Research Agenda

The Elcano Royal Institute research agenda is structured around ten themes and five cross-cutting issues.

Research themes

1. Globalisation, development and governance

The pandemic has laid bare the global nature of problems with development, as well as the strengths and weaknesses of global governance (for example, in spaces like the United Nations and the G20). The crisis has halted globalisation and caused a reconfiguration. It has also thrown into sharp relief the web of relations in different aspects of international relations, such as science, foreign trade, tourism and development cooperation.

The process of globalisation and global challenges on development and global governance are key issues for Spain as a nodal country and mid-sized power whose openness makes it particularly permeable to globalisation. A detailed understanding of globalisation (its speed and changing nature) and its governance has the potential to inform more active participation in international and supranational decision-making processes. The 2030 Agenda, which has widespread acceptance in Spain, provides a national and international roadmap for improved global governance and development. The agenda captures the holistic nature of development processes, in which climate change, gender inequality, changes to productive models and the social agenda are all closely linked.

The transformations of globalisation have deepened, despite being slowed and shaped by the pandemic (for example, migration flows). The Elcano Royal Institute continues to analyse them from a number of different perspectives, using its own tools such as the Elcano Global Presence Index. The Institute also studies the evolution of global governance, including its strengths and weaknesses, and transformations in economic and trade governance, setting out ways forward in these areas. It also plays an active role in proposals for the T20 network of think tanks of G20 countries. In terms of the development agenda, which is currently dominated by the 2030 Agenda, the Institute contributes analysis from almost all its areas.

2. Challenges to international peace and security

Measures to address international threats to peace and to uphold freedoms must continuously adapt to a changing world. This challenge has three key dimensions: global security in the face of growing geopolitical competition; the future of Euro-Atlantic security and defence; and national security. International security is closely related to the other themes of the Elcano research agenda. Examples include, the tensions caused by contrasts in development in a globalised world, the challenges facing democracies in responding to violent radicalisation and aggression from authoritarian regimes, energy dependence and climate change or the risks from the globalised economy and the technological revolution.

Close attention needs to be paid to security in priority regional spaces for Spain, as well as to strengthening the country’s defence industry and its military projection in the world.

The relevance of Spain in the area of international security lies in its unique geostrategic position, its economic and social profile as a country highly connected to the outside world, its status as a member of NATO and the EU, and its contribution to international peace, both through the United Nations and the missions of its armed forces. However, Spain is also one of the Western countries where the impact of jihadist terrorism has been felt most acutely. This includes home-grown strains, which demand special policies to prevent extremism and require that constant attention is paid to promoting European and international cooperation.

All these aspects are analysed by the Elcano Royal Institute. On the issue of global terrorism, the Institute organises the annual Elcano Forum (now in its ninth year), in partnership with the US Embassy and the Spanish Secretary of state for Security. It has also led the Horizon 2020 MINDB4ACT project on innovative policies to address violent radicalisation and is currently supporting the work by the European Commission on the challenge posed by extremist ideologies, as well as monitoring the continuously evolving jihadist threat.

As the leading Spanish think tank in the field of international security, the Institute plays an active role in networks like ARES, as well as in collective initiatives to support NATO priorities, the EU’s Strategic Compass and the defence industry. It also forms part of the Spanish National Cybersecurity Forum and participates in the Iberifier Consortium on Disinformation. At the regional level, its attention is focused on the southern neighbourhood as a priority area for Spain and the EU. Finally, since 2015, it has been analysing and supporting the development of the United Nations agenda on Woman, Peace and Security, in which Spain has played an active role.

3. Democracy and citizenship

Globalisation has accelerated the blurring of the boundary between the inside and the world beyond. Social and political trends are now transnational in nature and we have also seen the rise of new actors (like major cities) and dynamics (for example, the growing interconnection of public opinion). All this raises the question of how these two planes interact. Despite its resilience, liberal democracy is currently facing huge global challenges (populisms, extremisms, the integration of immigrants and refugees, and social exclusion). It is also seeing growing rivalry from alternative and more authoritarian models, notably in China and Russia.

