality, the studium can offer interesting insights about how certain themes of diplomatic reflection travel across space and time. For example, does the idea of direct engagement with the public resonate better in places where the local relationship between citizens and policy-makers is more hierarchical? Similarly, would humour be able to drive viral content in the same way in places where the reputation of power holders is negative?    

Virality Rules

As mentioned elsewhere,2diplomatic communication has been traditionally embedded in a text-oriented culture that has favoured ‘constructive ambiguity’ over precision, politeness over frankness, reason over passion, and confidentiality over transparency. The arrival of digital technologies has infused the public sphere in which diplomacy operates with a set of new elements that have completely rearranged the ‘grammar rules’ of online engagement. Data and algorithms are now the new syntactic units of the new ‘digital language’ to which various combinations of visuals, emotions and cognitive frames are attached to create semantic meaning. This also means that digital content on social media platforms must tailor itself closely to these rules in order to be able to go viral. If so, what exactly are these rules and how the stadium/punctum framework can help us unpack the scope of application of these rules?

Rule 1. Information overload and limited attention contribute to the degradation of the quality of information that goes viral

As shown by Weng et al. the combination of social network structure (the denser, the better) and competition for finite user attention provides a sufficient condition for the emergence of a broad diversity of viral content.3 However, out of the ‘soup’ of contending viral messages, it is more likely that those that come on top expose low-quality information as both the information load and the limited attention lead to low discriminative power. As Qiu et al. point out, viral diversity can coexist with network discriminative power when we have plenty of attention and we are not overloaded with information,4 conditions that are increasingly difficult to meet in the digital medium. In other words, the network structure of social media platforms favours the formation of viral content, but the attention deficit of the users acts as a filter for the quality of the viral content.

Image 3. Tweets with asymmetrical quality of information

“Normally I say 'I'll be back', but now I say: 'I'll be there'" -- Arnold @Schwarzenegger accepts invitation from @antonioguterres to the UN #ClimateAction Summit in September.

— United Nations (@UN) 22 June 2019

With European prosperity and Asian peace and security closely connected, the EU has decided to strengthen its security cooperation in and with Asia. Check out the factsheet

— European External Action Service - EEAS 🇪🇺 (@eu_eeas) 31 May 2019

As suggested in Image 3, Rule 1 carries empirical relevance. The tweet posted by the UN account showing the UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, inviting Arnold Schwarzenegger to attend the Climate Action Summit in September 2019 went quickly viral (by internal standards). It has swiftly reached roughly three times the average of Likes and RTs received by the UN account despite the scarcity of the information provided, except for a brief reference to the actor’s ‘I’ll be back” famous line. By contrast, the information rich tweet posted by the European External Action Service (EEAS) outlining EU-Asia security priorities, an important topic in the current geopolitical context, has been hardly noticed by the online public. One important implication of Rule 1 is that the punctum needs to really stand out (via emotional framing of the use of a dynamic format) if the quality of the information reflected by the studium is to stay high and make a significant difference for the audience.

Rule 2. Emotions rule! Content that evokes intense emotions is more likely to go viral

One important school of thought on the psychology of emotions links Paul Ekman and Robert Plutchik’s influential theories of basic emotions to the pleasure,5 arousal and dominance model of environmental perception developed by Mehrabian and Russell6 (see Image 4). It is thus argued that emotions are associated with different degrees of positive (joy, surprise) or negative feelings (anger, disgust, fear, sadness), that they come with different levels of high (joy, anger, fear) or low energy (sadness, disgust) and that they are connected to feelings of control (anger, joy) or inadequacy (fear, sadness). Building on this model, Rule 2 states that messages reflecting high levels of valence, arousal and dominance, such as joy and anger, are more likely to go viral.

Image 4: Affective space spanned by the Valence-Arousal-Dominance model, together with the position of six Basic Emotions.7
Image 4: Affective space spanned by the Valence-Arousal-Dominance model, together with the position of six Basic Emotions

Rule 2 has received empirical support from a few studies. Fan et al. have found, for instance, that angry emotions could spread more quickly and broadly on social media than joy.8 Stieglitz & Dang-Xuan have also found that emotionally charged Twitter messages tend to be retweeted more often and more quickly compared to neutral ones.9 In a controversial experiment conducted on Facebook, Kramer et al. have demonstrated that emotional states can be actually transferred to others via emotional contagion, leading people to experience the same emotions without even their awareness.10

Image 5. Tweets with asymmetrical emotional valence

Goaded by #B_Team, @realdonaldTrump hopes to achieve what Alexander, Genghis & other aggressors failed to do. Iranians have stood tall for millennia while aggressors all gone. #EconomicTerrorism & genocidal taunts won't "end Iran". #NeverThreatenAnIranian. Try respect—it works!

— Javad Zarif (@JZarif) 20 May 2019

Mi silla 😉

— Mark Kent (@KentArgentina) 21 June 2019

What is interesting in the case of Rule 2 is that the punctum is not necessarily defined by a particular feature of the message, but by the emotion that transpires from the message. The two tweets in Image 5, posted by the Iranian Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif (left) and the UK Ambassador to Argentina, Mark Kent (right), illustrate well this point. FM Zarif’s tweet conveys a pugnacious expression of angry defiance, while Amb. Kent relies on the positive emotion of surprise to ‘pierce’ and establish a connection with the viewer. Both emotions enjoy high levels of energy and dominance, which explains the excellent reception by the audience (several times the average of RTs and Likes normally received by the two diplomats). An interesting implication of Rule 2 is the potential constitutive effect of emotion-driven virality on the formation of online audiences: do emotional punctums provide the anchor around which audiences coalesce and if so, at what stage the studium becomes irrelevant for how messages are received by the emotionally primed audience?  

Rule 3. Content that can be easily personalised is more likely to go viral

In a seminal article, later expanded in a book, Bennett and Segerberg make the argument that unlike the top-down mechanisms of content distribution favored by hierarchical organizations, social networking involves co-production and co-distribution based on personalized expression. According to this connective logic, taking public action becomes less an issue of demonstrating support for some generic goals, as noble as they may be, but an act of personal expression and self-validation achieved by sharing ideas online, negotiating meanings and structuring trusted relationships.11 For example, the personalized action frame ‘we are the 99 per cent’ that emerged from the US occupy protests in 2011, or the more recent ‘MeToo” movement, quickly turned viral and traveled the world via personal stories, images and videos shared on social networks such as Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. In short, the easier to personalise a message, as Rule 3 states, the lower the barriers for individual identification with social or political goals, the more opportunities for horizontal engagement, and by extension the more likely for such content to be absorbed, reflected upon, and disseminated through the social networks.

Image 6: Tweets with asymmetrical degree of personalization

Twelve Allies founded #NATO in 1949. Today we are 29.
Join us in celebrating the 70th Anniversary of our Alliance.#WeAreNATO

— NATO (@NATO) 1 de abril de 2019

Traute Lafrenz is the last survivor of the White Rose resistance group. She is one of the few people who had the courage to stand up to the Nazis´ crimes. Consul General Heike Fuller presented the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany to Traute Lafrenz today

— GermanForeignOffice (@GermanyDiplo) 3 de mayo de 2019

For MFAs and embassies, personalisation is not necessarily an easy task, as often case their online activities are primarily about projecting and emphasising their own set of policy priorities, approaches, and strategies to addressing various issues on the global agenda. Personalisation would imply exactly the opposite: removing oneself from the “digital spotlight” and identifying themes that can connect with as many individuals as possible. The examples in Image 6 aim to achieve this in slightly different ways.

The #WeAreNATO videoclip produced by NATO for its 70th anniversary in April places the member states at the forefront of the story about the historical evolution of the organisation. Personalisation takes place, in this case, via state representatives who come together to share their commitment to the values of freedom and security projected by the organisation. The viral tweet of the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs takes a different approach. It invites viewers to recall the suffering of those persecuted for fighting for justice and freedom and to identify themselves with the courage demonstrated by one of the last survivors of the resistance movement to the Nazi regime.  

In contrast to Rule 2, personalisation does not primarily focus on emotions but rather on recognition and self-validation. The studium moves back to the centre stage as the repertoire of themes it proposes for discussion needs to offer points of connection by which individuals can express themselves in their own voice through the sharing of similar stories, images and actions. In the case of Rule 3, the punctum emerges not as an anchor by which the viewer is drawn to absorb the message of the studium via subtle contradictions or surprises, but as an invitation to engage as a co-participant in the production of stories connected to the studium that maximise perceptions of self-worth and social recognition.


To conclude, the dynamic environment in which digital diplomacy operates has increased the pressure on MFAs and embassies to become more conscious of the need to better understand how their messages could excel in terms of engagement. Barthes offers us good analytical tools (the studium and the punctum) for unpacking the contextual dimensions of viral dissemination (external vs internal) as well as the role of information, emotions and personalisation in informing the rules of operation of viral engagement.

Corneliu Bjola
Head of the Oxford Digital Diplomacy Research Group, University of Oxford (#DigDiploROx) | @CBjola

1 Roland. Barthes, Camera Lucida : Reflections on Photography (Hill and Wang, 1981).

2 Corneliu Bjola, Jennifer Cassidy, and Ilan Manor, “Public Diplomacy in the Digital Age”, The Hague Journal of Diplomacy 14, no. 1–2 (April 22, 2019): 86.

3 Weng et al., “Competition among Memes in a World with Limited Attention”, Scientific Reports 2, no. 1 (December 29, 2012): 335.

4 Xiaoyan Qiu et al., “Limited Individual Attention and Online Virality of Low-Quality Information”, Nature Human Behaviour 1, no. 7 (July 26, 2017): 5.

5 According to Ekman, human emotions can be grouped in six families (anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness, and surprise) while Plutchik eight, which he grouped into four pairs of polar opposites (joy-sadness, anger-fear, trust-distrust, surprise-anticipation). Paul Ekman, “An Argument for Basic Emotions,” Cognition and Emotion 6, no. 3–4 (1992): 169–200; Robert Plutchik, “The Nature of Emotions”, American Scientist 89, no. 4 (2001): 344–50.

6 A Mehrabian and J A Russell, An Approach to Environmental Psychology, Cambridge, Mass (M.I.T. Press, 1974).

7 Graph adapted from Sven Buechel and Udo Hahn, “Word Emotion Induction for Multiple Languages as a Deep Multi-Task Learning Problem”, 2018, 1908.

8 Rui Fan et al., “Anger Is More Influential Than Joy: Sentiment Correlation in Weibo”, accessed June 25, 2019,

9 Stefan Stieglitz and Linh Dang-Xuan, “Emotions and Information Diffusion in Social Media—Sentiment of Microblogs and Sharing Behavior”, Journal of Management Information Systems 29, no. 4 (April 8, 2013): 217–48.

10 Adam D I Kramer, Jamie E Guillory, and Jeffrey T Hancock, “Experimental Evidence of Massive-Scale Emotional Contagion through Social Networks”, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 111, no. 24 (June 17, 2014): 8788–90.

11 W. Lance Bennett and Alexandra Segerberg, “The Logic of Connective Action”, Information, Communication & Society 15, no. 5 (June 2012): 752–54.

<![CDATA[ Emerging security challenges in NATO’s southern neighbourhood ]]> 2019-07-03T10:22:24Z

NATO has always had a southern exposure. Today’s strategic environment provides a new context for this traditional question, but also raises fundamental questions of geography, alliance politics and a shared approach to risks.


NATO confronts an increasingly complex and risk-prone environment. A more assertive Russia poses specific challenges and the Alliance has made headway in addressing risks emanating from the east. NATO has been less explicit in addressing risks emanating from the Mediterranean and from the ‘south’ more generally. These risks are real and will make new demands on Alliance strategy in the years ahead.