Despite the challenges it faces and the progress that still needs to be made, Spain is one of the world’s few full democracies, as reflected in all comparative indexes of the quality of political systems. It is a country others look to in this dimension, leading the way in a number of areas, such as tolerance and gender equality, and possessing two global cities. Spain is also of interest for the problems it faces, such as polarisation, inequality and an independence conflict, alongside its other specific features, including a parliamentary monarchy, strong decentralisation and the primacy of international law and human rights in its diplomatic activity.

Elcano Royal Institute has a proven track record in commissioning its own public opinion studies on international issues (for example, the Barometer of the Elcano Royal Institute). It has also undertaken numerous projects on the present and future of democracies, including transition processes and authoritarian reactions (especially in Latin America, the Arab world and Eastern Europe), comparative measurements of the quality of democracy, and its contributions to a three-year project on perspectives on European democracy. In specific terms, the Institute has analysed major issues like the rule of law in the EU; the Catalan independence conflict; disinformation campaigns; radicalisation dynamics; and progress and setbacks in women’s rights and freedoms. It has also conducted work on political parties and the role of parliaments in foreign policy.

4. Climate and the energy transition

The increasingly visible consequences of climate change and the need to accelerate the energy transition mean this theme occupies a prominent place on the global agenda. Climate and energy governance are moving up the EU’s list of economic priorities, as the EU’s Green Deal shows. They are also becoming more important to security, development (for example, the Sustainable Development Goals) and other regional agendas. Climate policy (the Taxonomy for Sustainable Activities, the Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism, the expansion of the Emissions Trading System and the Social Climate Fund) and energy policy are geared towards accelerating the transition, while ensuring its economic and social viability. Climate change and the energy transition also have consequences for geopolitics, with repercussions on international security and regional stability.

This theme is particularly important to Spain, given its geographic location, its status as one of the European countries most affected by climate change (in both human security and economic terms), its high energy interdependence, and the presence of sectoral and global leaders (also key institutions in the Elcano Royal Institute). It is essential that we understand the growing potential of ambitious climate policy to drive external action.

The Institute monitors energy and climate governance processes, including COPs, legislative and executive initiatives, and different aspects of the paths of the energy transition from a regional perspective. It also carries out surveys on climate change and the energy transition, analysing support for instruments for climate action. Finally, it analyses geopolitical differences on energy (hydrocarbons and renewables). It also participates in European and national research projects and think tank networks.

5. Technology and economic transformations

The effects of technological change are not confined to the economic realm but also have geopolitical and social impacts (for example, changes in patterns of cultural consumption). Similarly, the effects of the technology transition go beyond national and international innovation systems to define the process of globalisation itself, now led by technology-based economies in Asia, alongside the United States. This situation has been exacerbated by the pandemic.

There are many local economic ripples of this wave of global change, affecting job creation (the number and type of jobs), inequality and the positions of countries as part of production and value chains. These effects are especially clear in Spain, a deindustrialised economy whose productive model is lacking when it comes to generating and absorbing innovation. The members of the Elcano Royal Institute Board of Trustees come from various sectors, putting the Institute in a unique position to analyse the technological and economic challenges facing the Spanish economy and society, with a broad, forward-looking vision.

The Institute analyses the main technological, economic and industrial challenges facing Spain, including digitalisation, artificial intelligence and disruptive technologies. The Institute also considers their relevance in the context of the EU and its pursuit of strategic and digital autonomy, as well as its goal of reconciling digitalisation and decarbonisation. In terms of the economy, the Institute’s work is focused on recovery and transformation strategies in light of the pandemic. It also analyses the processes driving changes in the global economy, favouring economic openness and a multilateralist approach to trade.

6. The future of Europe

The EU and the integration process have reached a crossroads, following years of successive crises. The EU’s decision to focus on its status as a supranational entity in the aftermath of Brexit and the COVID-19 pandemic require new analysis and ideas, both individually and as part of a community. The next few years will be defined by the recovery plan (Next Generation EU) and the green and digital agendas. However, they will also be marked by the Conference on the Future of Europe and its tangible results in areas like strategic autonomy and external action (including development cooperation and humanitarian aid), institutional reform and powers (for example, on health), and the gaps between north and south (reform of the euro and economic convergence) and west and east (defending the EU’s values and the rule of law).

Spain is the fourth largest member of the EU, both in terms of population share and GDP. The country’s European policy has been relatively coherent since its accession to the bloc but it has not always been as consistent and proactive as might be expected from a country of its size. Spain, which stands out for its strong pro-European sentiment, must play a bigger role in the conversation on the EU’s future, particularly in the run-up to the Spanish presidency of the European Council in 2023.

The Elcano Royal Institute forms part of trans-European think tank networks (the Trans European Policy Studies Association and the European Policy Institutes Network) and has contributed to a number of major collective endeavours, such as the initiative behind the EU Global Strategy in 2016 and the Citizens’ Consultations in 2018. From a European perspective, the Institute analyses the future of integration in a number of different areas, including the euro, migration and the Schengen area, enlargement, and the energy transition.

The Institute also pays permanent attention to the European policy of Spain, both in Madrid and through its Brussels office, including work on the weight exercised by the country in European institutions, its position on Brexit, trade interests, and bilateral relations with member states (Germany, its southern neighbours and Holland), based on cooperation between think tanks and governments, to be extended in other cases. Most recently, the Institute is already working on the Spanish presidency of the European Council in 2023.

7. Latin America: a global actor

Latin America is becoming an increasingly passive actor in the globalisation process and its projection on the world stage is shrinking. Spain and, to a lesser extent, much of Europe maintain significant historic, economic, cultural or linguistic ties with the region. However, the region is extremely attractive to China, given its capacity to supply primary and energy goods. It is also seeing renewed attention from the United States, partly due to migration and drug trafficking.

All this means regional developments (economic, political, social, energy and climate) in Latin America are important to Spain, alongside the subcontinent’s relations with the major powers (United States and China), the EU and, of course, Spain. The region’s position in the complex web of relations in the Global South is also of interest.

The Elcano Royal Institute has analysed all these issues, both in terms of the internal social and political dynamics and the concomitant external relations. In terms of this latter dimension, the focus is on relations with Spain (and the EU) based on specific themes, including culture, development cooperation and investment, or geographic areas, with detailed studies of bilateral relations with Mexico and Brazil. However, recent developments, such as the pandemic and its repercussions (for example, on the energy sector) have also led the Institute to study other actors present in the region, notably the United States (of particular relevance to certain countries like Cuba), China and Russia.

8. China’s rise, the US and the new world order

Given their status as major powers, the internal economic, political and social dynamics of the United States and China must be closely monitored and analysed. The rise of the Asian Giant is driving major regional and global transformations, which, together with its complex relations with the US, are redefining the global order in the 21st century. The consequences of this tectonic shift can be felt in numerous areas, notably technology, the economy, energy and climate, security, and culture.

Both Spain and the EU have limited capacity to shape the international reconfiguration being driven by the two major powers. However, detailed analysis is essential to understand the direction of travel. This is a global dynamic with specific geographic manifestations in regions or countries of particular interest to Spain. Examples include Latin America, where China is overtaking Spain as the second largest investor; Africa, which is covered by the Belt and Road initiative; and the eastern neighbourhood of Europe, dominated by another major player, Russia.

As a founding member of the European Think Tank Network on China, the Elcano Royal Institute has closely monitored these issues. It has worked in close collaboration on initiatives supported by the European Commission, such as the China in Europe Research Network and the EU Knowledge Network on China. The Institute also jointly runs the China in Depth cycle of events with the Spain–China Council Foundation and has cooperated with NATO on reflections on the implications of China’s rise for the alliance. Recent publications in this area include Elcano reports on Spanish relations with China and the US (including the most recent developments under the Biden administration) and the implications of the strategic rivalry of these two major powers for Spain and the EU.