NATO has always had a southern exposure. Since the early years of the Alliance, the question of how to understand and address challenges emanating from the Mediterranean and beyond has been on the NATO agenda in political and security terms. Today’s strategic environment provides a new context for this traditional question, but also raises fundamental questions of geography, alliance politics and a shared approach to risks. Transatlantic relations and NATO burden-sharing will be elements in the equation as NATO looks south.


The definition of the southern limits of the NATO area of responsibility was a key political issue when Algeria was still part of France and other members retained colonies in Africa and elsewhere. The earliest NATO enlargements were southbound, with Greece and Turkey. During the Cold War, the East-West military balance had a distinct southern dimension, alongside more focused threats on the northern and central flanks. But despite the considerable military assets and infrastructure deployed across NATO’s southern region, the Mediterranean remained a secondary concern in Alliance strategy. The defence of Frankfurt and Athens were never really equivalent strategic priorities. Even after the collapse of the Soviet Union, challenges in the south were seen as local concerns, or linked to broader questions of global strategy, of interest largely to the US. The experience of two Gulf Wars reinforced this perception, with NATO’s south serving, above all, as a logistical link to the Gulf. Formal NATO strategy continued –and continues– to treat Mediterranean challenges as a fully equivalent part of collective defence. But Alliance politics and the wider strategic debate are another matter.

Today, strategy looking south is experiencing a renaissance. Terrorism is a key part of the equation in both public and elite perception, and this concern is hardly limited to NATO’s southern members. Power projection and crisis management in the face of a very unstable security environment from North Africa to the Levant is another key element. Unease over migration pressures and hard and soft security challenges emanating from the global south are also driving the debate. Yet the sheer scale of the relevant geography, the diversity of risks and their diffuse character, and strategic distractions elsewhere continue to complicate Alliance thinking about the security environment across the ‘southern neighbourhood’ and how to address it.

What south?

The contemporary question of NATO’s southern strategy has provoked a fundamental debate over what, precisely, is meant by the ‘south’. The Mediterranean is the undeniable centre of gravity in this context. Developments across the Mediterranean space, at sea and ashore, touch directly on the security interests of the Alliance as a whole. NATO has a well-established partnership programme, the Mediterranean Dialogue, embracing North Africa and the Levant.1 This initiative, celebrating its 25th anniversary in 2019, has evolved significantly over time. It has acquired a more practical orientation with the broad aim of capacity building and encouraging a shared security culture around the Mediterranean. It remains a vehicle for multilateral discussions in a setting that allows for few interactions between, for instance, Israel and the Arab states, or Morocco and Algeria. It could be even more active in this context if political conditions were more permissive.2 The inclusion of Mauritania appears much less eccentric today against the backdrop of mounting security challenges emanating from the Sahel.

But it is increasingly clear that effective consideration of NATO strategy looking south cannot stop at the Mediterranean and its immediate hinterlands. NATO’s southern exposure has broadened in political and practical terms. Beyond the Maghreb, Africa as a whole is now part of the strategic equation and is set to become even more important over time. Migration, spill-overs of terrorism and illicit flows of all kinds have made Africa an integral part of the European and transatlantic security calculus. The US, France and other NATO members now have a substantial military presence across the Sahel and West Africa. The latter is a growing focus of intelligence collection, surveillance and security partnerships. The deployment of new NATO assets, including Global Hawk drones based in Sicily, is clearly oriented towards risks emanating from this quarter. The enlargement of this security space implies closer cooperation with institutions such as the African Union (AU) and the G5-Sahel. Ultimately, countries such as Senegal, Nigeria and South Africa could be significant partners in NATO’s effort to ‘project security’ (a somewhat unfortunate term) southward.

The relevant geography for NATO is potentially even more far-reaching. Analysts and policymakers are focusing more directly on illicit flows around the Atlantic basin. Today, European and North American security interests are directly affected by the substantial flow of drugs and related trafficking from Latin America and the Caribbean across the Atlantic to West Africa, Cape Verde and northward to the Maghreb and across the Mediterranean. This phenomenon is an example of trans-national threat par excellence.

Taking this approach even further, the ‘south’ could imply all those challenges facing NATO outside the confrontation with Russia in the east. It could easily embrace the entire geography from West Africa and its Atlantic approaches to South and even South-East Asia. Afghanistan, the Horn of Africa and the Gulf are already part of this southern calculus given the counter-terrorism and maritime security missions in which NATO members have already been engaged. Ultimately, this outlook converges with the steadily growing pressure for the Alliance to address risks generated by the rise of China and instability in the Indo-Pacific. Clearly, there are limits to this immense enlargement of NATO’s operational space. Pressing defence requirements in Europe’s east and disillusionment with the mission in Afghanistan have reduced the appetite of allies for expeditionary strategies.

Operationally, there are obvious limits to NATO’s global engagement. But it is important to distinguish between the idea of NATO action in the global south and the role of the Alliance as a place where wider strategic concerns can be discussed and policies coordinated. In a political sense, NATO’s south can stretch as far as allies agree to take it.

Thinking beyond crisis management

The Alliance has more than enough to deal with even in a limited definition of the south. The range of potential contingencies and missions around the Mediterranean, Africa and the southern Atlantic is substantial. Many of these challenges are of an unconventional or irregular nature, or involve long term political, economic and environmental pressures. But there are also some tangible territorial threats. Turkey faces potential Article V-type contingencies on its eastern and southern borders, and an unstable balance with Russia in the Black Sea. Experience in Libya, Syria and elsewhere encourages a view of Mediterranean security as an ongoing exercise in crisis management. This may be an inadequate template for the future. There will surely be crises requiring a concerted response. Yet the weakening of states around the southern Mediterranean and the prospect of open-ended conflict in places like Libya, raises the spectre of something closer to sustained instability or durable chaos. The regime in Damascus may well be able to secure its position, but will Syria ever return to the pre-civil war status quo? There is a very real possibility that Syria and the Levant will remain unstable and prone to proxy wars for years to come.

A vision of southern security in which instability and conflict is not an aberration but the norm underscores the importance of missions beyond periodic crisis management. In addition to making risks more transparent through better air, maritime and cyber surveillance –current situational awareness–, the Alliance will need to build its capacity for warning. This implies better sharing of longer-term intelligence and analysis of over-the-horizon risks. The NATO Strategic Direction South Hub in Naples can be one vehicle for this task. But the real capacity for warning is likely to come from bringing together the assessments of Alliance members and partners across the south.

New actors, new stakes

At the risk of restating the obvious, the source of the challenge to NATO in the east is clear, even if the dimensions of the security problem are complex, ranging from the nuclear to the conventional, the irregular to the digital and, ultimately, the political. In the south, NATO confronts immense diversity across the spectrum of risk. There are flashpoints, but no clear centre of gravity in security terms.

One of the key developments across this vast space has been the emergence of new actors and the return of some old ones. Russia has a long history of involvement in Mediterranean affairs dating to Czarist times. During the Cold War, Soviet strategy emphasised the cultivation of security relationships around the Middle East and Africa, north and south. The Soviet navy maintained a meaningful presence in the Mediterranean, even with the limited infrastructure available ashore in such places as Syria and Algeria. This presence essentially evaporated for more than a decade following the collapse of the Soviet Union. But Russia is now back, politically and militarily. The Russian intervention in Syria is the most obvious facet of Moscow’s return, alongside a longstanding relationship with Algeria, activism in Libya and a revived security relationship with Egypt. Russia has remained an influential political actor from the Balkans to the Levant. Moscow’s relationship with Ankara has flourished even as Turkish-Western relations have deteriorated (the planned sale of the Russian S-400 air defence system to Turkey is now the central issue in a deeply troubled relationship between Washington and Ankara). In short, Russia is once again a political-military actor of some importance around the Mediterranean and beyond.

Russian activism bridges NATO’s eastern and southern concerns in some tangible ways, not least in terms of Black-Sea security. As in the Baltic, the growing friction between Russia and NATO has led to a heightened risk of military incidents in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Black Sea, where forces are operating in proximity. The current level of Russian engagement on NATO’s southern periphery may or may not be sustainable over the longer term. But, for the moment at least, Moscow is back.

A transatlantic debate

Emerging challenges and NATO strategy looking south take on special meaning in the context of the current transatlantic security debate. US engagement and transatlantic burden-sharing are likely to play out in distinctive ways on Europe’s southern periphery. As in Eastern Europe, fears of US disengagement across the region have so far proved to be exaggerated. Deterring and defending against a revived Russia –an existential issue for the Alliance in the East– can hardly be contemplated without US nuclear and conventional contributions. For all the sharp rhetoric around Washington’s pointed pursuit of rebalancing in European defence, the US security presence in Europe has increased in recent years. This is evident in the south, too, although the posture is clearly in flux (as seen in the rapid growth and equally rapid reduction in US forces deployed in West Africa and the Sahel). Washington remains a leading diplomatic and security actor from the Maghreb to the Indian Ocean, from the Black Sea to sub-Saharan Africa. To be sure, the US naval presence in the Mediterranean does not resemble its Cold War form, when the Sixth Fleet kept at least one carrier battle-group in the area. The current pattern was set during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, when European naval forces took over much of this Mediterranean role through NATO’s Operation Active Endeavour. But the US maintains substantial command, air and rapid deployment assets in and around the Mediterranean. The bulk of the ballistic missile defence capacity is afloat in the region.

The US presence in the south is, however, subject to uncertainty over time. A major crisis in Asia could draw substantial US attention and presence away from Europe’s southern periphery. Indeed, allies are already concerned about the durability of US engagement in the Middle East and North Africa. Persistent crises and calls for intervention in the region are unlikely to be well received by the Trump Administration –or by its possible successors–. The Sahel and the Balkans are already seen as areas for European security leadership. The US strategic class tends to see these as places Europe can reach and should be able to manage in security terms. Calls for European ‘strategic autonomy’ and new EU defence initiatives, if they amount to anything, should be felt first and foremost in the south where European allies already deploy significant forces. As an area where low-intensity maritime, humanitarian and counter-terrorism contingencies abound, this is a particularly promising theatre for NATO-EU cooperation. Operations in the south are also redefining US priorities for bilateral military cooperation in Europe. Today, France is arguably Washington’s leading security partner.


There is an evident asymmetry between the scale and character of NATO’s security challenges in the east and the south. But the Alliance politics in these settings is less clear-cut than is sometimes assumed. To be sure, NATO’s southern members are more inclined to focus on risks emanating from a wider south. Poland and the Baltic states have their own well-founded concerns. But beyond these obvious differences, security perspectives across the Alliance are more nuanced and complex. For most of Western Europe, the risk of terrorism and political violence emanating from the south trumps the fear of Russian aggression. Terrorism below the level of ‘super terrorism’ and uncontrolled migration –both emblematic of challenges emanating from the south– may not pose an existential threat in strict terms, but both can be politically existential for the societies affected.

Some southern members may be characterised as softer on Russia. Growing Russian activism around the Mediterranean, at odds with southern European interests in Libya and elsewhere, may lead to a hardening of attitudes over time. In short, geography may be a declining guide to strategic priorities in a time of trans-regional risks. The contours of the NATO debate about strategy south –a traditional issue in political and defence terms– are changing rapidly under pressure of emerging challenges and evolving ideas about what exactly is meant by the ‘south’. Whatever the geographic parameters, the weight of these southern challenges in Alliance planning is likely to increase as part of a broader, global rise in risk.

Dr Ian Lesser
Vice President of the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF) and Executive Director of GMF’s Brussels office | @ian_lesser

1 Founded in 1994, the Mediterranean Dialogue now includes Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan, Israel and Mauritania.

2 See Ian Lesser, Charlotte Brandsma, Laura Basagni & Bruno Lété (2018), The Future of NATO’s Mediterranean Dialogue: Perspectives on Security, Strategy and Partnership, The German Marshall Fund of the United States, May.

<![CDATA[ NATO and the South ]]> 2019-07-01T11:30:29Z

Speech delivered at the opening meeting of the project on the emerging security challenges in NATO’s southern neighbourhood, Brussels, 24 April 2019.

Speech delivered at the opening meeting of the project on the emerging security challenges in NATO’s southern neighbourhood, Brussels, 24 April 2019.

At the grand old age of 70, NATO has undoubtedly had to change and adapt over the decades to survive and thrive. One of the most striking examples of its versatility is the turn the Alliance took to the South. If, at its inception, NATO was created to fend off challenges and threats emanating from its big Eastern neighbour, subsequent developments to its South prompted the Alliance to adopt a 360-degree shift in its approach to security. Not only did NATO have to develop the capacity to deal with threats irrespective of their geographical origin, it also had to develop a structured approach to challenges emanating from the South and a network of partnerships in the region.

The very notion of NATO’s ‘South’ has indeed changed and evolved significantly over time. During the Cold War it was just one arena of the East-West confrontation, with a strong focus on the Eastern Mediterranean; the presence of the US VI Fleet in Naples conferred on all this a strong maritime dimension. After the Cold War and throughout the 1990s, the South came to represent a promising region for dialogue and cooperation with other countries while the conflict(s) in the former Yugoslavia were still seen through the lenses of a post-Cold War ‘East’.

With and after 9/11, NATO’s South became a major theatre for counter-terrorism operations and activities, extending as far as Afghanistan (ISAF) and the Horn of Africa (counter-piracy): in fact, in NATO parlance, Afghanistan is now part and parcel of its ‘South’. With and after the 2011 Arab ‘Awakening’, the wider MENA region turned into a sort of 21st-century ‘Thirty Years War’ –with its own combination and overlap of territorial, religious and dynastic/political disputes fuelled also by external players–. The 2014 onset of the ISIL/Daesh ‘Caliphate’ in Iraq and Syria only made things worse, fuelling massive disruptions and displacements, while some of the drivers of the ‘Awakening’ seem to be still present, as recent developments in Algeria and Sudan seem to indicate.

And today? NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg likes to say that, as a Norwegian, the ‘South’ for him is basically Denmark. As NATO’s leader, however, his ‘South’ now stretches across the Mediterranean and the MENA region, but also from the Sahel to the Horn and through the Indo-Pacific into South Asia.

You are probably more than familiar with the challenges faced by this region: political instability and unrest are widespread, with the situation in Syria and Libya constituting its most extreme representation, contributing to increased and uncontrolled migration flows, as have water scarcity and worsening agricultural conditions –in particular in the Sahel and Sub-Saharan Africa– accelerated by climate change.

Terrorism and violent extremism remain two of the most acute challenges faced by the countries in the region. While the number of deaths caused by terrorist acts continues to decrease, the threat is now spread more widely across the globe and set to increase in the near future in some areas. The collapse of ISIL/Daesh in Iraq and Syria has moved the group’s activities elsewhere, in particular to the Maghreb and Sahel regions, most notably in Libya, Niger and Mali. Furthermore, al-Qaeda remains a resilient and powerful player, in particular through affiliates such as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and al-Shabaab in Somalia.

It is easy to see how many of these emerging security challenges are interconnected and intertwined, thus requiring an integrated and comprehensive approach to tackle them. NATO has been working for years to support international efforts to strengthen security in its ‘South’ and is committed to cooperative security as one of its core tasks enshrined in the 2010 new Strategic Concept (together with the other two: deterrence and defence and crisis management).

At the Brussels Summit last July, Allied Heads of State and Government endorsed a ‘Package on the South’, which includes a range of political and practical cooperation initiatives towards a more strategic, focused and coherent approach to the MENA region. The Package is underpinned by three main objectives: (1) strengthening NATO’s deterrence and defence against threats emanating from the South; (2) contributing to international crisis management efforts in the region; and (3) helping our regional partners build up resilience against security threats.

To support these efforts, a Regional ‘Hub for the South’ was set up at the Allied Joint Force Command in Naples in 2018. The Hub reached its full operational capacity in July of that year. The aim behind its creation is to increase NATO’s situational awareness of the threats and opportunities emanating from the MENA region, to support the collection, management and sharing of information, and to promote the coordination and conduct outreach activities with the Alliance’s partners in the South, hence improving its cooperation with them to counter those challenges.

Yet NATO’s work with its southern partners is longstanding. In 1994 the Alliance launched the Mediterranean Dialogue (MD), a forum for dialogue and cooperation with southern partners including Israel, Tunisia, Morocco, Egypt, Mauritania, Jordan (1995) and Algeria (2000). In 2004 the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative (ICI) was established with the objective of contributing to long-term global and regional security by offering countries of the broader Middle East region practical bilateral security cooperation with NATO. Today the ICI includes Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates. An ICI Regional Centre was set up in Kuwait in 2017 to allow closer cooperation with partners in the Gulf region and increased coordination of practical activities.

Over the years, cooperation in both the MD and ICI formats has increased and deepened, moving from dialogue-centred exchanges to a true partnership that is mutually beneficial and with a tangible practical dimension. Today, in both forums, partners come together in seminars, workshops and exercises to cooperate with NATO on topics that range from civil emergency planning to counter-terrorism and arms-control efforts, especially with regard to small arms and light weapons and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

At their request, we continue to build our partners’ capacity to address the security challenges they face through individual, tailored partnership programmes aimed ultimately at making their respective security structures and institutions stronger and more effective, including, for instance, through the Defence-and-Security-related Capacity Building (DCB) packages. DCB packages provide tailored support to local forces by advising, assisting, training and mentoring them in specific agreed areas. Iraq, Jordan and Tunisia are among the recipients of the packages. In Jordan assistance is provided in areas that include cyber defence, countering improvised explosive devices (C-IEDs), civil preparedness and crisis management. In Tunisia, it includes cyber defence, C-IEDs and the promotion of transparency in resource management.

NATO is also strengthening its political and practical cooperation with Morocco in important domains such as counter-terrorism, cyber defence, science and technology, and defence against Chemical Biological Radiological and Nuclear agents. Morocco recently hosted a public diplomacy event in Rabat to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Mediterranean Dialogue cooperation.

To help combat one of the most pressing challenges emanating from the south, NATO launched in 2017 an Action Plan to enhance its role in the international community’s struggle against terrorism. The Action Plan was updated in December 2018 with a renewed focus on upgrading efforts aimed at strengthening the defence and security forces and institutions of partner countries. Providing support and building up capacities in partner countries, in particular those of the South, in order to strengthen their ability to fight terrorism at both the operational and strategic levels is a key element of NATO’s approach, as is the promotion of good governance and intra- and inter-governmental cooperation in the security sector.

The Alliance’s enduring engagement in Afghanistan and the recent establishment of a new mission in Iraq are also a reflection of its counterterrorism commitments. In Afghanistan NATO provides –through its Resolute Support Mission– training advice and assistance to the Afghan security forces and institutions in order to create the conditions for lasting peace and to ensure that the country never again becomes a haven for international terrorists. In Iraq, after providing direct support to the Global Coalition to defeat ISIL/Daesh (with NATO AWACS), the non-combat training and capacity-building NATO Mission launched last summer provides training and advice to help Iraq develop more effective national security structures and professional military education institutions, thus supporting the Iraqi government in its efforts to stabilise the country, ultimately through the development of a self-sustaining cadre of Iraqi instructors. The mission helps to boost skills in areas like military medicine, countering improvised explosive devices and the reform of national security structures.

The transnational and interconnected nature of the challenges affecting NATO’s southern neighbourhood also means that the Alliance cannot operate alone in this context and that international and regional cooperation is required. At a regional level, NATO has been working with the African Union (AU) for more than a decade and the relationship has strengthened over the years. At the 2016 Warsaw Summit and, more recently, through the 2018 Updated Action Plan, NATO committed to an enhanced relationship with the AU, including addressing common challenges linked to fighting terrorism. The AU has identified a requirement for counterterrorism capacity- and institution-building through education and training –and NATO is currently providing such support, including the Science for Peace and Security (SPS) programme–.

At an international level, NATO continues to cooperate closely with both the UN and the EU. Only a month ago, I had the honour and privilege of representing the Alliance at the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding on the implementation of a joint project with the UN on ‘Enhancing Capabilities to prepare for and respond to a terrorist attack in Jordan featuring the use of Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear (CBRN) weapons’. This UN-NATO project builds on the existing NATO work with Jordan to foster its national crisis-management capabilities, and it will feature the development of a national crisis plan for dealing with threats posed by CBRN agents.

Moreover, in the context of exploring options for increased NATO-EU cooperation, Tunisia (and to some extent Iraq) was selected as a pilot country. Possible joint strands of work are being looked at in fields where relevant work has already been initiated, eg, on cyber defence and ammunition storage and safety. Staff-to-staff coordination and information exchange have been frequent, open and highly useful, favouring complementarity and mutual understanding, but we can surely all do more and better in those areas where one organisation can easily do what the other cannot, thus making our respective efforts complementary and mutually reinforcing.

Finally, as we are discussing emerging security challenges, it may be worthwhile to consider two additional aspects of the counter-terrorism policy file. The first has to do with the so-called Foreign Terrorist Fighters (FTFs): since 2013 40,000 are estimated to have travelled to Iraq and Syria to join ISIL/Daesh, and roughly 7,000 of them have returned to their countries of origin (including many NATO nations). They do represent a high security risk, since 18% of terrorist attacks staged in the West between 2014 and 2017 were carried out by returnees. UNSC Resolution 2396 (2017) encouraged member states to swiftly exchange information about them and, accordingly, NATO agreed in July 2018 on a new data-sharing policy intended to exchange biometric data on FTFs collected on the battlefield, thus contributing to multilateral efforts and assisting Allies domestically also.

Terrorists are also making an increasing use of modern technologies. While there have been no cases of ‘cyber-terrorism’ –ie, no proved terrorist act carried out through cyber means only– terrorist groups have indeed used cyberspace for recruitment and funding as well as operational purposes. This is an area where intelligence agencies are very busy and alert, although these activities are unlikely to reach the level of sophistication and disruption that only State-sponsored groups can achieve in this domain. There is, however, a growing concern about the possible use of unmanned vehicles for kinetic terrorist attacks –and not only on the battlefield (where they have already occurred) but also in civilian and especially urban environments–. What happened around Christmas 2018 at Gatwick airport in London was quite telling, especially in light of the commercial affordability and availability of such tools and their potential impact on civilian life. NATO has just launched a specific initiative to counter –on the battlefield but potentially also elsewhere– such a misuse of new technologies by terrorists.

The activities I have briefly touched upon just now reflect NATO’s serious commitment to cooperating with its Southern partners to build up their capacity so that they can address more effectively the challenges they face.

Despite these numerous and often daunting challenges, however, to view NATO’s Southern neighbours exclusively as part of a region fraught with instability would be reductive. Renewable and untapped energy resources in the Mediterranean and beyond, rising life expectancy in Africa, increased access to education and information, and spots of civic progress and human development are remarkable features of this wider region, often overlooked in favour of focusing on risks and threats. All combined, these diverse elements paint the picture of a highly volatile, but also dynamic environment, rich with challenges and opportunities alike.

It is only with a thorough understanding of the region that concrete ways to address both can be found. For this reason, the project launched today is particularly important. With its intention of both ‘Understanding the South’ and ‘Responding to the South’, the two-year project will contribute to enhancing strategic awareness in NATO’s South and providing policy makers on both sides with suggestions for specific policy responses.