9. Neighbourhood challenges and opportunities

We have seen an extraordinary proliferation of challenges and opportunities in the neighbourhood of Spain and the EU, both close to home in the south and east of the Mediterranean (the Maghreb, the Middle East and Turkey) and in Eastern Europe (dominated by the problematic relationship with Russia), and further afield, including Sub-Saharan Africa and Central Asia. While it is impossible to ignore the risks (sociopolitical destabilisation, violent radicalisation, aggression from authoritarian regimes and irregular migrant flows), neighbouring countries are also essential partners for building global public goods (human security and global health) and addressing global public problems (terrorism, pandemics and climate change). Neighbourhood countries also have a key role to play in energy, trade and investment, and their potential for democratic awakenings must not be overlooked.

Not only is Spain an important member of the EU, it also occupies a unique geopolitical position, with a territorial foothold in Africa. This requires it to play a strong role in European reflections on its neighbourhood, in ensuring the southern dimension is kept high on the agenda. A number of factors explain the leading role it plays in the region: migration, energy supplies, a growing business presence, an increasingly important aspect of Spanish cooperation policy, territorial disputes with Morocco, military missions in the Sahel and the Horn of Africa, its sensitivity towards conflict in the Middle East and its backing for regional Mediterranean governance, going back to the 1990s.

The country also plays a major role in the Arab world as a whole and Africa, all of which requires a doctrine and presence and implies responsibility on issues related to Russia and the eastern neighbourhood.

The Elcano Royal Institute sees bilateral relations with Morocco and the multilateral relation with the Euro-Mediterranean as priority areas. It favours a constructive and applied approach in specific areas, such as climate and development cooperation. The Institute’s presence in the community is a key part of this work. Moreover, its widening focus has led its analysis to encompass Arab countries and Africa, also paying attention to economic and business developments. Turkey, Russia and the former Soviet space are also subject to frequent analysis.

10. Influence and image of Spain

As a mid-sized power with aspirations to act as a nodal country, Spain has the potential to play an increasingly important role in international affairs. This aspiration is favoured by a number of factors: the size of the Spanish economy (among the 20 largest in the world), Spain’s status as a full democracy, its cultural potential (as the birthplace of the world’s second global language originated), its position as a leading member of the EU, its simultaneous presence in four major regional spaces (Europe, the Atlantic, Ibero-America and the Mediterranean) and its high standing in international public opinion.

Together with a range of other advantages, all this suggest Spain is not taking full advantage of its presence (multinational companies, tourism, migration, education, science, etc.) and potential diplomatic projection.

To fully tap its potential in the field of international relations and aspire to a position of leadership, it is necessary to improve the country’s capacity for analysis and for putting forward ideas that can shape the global agenda.

The international presence and influence of Spain is one of the Elcano Royal Institute’s areas of interest. The Institute contributed to all the most recent national strategic exercises on foreign policy (national security, external action, cooperation, cybersecurity) and has studied the impact of the pandemic on the international position of the country. For over a decade, it has conducted annual analysis of the short-term perspectives and challenges for Spain. It also pays attention to Spain’s role in global and regional governance (particularly the ecosystem of influence in the EU) and the broader constellation of bilateral relations.

However, the Institute’s work in this area goes beyond foreign policy to encompass other areas, such as gender equality, and different sectoral policies, including security and defence, development cooperation, economic promotion and trade, and diplomacy and cultural action (taking advantage of Spain’s unique status as the birthplace of the world’s second global language).

Lastly, the Institute plays an active role in the study of the image of Spain, its presence in the media and its reputation abroad.

Cross-cutting issues

All these key themes are complemented by five cross-cutting issues (cities, gender, migration, culture, health), which form part of the ten priority themes and inform all our work.