I thus congratulate the Elcano Royal Institute, the Moroccan Centre for Strategic Studies, the Jordanian Centre of Strategic Studies and the UK’s Institute for Statecraft for being awarded this SPS grant, managed by the Division I have the privilege to lead, and I wish you all the best of luck in taking forward the project over the next two years.

Antonio Missiroli
Assistant Secretary General for Emerging Security Challenges, NATO 1

1 The views expressed by the author are his own and do not represent NATO’s official position.
<![CDATA[ The EU after the elections: a more plural Parliament and Council ]]> 2019-06-26T11:11:55Z

What is the new balance of power in the EU’s institutions following the May 2019 elections?


What is the new balance of power in the EU’s institutions following the May 2019 elections?


The fallout of the May 2019 European elections is only just becoming visible. The European democracy is maturing and in the process many terms are being redefined. In this paper the author analyses the first weeks of European politics following the elections, particularly the higher degree of pluralism and politicisation of Europe’s institutions.


The Europeans have spoken. George Soros, the embattled US-European businessman who has spent billions on pro-democracy projects across the continent, has summed it up best: ‘the silent pro-European majority has spoken’.1 What are the consequences of the end-of-May elections?

There are five top jobs to be filled in by the end of the year: Presidents of the European Commission, the European Council, the European Parliament and of the European Central Bank, as well as the High Representative for Foreign Affairs, are in the pool. The leaders in the European Council have decided to agree on them all in a single package that will reflect a variety of balances: geographical, political, institutional, of gender and of the size of member states. There are a number of names in circulation, including those of the Spitzenkandidaten process, especially of the two largest political families: Manfred Weber and Frans Timmermans, respectively the lead candidates of the European People’s Party (EPP) of the Socialists and Democrats (S&D).

Figure 1. Europe’s election results
Figure 1. Europe’s election results

The election results confirmed many expectations but also threw up a few major surprises. The most important was the improved turnout: some 220 million Europeans, 51% of all those eligible to vote, cast their ballots, the highest number in a generation and a clear sign that the European public is regaining its interest in European affairs.

The high turnout (up 8% since 2014) and the results suggest that the European leadership is regaining its democratic mandate after a number of national referendums in member states organised between 2015 and 2016. All of them –in Greece (on bailout in 2015), Denmark (on opt-outs, 2015), the Netherlands (on the EU-Ukraine trade agreement, 2016) and, most significantly, in the UK on Brexit in 2016– were failures from a European standpoint.

The first feature of the results is the end of the majority of the ‘grand coalition’ between the EPP and the S&D. Even if the political culture of the European Parliament is far more inclusive than in many EU member states dominated by the pro-government majority and opposition logic, the fact that the two largest political groups provided parliamentary stability in the Parliament was significant. Now, the two largest families have been joined by a third, liberal, group generated by a new large French contingent from President Emmanuel Macron’s party. Following its merger with Macron’s Republique en Marche the ALDE group has now even altered its name to Renew Europe (RE).

Seeking a new majority

The three political groups (EPP, S&D and RE) together could control the majority comfortably with around 440 MEPs. The same three political families also dominate the European Council. The three of them are virtually equal, as there is no majority in either of the institutions (Parliament and European Council) without one of them. Only together can they provide an effective functioning of the EU’s governance system.

However, the process of ‘leading candidates’ (Weber, Timmermans, and the liberals Margrethe Vestager and Guy Verhofstadt) pushes the current debate in quite a different direction. On the one hand there is a centre-left coalition ‘against Weber’, consisting of the social-democratic and liberal leaders in the European Council, most notably the French President Emmanuel Macron and the Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez.2 On the other hand, the German Chancellor Angela Merkel is firmly behind the EPP front candidate, also due to internal German politics, where the CSU outperformed in Bavaria and the CDU underperformed in the rest of the country. One politician said that the appointment of the Bavarian politician is of major significance to the CSU.3 Manfred Weber is working to build a coalition in his favour by extending his talks to the ECR leadership.

With the RE and the S&D claiming the support of the rest of the left-wing groups –the Greens and the GUE/NGL– against Weber, there is the smallest centre-left positive majority in the new Parliament (377 mandates). At the same time there is no majority with the EPP and ECR, even if the centrist group were to converge with it (353 mandates). This is when Weber might try to stretch his support by talking to the new far-right group largely comprised by MEPs elected in Italy (La Lega) and France (Rassemblement National). This, however, would be highly controversial amongst the more-centrist EPP as well as the RE, and hence unlikely.

The future of the EPP remains a mystery since the Hungarian governing party Fidesz, has been suspended due to its direct attacks against the group’s leadership during the European election campaign. Fidesz also stands accused of compromising European values, hence the suspension. Similar problems have arisen with Romania’s governing PSD, which is a member of the Social Democrats in the EU. The PSD leader Liviu Dragnea was recently jailed on corruption charges.4 The liberal Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš has also given rise to similar suspicions and there were recently a series of major rallies in Prague demanding his resignation.5

As of mid-June there are eight members of the European Council siding with the EPP (Germany, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Hungary, Ireland, Latvia and Romania), six members with the S&D (Spain, Finland, Malta, Portugal, Slovakia and Sweden) and seven (France, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Slovenia) affiliated with the Renew Europe group. The Austrian Chancellor is running a care-taker government. Following the Danish elections, the new Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen (S&D) shall replace the previous liberal PM in the European Council, most likely still in June. The Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras is associated with GUE/NGL and announced snap elections for 7 July. The EPP is likely to pick up one seat in Athens. The Italian Prime Minister is not affiliated to any of the political families. The President of Lithuania, Dalia Grybauskaitė, an independent, will be replaced by a new leader in July, also non-partisan, Gitanas Nausėda. The Polish and British EUCO members are affiliated with the ECR.

It is very likely that by September there will be nine EPP members (+Greece), seven S&D members (+Denmark) and seven with Renew Europe. The majority in the European Council needed for the appointment of a new Commission President is 21.

Even if a centre-right or centre-left majority in the European Parliament were to be within reach, there is no majority possible in the European Council without all three of the political families. This is the first important message from the European elections: the only viable way forward is a ménage à trois.

The green wave

The elections brought a major surprise in that the two main blocks have been weakened while the two smaller centrist blocks are stronger, with the underlying threat from far-right nationalism. If the EPP and S&D were to become slightly smaller, the Liberals and the Greens would expand their European presence.

The status of the former has been strongly marked by the arrival of President Emmanuel Macron to the group: not only are 21 of the 108 group MEPs French, but the French arrival has led it into being re-named the group’s change into Renew Europe (RE). Dropping the adjective ‘liberal’ is not co-incidental. The new group leader is Dacian Cioloș, a former European Commissioner, who presented his own Romanian party PLUS last year to the world as located in the ‘centre, centre-right area’.6

The Greens were the major surprise in the elections. The party overperformed most visibly in Germany (25 mandates) and in France (12 seats), with a strong showing in less populous states like the Netherlands, Belgium, Ireland, the Czech Republic, Austria, Denmark, Finland and Sweden. With no presence on the European Council, the Greens’ strongest mandate comes from the main issue they promote: climate change. The Green parties across Western Europe have shown they enjoy the trust of the general public and the green vote should be interpreted as Europe’s citizens agreeing that climate change is the most pressing issue to be addressed.

Still, the Greens underperformed in the southern and eastern EU. Some commentators point out that the green agenda is not yet shared throughout the EU.7


The other groups lost the elections. The GUE/NGL is much smaller than before with only Germany, France, Ireland, Greece, Spain, Portugal and Cyprus having two or more MEPs.

The groups to the right of the EPP are not as strong as anticipated. There were three groups in the previous Parliament. One of them, the EFDD, is unlikely to continue to exist in the European Parliament due to the problem of gathering MEPs from seven different countries. Effectively two big national parties are lacking a group at the time of writing: the weakened Five Star Movement in Italy and the temporary protest-vote Brexit Party from the UK. Should the Brexiteers have their way, they will depart from the European Parliament before 31 October 2019.

The ECR has also lost its third-place positioning in the European Parliament, currently being the sixth-largest group. Its most significant defeat was in the UK, as Britain’s Conservatives gained only four seats in the new Parliament. The internal group dynamics suggest it will be dominated by Poland’s governing Law and Justice party (PiS).

Open questions regarding the ECR include: will the Five Star Movement join the group? Should Fidesz leave the EPP, will it join the ECR? Will the ECR be included in the next European Parliament’s ordinary committee work?

The new far-right: Identity and Democracy (ID)

Before the elections some predicted that the far-right might obtain as many as 150 MEPs. This turned out to be an overestimate, but it was certainly viewed as a threat. Still, La Lega and Rassemblement National won the elections in Italy and France, respectively. Among their partners are the Finns Party (Finland), Alternative for Germany (AfD), the Freedom Party of Austria (FPO), the Belgian Vlaams Belang and the Danish People’s Party (DF). All in all, 73 MEPs from nine countries form the group.

EU politics

Politics in member states are usually exercised by various political actors, all based on a political party system and civil society. In the EU, however, there are three level politics. All of them take place at the same time and the final outcome of any process has to include all three levels.

The first level is the traditional party politics with which we are familiar at the national level. This is when the centre-right competes for power and ideas, support and influence, with the centre-left, liberals, greens, far-left or far-right, with single-issue-driven parties or otherwise. This level is best seen in the European Parliament, where the political groups negotiate between themselves all political appointments, agendas and solutions.

The second level of political relations is between member states. National interests and national perspectives, along with differing backgrounds, political culture, finances and history all come to the fore. Geography, size and experience tend to play a role in the interaction between the member states in the Council and the European Council.

The third level of political relations is between institutions. There needs to be a respect for the Parliament in the Council for there is hardly any respect for the member states in the European Parliament.

The many necessary balances

There are many different balances that must be respected in the EU. One is political, between the main political families. As argued above, the most likely compromise should include political figures from three European families: EPP, S&D and Renew Europe.

The second balance to bear in mind is geographical. In the past, the East was represented by the incorporation of Polish politicians: Jerzy Buzek became the President of the European Parliament in 2009 and Donald Tusk of the European Council in 2014. This time the South is callings for representation, linked to the departure of three Italian politicians –Mario Draghi, ECB, Antonio Tajani, European Parliament, and Federica Mogherini, High Representative– from their positions. Northern candidates are also being increasingly considered.

The entire issue is linked with the financial balance between net contributors, countries known for being stringent about their fiscal approach.

In the past a politician from a country outside the Eurozone could not claim the position of European Commission President (or, obviously, the ECB presidency). Size matters, too: compromises should not include politicians from Germany, France, Spain, Italy and Poland alone. The absence of the larger countries from appointments would safeguard the rights of the smaller.

In addition, there is the need for a gender-balanced approach. Donald Tusk, the President of the European Council, mentioned that two women should be expected to take leading positions.8

Tusk was formally appointed formateur on 28 May.9 Soon after, however, a system of informal party negotiators was created with two negotiators on behalf of the EPP (Croatia’s Andrej Plenkovič and Latvia’s Krišjānis Kariņš), two on behalf of the S&D (Spain’s Pedro Sánchez and Portugal’s António Costa) and two on behalf of Renew Europe (the Netherlands’ Mark Rutte and Belgium’s Charles Michel).

All of the European Council’s work should be completed before the new European Parliament’s first plenary sitting takes place in Strasbourg on 2 July. Should that be the case, the next balancing act will be necessary: the interinstitutional, affecting the European Parliament. It is not known how the European Parliament –currently in the process of self-organisation– will react to a European Council appointment if the EUCO disregards the Spitzenkandidaten process.

The June 2019 European Council voted for the three candidates of the largest political families, but none of them gained the more than 21 votes necessary, despite Timmermans and the liberal candidate Vestager being supported by the S&D-RE and the Greek PM while the EPP’s Weber was only backed by his party peers.10 Nevertheless, all were rejected at the 20-21 June 2019 European Council.

Should the next European Council be able to put forward a candidate for the Commission Presidency, there is a significant chance it will not be one of the leading candidates. ‘A more moderate EPP candidate’ could be acceptable for the left, according to one member of the European Council,11 and the EPP seems to be pushing for the next Commission President to be from among its ranks.

This is where other options need to be considered, rather than seeking a balance. The new candidate will need to be consensual, gaining the support of the EPP, S&D and Renew Europe: probably an EPP politician who is not Manfred Weber. At the time of writing one name comes to mind, that of Michel Barnier, who as a French citizen and an EPP politician could gather support from both the Berlin and Paris governments.

Still, to seek such an agreement is a matter of European Council internal politics. The candidate needs to win both institutions’ approval. Michel Barnier was not a candidate in the elections. Will the Parliament oppose him on the principle of institutional balance? On a positive note, he is highly respected in the EU for his commitment to the European interest in the negotiations over Brexit with the British government.


The elections to the European Parliament are providing a strong mandate for EU reform. The change people want, however, is not unidimensional. Those who voted for sovereignist parties have a different perspective from their opponents, mostly the green electorate. The anti-Europeans are softening their narrative, also in the context of the new post-Brexit realities. The centre-right and centre-left are seeking stability and maintain the status quo. As Ivan Krastev recently remarked, ‘everybody wants a change, but a different one’.12

Nobody debates the democratic deficit of the European project anymore. This clearly suggests that a major increase in turnout means there is a greater democratic mandate for the EU institutions to act. But the context as to how and on what to act will require some handcrafting, since the many expectations are sometimes contradictory.

The next question to be addressed is not only who should lead the work of the Commission and other institutions, but also how. Will the next Commission be a political one? If so, in what way? The Juncker Commission’s experience has been very telling. There were controversies but the Juncker College was clearly a step up in the politicisation process. Still, not everyone is in favour of the Commission’s increased politicisation. For one thing, it is a challenge for a political Commission to maintain impartiality in certain important areas, such as competition policy; if the motivation for acting is political it is difficult to defend it against the accusations of its independence being compromised.

The new European Commission may not be as liberal-minded as previously, depending on the new majorities in the European Parliament and the European Council. On the one hand, the UK’s departure may have a significant impact on the negotiations at the Council of Ministers. On the other hand, the treaties have been written in such a way that building a social Europe, for example, will be limited if there are no changes in the treaties, while there are still many of areas that could be liberalised.

The agenda of the next European Commission is currently under negotiation. The June European Council adopted the ‘New Strategic Agenda 2019-2014’13 and in the European Parliament there are agenda negotiations involving four groups: EPP, S&D, RE and the Greens. Some have dubbed the policy priority negotiations a coalition-forming process similar to government-forming in countries like Belgium or the Netherlands.14 The process will be finalised with the presentation of the new Commission President. Five and 10 years ago the documents were known as Political Guidelines for the Next European Commission.15

If a political Commission is the reality, then enhancing European democracy is the next challenge. Among the issues debated during the elections was the idea of allowing the European Parliament to present its own legislative proposals, breaking the European Commission’s quasi-monopoly. Another idea for enhancing European democracy is to change the Union’s communication policy. So far it has largely focused on the role of member states being responsible for communicating the ‘EU’ to its citizens. While this might have been largely successful in places like Germany or Belgium, in many other counties that has not been the case. For instance, regarding the Brexit campaign in the UK, President Juncker admitted it was a mistake to entrust the communications policy to the British Prime Minister: ‘It was a mistake not to intervene and not to interfere because we would have been the only ones to destroy the lies which were circulated around. I was wrong to be silent at an important moment’.16

The new European Commission needs a new communications policy with the EU’s citizens. The Union must become a more concrete reality. The stakes are very high for the EU’s citizens and thus they have real alternatives: on security, jobs, the economy, climate and many other vital issues. Their input should not be set aside for a five-year-long halt. There is a need for a new set of instruments to be developed by the European executive and that will be on the agenda of the next European Commission.

Piotr Maciej Kaczyński
Independent expert on EU affairs | @pm_kaczynski

1 George Soros (2019), ‘Europe’s silent majority speaks out’, Project Syndicate, 7/VII/2019.

3 Interviews in Kielce, 9/VI/2019, and in Berlin, 11/VI/2019.

6 ‘Domnul Dragnea n-are dreptul să arunce în aer societatea românească’, PressOne, 17/XII/2018.

7 Ivan Krastev (2019), ‘After the European elections where is the European Union headed?’, Heinrich Böll Stiftung, Berlin, 3/VI/2019.

8Women should fill two EU top jobs, Tusk says’, EU Observer, 29/V/2019.

11 Ibid.

12 Krastev (2019), op. cit.

13A New Strategic Agenda 2019-2024’, European Council, 20/VI/2019.

14 Interview with Professor Steven Van Hecke of KU Leuven, 22/VI/2019.

<![CDATA[ The main economic challenges confronting Spain’s next government ]]> 2019-06-24T12:26:29Z

Spain’s next government faces major economic challenges and to overcome them it needs to regain the reformist momentum that used to characterise the country before political uncertainty set in.


Spain’s next government faces major economic challenges and to overcome them it needs to regain the reformist momentum that used to characterise the country before political uncertainty set in.


The economy has rebounded from a long recession, and the focus now needs to be on a series of challenges on the fiscal front, a pensions system that is unsustainable, unemployment that is still very high, productivity that is low and an education system not providing what Spain needs. Resolving these issues will determine the shape of the economy in the future.



The fragmentation of the political system, with three general elections in the last three and a half years (the same number as between 2004 and 2015), has weakened Spain’s capacity to carry out economic reforms. The country is still living with the 2018 budget as the previous minority Socialist government of Pedro Sánchez was unable in February to garner enough support in parliament for its 2019 budget, as a result of which a snap election was held in April.

The Socialists were the most voted party in that election, but without an absolute majority. Two months on Spain does not have a new government, although Sánchez is expected to be able to form one in July by the skin of his teeth. Whether that government will last the full term of four years is an open question. What is not in doubt is that Spain needs a stable and lasting government, able to implement structural reforms.

The continued political uncertainty comes at a time the economy is slowing down, as it is past the peak in the cycle of growth that began in 2014, following the extended double-dip recession in 2008-13 (see Figure 1). The pre-crisis GDP level was not restored until 2017.

Figure 1. Main indicators of the Spanish economy, 2014-18
  2014 2015 2016 2017 2018
Gross domestic product (a) 1.4 3.6 3.2 3.0 2.6
Private consumption (a) 1.5 3.0 2.9 2.5 2.3
Government consumption (a) -0.3 2.0 1.0 1.9 2.1
Exports of goods and services (a) 4.3 4.2 5.2 5.2 2.3
Imports of goods and services (a) 6.6 5.4 2.9 5.6 3.5
Contribution of domestic demand to GDP growth (pp) (a) 1.9 3.9 2.4 2.9 2.9
Contribution of net external demand to GDP growth (pp) (a) -0.5 -0.3 0.8 0.1 -0.3
Unemployment rate (b) 24.4 22.1 19.6 17.2 15.3
Unit labour costs (c) -0.2 0.5 -0.6 0.2 0.8
Consumer price index (end of period) (c) -1.0 0.0 1.6 1.1 1.2
General government fiscal balance (d) -6.0 -5.3 -4.5 -3.1 -2.5
Net international investment position (d) -98.8 -89.5 -85.3 -83.5 -77.1
General government gross debt (d) 100.4 99.3 99.0 98.1 97.1
(a) Annual rate of change.
(b) % of labour force.
(c) Rate of change.
(d) % of GDP.
Source: Bank of Spain.

On the surface, Spain looks to be doing quite well. GDP growth will still be more than 2% this year, higher than the Eurozone average (1.2%) for the fifth year in a row, the unemployment rate is down to below 15% from 26.9% in the first quarter of 2013, the current account has been in surplus since that year, partly due to record exports, inflation has remained at below 2% and the country received US$44 billion of direct foreign investment last year, double that in 2017 and the third-highest amount in the EU. Last year Spain, to the surprise of many, was the largest single contributor to Eurozone growth, ahead of Germany, the bloc’s traditional locomotive.

But there are imbalances that threaten the sustainability of growth, and ones that make Spain vulnerable in the event of another global economic crisis. The next government faces challenges on the fiscal front, in the ailing pensions system, an unemployment rate that is still very high, particularly for young adults, productivity that is low and an economic model that is still disproportionately based on tourism and construction, a sector that is regaining dynamism, a decade after the bursting of a spectacular property bubble, but far from the previous boom due to much reduced public works.

The fiscal challenge

The most immediate issue for the next government is to approve a budget for 2019. Spain was finally released in June from the European Commission’s tutelage (the excessive deficit procedure), as last year’s fiscal deficit came in, for the first time in a decade, at below the EU threshold of 3% of GDP (see Figure 2). The deficit peaked at a whopping 11% in 2009 (surplus of 1.9% in 2007, at the height of the boom). Brussels is keeping a watchful eye on the situation.

Figure 2. Spain’s budget balance, 2013-18 (% of GDP)
2013 2014 2015 2016 2017 2018
-7.0 -6.0 -5.3 -4.5 -3.1 -2.5
Source: Bank of Spain.

Initially, Spain was going to cut the deficit to 1.3% of GDP this year and 0.5% in 2020. The Commission forecasts deficits of 2.3% and 2%, respectively. After years of austerity, the pressure to spend more is growing. The previous Socialist government extended the 2018 budget and adopted new spending and revenue measures by royal decree. On the expenditure side, the measures include some additional pension increases and a number of social policy measures. Some measures adopted in the 2018 budget law approved by the previous Popular Party government, such as a pay hike for public sector workers, restoring annual inflation-linked rises in pensions and the tax cut for low-income earners, will have a budgetary impact this year. The capacity for spending more is very limited unless there is a substantial rise in government revenue, due to growth effects and tax increases. Tax cuts are out of the question.

Spain’s government revenue last year accounted for 38.9% of GDP, according to Eurostat, compared with a Eurozone average of 45%, while government spending was 41.3% (45.6% average). Effective tax rates are much lower than nominal ones due to a number of loopholes, but judging by the amounts of unpaid taxes recovered every year, Spain also has a substantial tax fraud and evasion problem. The Tax Agency netted €15 billion last year (see Figure 3). Spain’s tax revenue as a percentage of GDP (33.7%) is well below the EU average of close to 40%, but among the 36 OECD countries it is almost in line with the average (see Figure 4).

Figure 3. Revenue recovered from tax fraud and evasion, 2009-18 (€ billion)
2009 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015 2016 2017 2018
8.1 10.0 10.5 11.5 10.9 12.3 15.7 14.9 14.8 15.0
Source: Tax Agency.
Figure 4. Tax revenues as % of GDP, 2017 and 2000
  2017 2000
France 46.2 43.4
Germany 37.5 36.2
Italy 42.4 40.6
Spain 33.7 33.2
UK 33.3 32.9
US 27.1 28.2
OECD average 34.2 33.8
Source: OECD Revenue Statistics.

As well as grappling with a fiscal deficit over the past decade, public debt has also soared –from 36.3% of GDP in 2007 to 97% in 2018–. The debt has hardly declined since 2014 when it stood at 100%. Servicing the debt accounts for a significant chunk of spending and its size makes Spain vulnerable to international interest-rate hikes. Excluding the interest paid on the debt, the State ran a small primary surplus last year equivalent to 0.72% of GDP.

An unsustainable pensions system

There is no shortage of warnings from within Spain (Bank of Spain) and outside (IMF and OECD) that the country’s pensions system is headed toward a crisis unless measures are taken in time to restore its sustainability. In essence, a toxic mix of the retirement of the 1960s baby boomers, high and rising life expectancy (one of the highest in the world at 83 years) and one of the world’s lowest fertility rates (1.25) is making pension reform a pressing issue. The number of deaths has outstripped births since 2015, a major demographic change. Last year there were 56,262 more deaths than births, the highest figure on record. Political parties under the so-called Toledo Pact failed earlier this year to agree any measures on pensions after three years of negotiations.

The reforms approved in 2011 and 2013 made some adjustments that countered the impact of ageing on public spending on pensions, but measures included in last year’s budget delayed the application of a sustainability factor and reintroduced the annual inflation-based revaluation of pensions (eliminated as of 2014 when the annual rise was set at 0.25%, well below inflation, unless the system could afford more). The reform to allow for rising life expectancy in calculating pensions was put back from 2019 to 2023.

In the current context of an ailing social security system, restoring the inflation indexation is largely viewed as an irresponsible and populist measure. The decision was taken by the minority Popular Party government in order to secure support from the Basque Nationalist Party (EAJ/PNV) for its 2018 budget. Increasing pensions every year in line with inflation might seem just, but in the context of Spain’s ailing system it adds a significant amount to the pensions bill.

The proportion of the over-66s compared with those aged 16-66 is forecast to double between 2018 and 2050 (see Figure 5). In other words, there will be fewer people of working age to support those who have retired in the pay-as-you-go system. For each person over 66, there will only be two persons aged 16-66. By 2050, Spain will have 15 million pensioners, up from 8.7 million today.

Figure 5.
  1950 1975 2000 2015 2025 2050
France 19.5 24.5 27.3 33.3 40.9 52.3
Germany 16.2 26.5 26.5 34.8 41.4 59.2
Italy 14.3 21.6 29.2 37.8 45.6 72.4
Japan 9.9 12.7 27.3 46.2 54.4


Poland 9.4 17.1 20.1 24.3 36.4 60.8
Spain 12.8 19.0 26.9 30.6 38.6 77.5
UK 17.9 25.5 27.0 31.0 35.9 48.0
OECD 13.9 19.5 22.5 27.9 35.2 53.2
(1) The old-age dependency ratio is defined as the number of individuals aged 65 and over per 100 people of working age defined as those aged between 20 and 64.
Source: United Nations Population Division.

The social security system has been in deficit for a decade and is the main reason for the general government deficit (in 2018 it was 1.41% of GDP, more than half the total deficit). Social security contributions collapsed as a result of the crisis after 2008, when unemployment soared and wages declined in real terms, while pension expenditure, which is much less linked to economic fluctuations, maintained its growth in real terms.

The gap between revenue from contributions and spending on pensions was largely covered until 2016 by running down a special reserve set up in 2000 during Spain’s economic boom. That fund peaked at €66.8 billion in 2011. In 2017 and 2018 the gap was covered by recourse to state loans (€10.2 billion and €13.8 billion, respectively).

The Court of Accounts criticised this method in May 2019 for ‘negatively affecting’ the solvency of the social security system and called for the pensions deficit to be covered by taxes.

Action needs to be taken on the revenue and spending side. The Bank of Spain points out that even if the employment rate grows significantly, in order to maintain the present benefit ratio there would have to be a huge increase in revenue from social security contributions. The number of contributors has been growing but is still around one million below the peak of 20.7 million in 2007.

The first steps to increase the retirement age, a significant aspect of the sustainability of the pension system, were taken in 2011, and will be completed in 2027 when it will be 67 (for workers with less than 38.5 years’ contributions). The age at which people are currently retiring is 63, below the statutory retirement age of 65.5, and there is no clearly upward pattern.

The government needs to implement other measures to reinforce the pensions system, such as making plans taken out by individuals more attractive (the amount that is tax deductible was reduced from €12,000 to €8,000 in 2015). Saving for a rainy day, however, is beyond the means of a large swathe of the working population who barely get by as it is. The household saving rate was at a historically low rate of 4.9% of gross disposable income in 2018, well below the peak of 13.4% in 2009.

There are also severe disincentives to combine work and a full pension. Spain is one of only seven OECD countries that applies limits to the earnings above which combined pension benefits are reduced. The pensions of those who continue working are reduced by 50%, apart from self-employed workers earning less than the minimum wage or hiring at least one worker. Furthermore, workers still in employment and receiving a pension do not earn additional pension entitlements although they pay a special ‘solidarity’ contribution of 8%, which does not apply to those continuing to work and deferring the pension.

Making the pensions system sustainable is a complex and highly important challenge that requires all levels of society to be made fully aware of the problem (not the yet the case) and for sacrifices to be made so that the system does not crack.

The persistently high unemployment rate

Spain’s job creation in the last five years has been one of the most robust in the EU. Close to 3 million jobs were created, but that still left 3.3 million without work in the first quarter of this year. The unemployment rate dropped from a staggering 26.1% in 2013 to 14.7% in the first quarter of this year, double the EU average and the second highest after Greece (see Figure 6).

Figure 6. Seasonally adjusted unemployment rates, April 2019 (%)
Greece 18.5
Spain 13.8
Italy 10.2
EU average 6.4
France 8.7
UK 3.7
Germany 3.2
Source: Eurostat.

Unemployment for those aged between 15 and 24 is particularly acute at more than 30%, and most of these people who do have jobs are on temporary contracts. Overall, around 25% of jobholders are on temporary and thus precarious contracts. The dual system of ‘outsiders’ (those on temporary contracts) and ‘insiders’ (those on permanent contracts) is one of the hallmarks of Spain’s dysfunctional labour market.

Temporary workers were the first to lose their jobs when the financial crisis hit as of 2008, particularly in the construction sector, which shed 1.3 million jobs between 2008 and 2018. The number of housing starts plummeted from a peak of 865,561 in 2006 to around 100,000 last year, underscoring the depth of the shaky foundations upon which the economy was roaring along.

High levels of unemployment by the standards of other developed countries, even when the economy is growing at a brisk pace over a sustained period, have characterised Spain in the last 40 years. Comparisons with the last decade of the Franco regime (1939-75) are not fair because the virtually full employment during the last decade of the dictatorship was made possible by considerable pluriempleo (holding two or more jobs) in order to make ends meet, very low female participation in the labour market and massive emigration for economic reasons (2.75 million between the 1950s and 1973). Apart from the real-estate bubble period (2002-08), Spain’s jobless rate has been at least five percentage points above that in Germany, France, Italy, the UK and the US, 10 points higher in the early 1990s and 15 points in 2013 and 2014. Even in 2007, at the height of the economic boom, Spain’s unemployment rate was a ‘historically low’ 8% (the average rate in the Eurozone), a high level for countries such as Germany and the UK.

Companies complained they could not find qualified workers to fill posts, which led some economists to put Spain’s structural unemployment rate at 8%, regardless of the economic cycle and particularly among women and young people.

Workers emerged from the Franco regime with ironclad job security, and those protections remained. Democracy brought class-based political trade unions but the paternalistic labour legislation was seen as a ‘worker conquest’ and political freedom gave the unions the muscle to exploit Franco’s labour regulations (ordenanzas).

All governments in the past 40 years have adopted labour-market reforms of one sort or another (52 between 1980 and 2015), but the problem of high unemployment has not gone away. The first Socialist government introduced temporary contracts in 1984 as an exceptional measure in order to make the labour market less rigid and more flexible and bring the market’s functioning more into line with the European norm (Spain joined the then EEC in 1986). As this system was maintained, employers were quick to use and abuse these contracts, creating the two-tier system that persists today. In 2012, the Popular Party’s reforms, the deepest so far, allowed companies to opt out of collective pay-setting agreements within industries and to make their own deals with workers. They also gave companies greater discretionary powers to adopt internal measures to limit job losses. Dismissal regulations were also modified, redefining the conditions for fair dismissal. Severance payments in the case of unfair dismissal for those on permanent contracts were reduced from 45 days per year-worked with a maximum of 42 months to 33 days per year with a maximum of 24 months and the requirement of administrative authorisation in the case of collective redundancies eliminated. Compensation for permanent contract termination in the case of redundancies for objective reasons was set at 20 days per year-worked with a maximum of 12 months.

These reforms softened employment protection legislation, though severance pay for permanent workers in relative terms remains among the highest in OECD countries. The reforms, however, have lowered the GDP growth rate needed to create employment, spurring the job creation over the last five years.

Spain’s economic model, heavily based on labour-intensive construction and tourism and not very productive, is also part of the unemployment problem as it does not provide jobs on a sustained basis. Spain has a very high number of small companies: fewer than 1% have more than 50 workers (compared with 3% in Germany). Firms need to be bigger so they have economies of scale, which would enable them to export more successfully, among other things. Tourism, which generates 12% of GDP, is a particularly seasonal industry. The Canary Islands, for example, received 15.6 million tourists in 2018 (seven times the islands’ population) and its unemployment rate was 21% in the first quarter of this year.

The country is also at a greater risk from automation, which would compound the unemployment problem. One quarter of middle-income jobs are at risk compared with an OECD average of one sixth (see Figure 7).

Figure 7. Percentage of workers in occupations at high risk of automation, by income class
  Lower income Middle income Upper income
Spain 29 24 15
OECD average 22 18 11
Source: OECD (2019), ‘Under pressure, the squeezed middle class’.

More focus on human capital and less on infrastructure

Spain’s motorways, train services (the high-speed train network is the longest in Europe and the second in the world) and other infrastructure such as the fibre-optic network for high-speed data transmission (it covers three-quarters of the population) are world class. But the same cannot be said for its education system. Too much emphasis has been placed on physical infrastructure and not enough on human capital.

It is an axiom that educational attainment tends to increase employment prospects, and yet almost one in every five people in Spain last year had completed at most a lower secondary education and were not in further education and training, the largest rate in the EU, but down from close to one in three in 2006 when students dropped out of school in droves for a job that was easy to find, particularly in construction. When the massive property bubble burst and unemployment soared many more students had no option but to stay on at school. But Spain’s progress has been nowhere near as stunning as Portugal’s –from 44% in 2000 to 11.8% (see Figure 8)–.

Figure 8. Early leavers from education and training, 2018 and 2006 (% of population aged 18-24)
  2018 2006
Spain 17.9 30.3
Portugal 11.8 38.5
Italy 14.5 20.4
UK 10.7 11.3
EU-28 10.6 15.3
Germany 10.3 13.7
France 8.9 12.4
Source: Eurostat.

Spain has made considerable progress in attainment in the last 40 years and has done better than many other European countries as regards educational mobility: around 40% of adults have a higher level of education than their parents. It also leads in the area of early childhood enrolment rates: 96% of three-year-olds are in education compared with the OECD average of 76%. But, generally speaking, the country is not producing the skills it needs or will need.

Skill demands are more polarised in Spain than in many other OECD countries, with a big share of jobs requiring either very low levels of education or very high levels. The share of all jobs requiring only a primary education is higher in Spain (25%) than in any other OECD country; however, the supply of low-educated workers exceeds demand. At the other end of the labour force, Spain faces high over-qualification and field-of-study mismatch. ‘Rising educational attainment has created a large supply of highly-qualified adults, but many of them are working in jobs for which they are over-qualified’, the OECD noted in a recent report on Spain.

Among the problems of Spain’s education system are endless reforms, which in practice have changed little, learning based excessively on memorisation as opposed to critical thinking, students having to repeat a year if they fail a certain number of subjects (which then demotivates them and leads them to drop out of school at 16), the university entrance requirement to take the teaching course is too low, which means that not always the best quality people become teachers, and a shortage of support personnel and a lack of autonomy for teachers, including the capacity to involve and interact with parents, compared with that, for example, in countries such as Finland and Singapore, among the top countries in the OECD’s PISA tests, which evaluate education systems worldwide by testing the skills and knowledge of 15-year-old students who are nearing the end of their compulsory education.

Teachers in Spain are paid relatively well (above the OECD average) and the average number of students per class is among the lowest (13 compared with 21 in the UK and 22 in France), but the number of support staff per teacher is one of the lowest (one per 11 teachers compared with one for every two teachers in the UK).


The next government has a lot on its plate. Many of the reforms require cross-party support, which in the current climate of minority governments and a parliament fragmented among five main parties (two until 2015) is no easy task. Parties need to put aside their differences for the good of the country.

Bibliographical references

Alain Cuenca & Santiago Lago Peñas (co-directors) (2019), El sector público español: reformas pendientes, Funcas, RIFDE & University of Alcalá.

Economy Ministry (2019), La agenda del cambio: hacia una economía inclusiva y sostenible.

Finance Ministry (2019), Stability Programme Update 2019-2022.

<![CDATA[ Made-to-measure Qur’anic quotations: the incomplete verses of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb ]]> 2019-06-20T12:03:51Z

More than half the Qur’anic quotations used by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in its propaganda are faithful reproductions of the text but incomplete or truncated.

Original version in Spanish: Literalidad coránica a medida: las aleyas incompletas de al-Qaeda en el Magreb Islámico


More than half the Qur’anic quotations used by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in its propaganda are faithful reproductions of the text but incomplete or truncated.


A digitalised corpus comprising more than 200 official documents released by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) between 2004 –when it still styled itself the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC)– and 2017 enables an evidence-based answer to be given to the question of how religious its rhetoric really is. Moreover, by systematically collating all the Qur’anic quotes that have been recorded –more than 1,200– it emerges that, although the organisation never alters or modifies the Qur’an, enabling all accusations of the sacred texts being manipulated to be definitively rejected, there is a notable use of tailor-made quotation. Despite being unrestricted in terms of both time and space, on more than half of the occasions when AQIM has quoted the Qur’an in its propaganda over the course of the last 14 years – 52.42% of the total – it has done so using incomplete or shortened quotations.


The literal and decontextualised interpretation made of Islam’s sacred texts by the various terrorist organisations adhering to jihadist Salafism is well known, but to what extent is their rhetoric purely religious? Moreover, with the goal of discrediting and undermining the legitimacy of such organisations, it is still argued with a certain frequency that they manipulate and distort religious doctrine. Can such an assertion be verified? If so, bearing in mind the consensual nature regarding the sacredness of the main sources of revelation, it would be relatively simple to devise strategies aimed at exploiting such distortions.

By systematically mapping the more than 1,200 Qur’anic quotations used by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) between 2004 –when it still styled itself the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC in its French acronym)–1 and 2017, this analysis seeks to throw light on some aspects linked to the use of the sacred texts by the terrorist organisation. To this end an extensive monolingual, diachronic and digitalised corpus has been created covering a total of 203 official records released by the group.2 Among these there are 179 audiovisual recordings (more than 65 hours of audio and video), 20 text documents including magazines, books, articles and essays (approximately 800 pages of text) and the complete transcripts of four interviews given by prominent members of the organisation (see Figure 1). The dataset that has been compiled includes all the official audiovisual recordings3 published by the terrorist organisation in the aforementioned timeframe, as well as other official written documents whose content has been judged to be relevant by the author.4 Brief communications, used mainly to claim authorship of successful terrorist operations, panegyrics, opinion articles and other secondary content published on platforms such as Ifriqīyā al-Muslima were not included in the dataset.

Figure 1. Annual distribution of the material used to create the corpus of Qur’anic quotations found in AQIM propaganda, 2004-17
Year Audios and videos Magazines Books and essays Interviews
2004 1 2 - -
2005 1 3 - -
2006 2 3 - -
2007 12 - 1 -
2008 10 - - 1
2009 12 - 1 -
2010 16 - - -
2011 15 - - 1
2012 11 - 2 1
2013 12 - 1 -
2014 10 - - -
2015 21 (37) - 2 -
2016 14 - 2 1
2017 10 (26) - 3 -

Notes: (1) the difference in the number of documents for 2015 arises from the inclusion in brackets of all the documents associated with the ‘غزوة أحد في القرآن ’ series, a collection of lessons delivered by Abu Hassan Rashid al-Bulaydi; (2) the difference in the number of documents for 2017 arises from the inclusion in brackets of all the documents associated with the ‘شرح كتاب الصيام من بلوغ المرام ’ series, a collection of lessons delivered by Abu Hassan Rashid al-Bulaydi.

Specialised corpuses, such as the one used here, focus on a particular variety or register of language, in this case the jihadist Salafist rhetoric of AQIM. Up until now, the few attempts to analyse jihadist Salafist rhetoric using a quantitative approach have run up against an obstacle that is difficult to overcome, namely the technical challenges inherent in Arabic. Such attempts are outnumbered by various qualitative studies and analyses, mainly since languages other than Arabic started to appear in Islamic State propaganda. However, without wanting to delve too deeply into the debate, Arabic continues to be not only the language used in the bulk of jihadist propaganda but also, of course, the cornerstone on which all ideological and doctrinal debate in this current of thought is founded and erected.

The majority of studies aiming to analyse jihadist rhetoric or narrative, in one way or another, do so on the basis of publications such as Dābiq, Rumiyah and Inspire. These publications, although they have greater impact in the West, have a specific target audience, and this, while they adhere the basic principles of jihadist Salafist ideology, determines their nature and conditions the language used. Moreover, the translations of documents composed in Arabic, including those translated in-houseby the terrorist organisations themselves, show a greater degree of bias given that the process of translating jihadist propaganda is not systematic.

Meanwhile, there are a significant number of studies that use different perspectives to focus on the operations and relations of the militants –mainly munāṣirūn, ‘fanboys’ and official propaganda platforms– on such social media as Twitter and Facebook. This type of research –such as that conducted by J.M. Berger and Charlie Winter, among others–5 has cast light on the way the propaganda dissemination apparatus and the broadcasting of its message on social media works, as well as the number of militants active on the Internet and the central subject matter of each individualised audiovisual product. The present analysis, on the other hand, uses a quantitative approach to focus mainly on the way AQIM uses the Qur’an.

When AQIM quotes the Qur’an

Offering an evidence-based answer to the question of how religious jihadist rhetoric is represents a genuine challenge. The corpus assembled for this analysis is made up of more than 810,000 words; it has been codified in such a way as to enable all the Qur’anic quotations to be extracted from the text for their subsequent classification, focusing on any criteria that are specified. Thus, exactly 1,219 Qur’anic quotations are found in the 203 documents that have been included, but 932 if only those quotations extracted from documents published before the organisation started issuing its publications under the current AQIM name are considered. Although it may not be the most exact way of performing the calculation, these 1,219 quotations account for a total of 27,367 words, or 3.37% of the total corpus. Although they do not form part of the present analysis, if quotations of Hadiths –accounting for 7,014 words of the total corpus– are added to the calculation, a total of 34,381 words would be obtained. Thus, 4.24% of the total AQIM discourse consists entirely of quotations from the Qur’an and the Sunnah, the two main sources of revelation and the fundamental core of Islam.

Figure 2. Graphic representation of the purely religious discourse compared to the total (%)
Figure 2. Graphic representation of the purely religious discourse compared to the total (%)
Source: compiled by the author.

That said, the purely religious discourse cannot be reduced solely to the Qur’anic quotations. Although Qur’anic quotations are sometimes introduced to convey a certain patina of religiosity to the discourse in order to justify a particular act or stance, depending on the document, it is normal for the Qur’anic quotations to be accompanied by a contextualised religious explanation. This exercise, which sometimes takes the form of exegesis and is sometimes simply didactic or clarificatory, constitutes a fundamental element of AQIM communication. Using the coding system described above, heat maps such as the one shown below were created to represent the relative weight of the group’s strictly religious discourse in the most faithful way possible.

Figure 3. Heat map of a document from the corpus created with MAXQDA software
Note: the Qur’anic quotations are shown in green; their contextualisation or exegesis in the AQIM propaganda is shown in blue. Source: compiled by the author.

The outcome of mapping all the documents in the corpus offers disparate results depending on the type of document in question, but they confirm that AQIM’s strictly religious discourse does indeed account for a significant fraction of the total. The results fluctuate between 2% and 4% on average for those documents aimed at publicising military capabilities –for example the bulk of the ‘ظلال السيوف ’ series– and more than 50% for documents of a doctrinal or ideological nature. Reducing it all purely to figures and percentages, AQIM quotes the Qur’an once every 665 words, which is to say once in slightly more than every page of running text, and although the distribution is quite some way from being uniform, each mapped document has an average of six Qur’anic quotations.

AQIM’s incomplete āyāt

One fact emerges in a particularly striking way after conducting an exhaustive comparison of all the Qur’anic quotations employed by AQIM in its media output.6 More than half the Qur’anic quotations to which AQIM refers in the mapped documents are partial or incomplete quotations, accounting for 52.42% of the total. Using systematic comparison of the sample of the 1,219 Qur’anic quotations assembled in the corpus with the Qur’an it emerges that 639 quotations are incomplete. This does not mean that the content of the quotations was manipulated (taḥrīf), just that the quotation, whether it was from a single āyah or a set, is incomplete.

As seen in Figure 4, which shows the distribution of the mapped Qur’anic quotations by year, the tendency to cite incomplete āyātconstitutes the norm, with 64.07% being the highest percentage of incomplete quotations used, in 2004, and 35.96% the lowest, in 2010. It should also be noted that the percentage of incomplete quotations fell below 50% of the total in only three years: 2007, 2010 and 2016.

Figure 4. Annual distribution of the Qur’anic quotations in AQIM’s discourse, 2004-17
Figure 4. Annual distribution of the Qur’anic quotations in AQIM’s discourse, 2004-17
Source: compiled by the author.

Reciting incomplete āyāt or verses of the Qur’an is a habitual practice in Islam. Given that the prohibition of this practice does not find support either in the Qur’an or in the Sunnah, the basic principle accepted by the various schools of jurisprudence suggests that it is permitted to quote incomplete āyāt on condition that the meaning is complete. Many āyāt, especially the longest ones such as Qur’an 2:282 –the longest in the Qur’an– encompass various complete and independent ideas and meanings; it is not uncommon therefore to come across incomplete quotations. Indeed, this practice receives a certain amount of support, for example in the following Hadith:

‘Abdullah ibn Masa’ud recalled: the Messenger of Allah, , said: “Whoever recites a letter from the Book of Allah will receive one good deed as ten good deeds like it. I do not say that Alif-Lām-Mīm7 is one letter, but rather Alif is a letter, Lām is a letter and Mīm is a letter”.’ Hadith classified as ṣaḥīḥ, or authentic, Sunan al-Tirmidhī 2910.8

Moreover, the debate about how and to what extent the Qur’an should be quoted, whether in the context of prayer or simply as an authoritative argument in rhetoric, is covered by the hermeneutic Islamic literature, as the following extract demonstrates:

‘As far as reading the Qur’an is concerned, apart from the obligatory prayers, according to Abu Hanifa, it should start with at least one āyah, even if it is short. Ibn Abbas is of the same opinion. He said: “recite what you can of the Qur’an, because nothing in the Qur’an is insignificant”. On the other hand, Abu Yussuf said: “recitation should be no less than a long āyah, such as the Throne Verse [Qur’an 02:255], or at least three short verses, because less than this would go against custom and would not demonstrate how miraculous the Qur’an is”.’9

The Qur’an, which can literally be translated as ‘recitation’, is a complex book and it is of primordial importance to understand its nature. It is not a chronological compilation designed to tell a story, as might be said of the book of Genesis, and therefore it should not be viewed as a sequential narrative. Its verses, or āyāt, are not standard either in length or in meter and according to Muslim tradition the start and end of each one do not relate to the arbitrary decision of men but the dictation of God. Thus, as a general rule, each verse –and sometimes a set of verses– deals with a particular subject; dividing them therefore may lead to the modification of the global meaning and limit or distort the context of the literal revelation.

Responding to whether it is permitted to split a verse into various parts, the erudite Saudi Salafist Muhammad Salah Al-Munajjid (born in Aleppo) stated that it was possible unless it should lead to an inappropriate meaning, but stipulated that it would be preferable to complete the quotation.10 The ulema,11 currently in prison in Saudi Arabia, based his response on the fact that the earliest generations of believers viewed reciting a complete Surah as mustaḥab,12 without stopping, so that it would be appropriate to extend the practice to the āyāt too. He based his conclusion on the following hadith:

‘Jabir ibn Abdullah recalled: we proceeded in the company of the Messenger of Allah, , for the battle of Dhat ar-Riqa. One of the Muslims killed the wife of one of the unbelievers. He (the husband of the woman killed) took an oath saying: “I shall not rest in peace until I kill one of the companions of Muhammad”. He went out following the footsteps of the Prophet, . The Prophet, , encamped at a certain place. He said: “Who will keep watch on us?”. A person from the Muhājirūn and another from the Anṣār responded. He said: “Go to the mouth of the mountain-pass”. When they went to the mouth of the mountain-pass, the man from the Muhājirūn lay down while the man from the Anṣār stood praying. The man (enemy) came to them. When he saw the person he realised that he was the watchman of the Muslims. He shot him with an arrow and hit the target. But he(took the arrow out and) threw it away. He (the enemy) then shot three arrows. Then he (the Muslim) bowed and prostrated and awoke his companion. When he (the enemy) perceived that they (the Muslims) had become aware of his presence, he ran away. When the man from the Muhājirūn saw the (man from the Anṣār) bleeding, he asked him: “Glory be to Allah! Why did you not wake me up the first time when he shot at you?”. He replied: “I was busy reciting a chapter of the Qur’an. I did not like to leave it”.’ Hadith classified as ḥasan, Sunan Abu Dawud.13

Moreover, in his work Al-Itqān fī ʻUlūm al-Qurʼān, considered a fundamental linguistic and stylistic tool for understanding the meanings of the Qur’an, Jalal ad-Din al-Suyuti, delving into the correct pronunciation when it came to reciting the Qur’an, referred to the work of Uthman al-Dani, a linguist and exegete from Al-Andalus. The latter quoted a Hadith of al-Hakim,14 who put into the mouth of Zayd ibn Thabit, scribe of the Prophet according to tradition and one of the Anṣār, the following words: ‘The Qur’an was revealed in order to be recited in full’.15

The biased and tendentious use that is made of religion by the jihadist Salafist organisations is well known and, while it is not the aim of this paper to delve into the exegesis of the sacred texts, it does seek to open the way to the construction of counternarratives. Unlike other groups, such as imams, TV preachers, etc., AQIM –like other terrorist organisations– is totally unrestricted in terms of time and space when it comes to creating its message; instead it has the tools needed to design its communication strategy and the content of its message as it sees fit. It does not broadcast live and therefore is not subjected to scrutiny or debate with third parties in real time. Yet even without restrictions when it comes to conveying its message, it chooses to use partial quotations on more than half the occasions when it invokes the Qur’an.

The two verses most frequently used by AQIM, Qur’an 02:217 and Qur’an 08:36, provide an example of the above phenomenon. There is no particular controversy surrounding these āyāt and there is a broad consensus (ijmāʿ) about their meaning at the core of the Ummah. Verse 217 of the Surah of the Cow is the most used by AQIM: 22 times in all according to the data extracted from the corpus, all of them in an incomplete way. The underlined section of the translation shown below does not appear in any of the 22 quotations used by AQIM in the documents from which the corpus is compiled. Moreover, without going into the matter in detail, it is worth mentioning that āyah 36 of the Surah of Repentance [Qur’an 09:36], a verse that in the opinion of several mufassirūn abrogates Qur’an 02:217 and whose content restricts the possibilities of fighting the infidels during the sacred months only to occasions when the Muslims are attacked first, appears on just three occasions in the AQIM discourse, none of them unedited.

[Qur’an 02:217]: ‘They will question thee concerning the holy month, and fighting in it. Say: “Fighting in it is a heinous thing, but to bar from God’s way, and disbelief in Him, and the Holy Mosque, and to expel its people from it – that is more heinous in God’s sight; and persecution is more heinous than slaying”. They will not cease to fight with you, till they turn you from your religion, if they are able; and whosoever of you turns from his religion, and dies disbelieving – their works have failed in this world and the next; those are the inhabitants of the Fire; therein they shall dwell forever.’16

Verse 39 of the Al-Anfāl Surah (The Spoils of War) is the second most-used verse by AQIM, quoted 21 times in all according to the corpus data, 19 of them in an incomplete way. The underlined section of the translation shown below forms part of the only two complete quotations of this verse that are to be found in the corpus.

[Qur’an 08:39]: ‘Fight them, till there is no persecution and the religion is God’s entirely; then if they give over, surely God sees the things they do.’17

Figure 5. Illustration of the various formats of the incomplete quotations of the two verses most used by AQIM, Qur’an 02:217 and Qur’an 08:39
Figure 5. Illustration of the various formats of the incomplete quotations of the two verses most used by AQIM, Qur’an 02:217 and Qur’an 08:39
Source: compiled by the author.

By means of a systematic collation of the Qur’anic quotations used by AQIM over a 14-year period it may be stated that they do not resort to manipulating the Qur’an or altering its content (taḥrīf) at any time. What have been noted however, albeit only on a handful of occasions, are unintentional errors, failures to observe conventions –mainly in the pronunciation of certain terms, in breach of the rules of the tajwid18 and minor ellipses, all them errors that are common in oral discourse.

However, as became clear at the start of this section, such a systematic comparison does enable a figure to be placed on the number of incomplete quotations; and this, for an organisation that finds the raison d’être for its activities, according to its own interpretation, in the word of God, is undeniably high. It adheres strictly to the text in a literal sense, but in a made-to-measure way. This finding, combined with the manifold possibilities inherent in a contextualised study of each Qur’anic quotation and the way their use develops over time, represents a significant step enabling more in-depth study to be conducted into the religious discourse emanating from jihadist Salafism.


Despite the growing institutional interest in the development of counternarrative tools and the consequent academic steps that have been made in the same direction, the rewards that have been reaped, in light of the militant mobilisation witnessed in recent years, cannot be described as anything other than insufficient. Part of the problem consists in the fact that, in order to create effective counternarratives, it is necessary to have in-depth knowledge of the jihadist Salafist narrative, and this is a field in which, although there are numerous qualitative studies, quantitative or mixed-approach research has barely been conducted, particularly if we confine ourselves to Arabic as the main language for conveying the jihadist Salafist message.

Systematising the analysis of religious discourse by employing automated tools not only enables irrefutable data to be obtained, it should also facilitate the creation of counternarrative strategies and tools of greater efficacy as well as making it possible to finetune those that already exist. The use of analytical techniques based on empirical data makes it possible to produce a reliable picture of the reality of the discourse, contextualise the findings and, consequently, provide a much more precise study of the evolution of various organisations’ narrative over a particular period of time.

This analysis, by means of data extracted from a monolingual, diachronic corpus that is representative of the AQIM discourse –thereby ensuring the consistency of the results obtained– enables the notion that the organisation manipulates or alters the content of the Qur’an to be categorically dismissed. This is simply and plainly false; we may be able to agree that the extremely strict interpretations that are embraced are biased, unjustified, decontextualised and lack the approval of the majority of Muslims, but on no occasion do they breach the limits of exegesis historically accepted by the bulk of Sunni Islam. They flirt with the boundaries of the rules, as it were, but remain within the rules. It goes without saying that the conclusions drawn here cannot necessarily be extrapolated to other jihadist organisations, although they prepare the ground for future comparative studies.

Secondly, and this undoubtedly constitutes the most important conclusion of this study, it has been found that more than half the Qur’anic quotations used by AQIM in its propaganda output during the period under review are incomplete. As mentioned, the biased reading and use that jihadist organisations make of religion is well known, favouring certain passages over the rest, thereby distorting the overall significance of the revealed message. Apart from the overrepresentation of certain verses compared to others and the reliance on the most belligerent form of exegesis, however, one aspect stands out after quantitatively analysing how AQIM quotes the Qur’an and comparing the results with the original source. The terrorist organisation quotes the Qur’an rigorously, but in an incomplete way, shortening more than half the Qur’anic quotations it uses, obviously in a way that suits its agenda: the quotations are faithful, but made-to-measure.

Future contextualised analysis of the way these incomplete quotations are used, as well as research into how their use changes over time, will undoubtedly serve to continue not only in the further acquisition of in-depth knowledge of the religious discourse of jihadist Salafism, but also in making progress towards the creation of new counternarrative strategies and the refinement of those that already exist.

Sergio Altuna Galán
Associate Analyst, Violent Radicalisation and Global Terrorism Programme, Elcano Royal Institute | @wellesbien

1 The year 2004 was chosen as the starting point of the dataset precisely to rule out the possibility of the absorption of the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat involving substantial changes in the use of Qur’anic quotations. The same tear also represents the start of Abdelmalek Droukdel’s time as the head of the organisation, which, in January 2007, having merged with al-Qaeda, came to be known as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, but still under his leadership.

2 A corpus can be defined as a database, an extensive collection of authentic texts that have been compiled and digitalised following a specific set of criteria enabling it to be used as a representative sample of a linguistic reality. See T. McEnery, R. Xiao & Y. Tono (2006), Corpus-Based Language Studies. An Advanced Resource Book, Routledge, London & New York.

3 All the audiovisual documents published by the Media Committee of the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (اللجنة الاعلامية للجماعة السلفية للدعوة والقتال ), the Media Committee of the al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (اللجنة الاعلامية لتنظيم القاعدة ببلاد النغرب الإسلامي ) and the al-Andalus Foundation.

4 The written documents whose inclusion in the corpus has been judged as relevant are all those official documents that include a minimal ideological and doctrinal component.

5 See J.M. Berger & J. Morgan (2015), The ISIS Twitter Census Defining and Describing the Population of ISIS Supporters on Twitter, The Brookings Project on US Relations with the Islamic World, The Brookings Institution; and C. Winter (2015), The Virtual ‘Caliphate’: Understanding Islamic State’s Propaganda Strategy, Quilliam International.

6 For the purposes of comparing data, the author used the materials made available through the Qur’an Digitalisation project run by the King Saud University in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

7 [Qur’an 02:01].

8 2910 سنن الترمذي، كتاب فضائل القرآن، حديث رقم

9 المحيط البرهاني في الفقه النعماني، كتاب الطهارات - الصلاة، ص. 298. دار الكتب العلمية 2004

10 Islam Q&A, رقم السؤال 206946 .

11 It would be more correct to use ʿAlīm, but in English it is acceptable to use ulema in the singular.

12 Recommended, favoured.

13 سنن أبي داود، كتاب الطهارة، حديث 198

14 Abu Abd-Allah Muhammad ibn Abd-Allah al-Hakim al-Nishapuri, the Persian ulema and respected compiler of Hadiths.

15 جلال الدين السيوطي، الإتقان في علوم القرآن، ص. 129.

16 [Qur’an 02:217]. Translation from Arthur John Arberry.

17 [Qur’an 08:39]. Translation from Arthur John Arberry.

18 Rules governing the recitation of the Qur’an, or tilāwa.

<![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. 

Spanish version: De las profundidades a la superficie: catalizadores de conflicto en Oriente Medio y el Magreb.


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.

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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