Foreign Policy Priorities of the Incoming Socialist Government: Tackle the Problem of the War in Iraq and Cut the Gordian Knot of the European Constitution

Foreign Policy Priorities of the Incoming Socialist Government: Tackle the Problem of the War in Iraq and Cut the Gordian Knot of the European Constitution


This report examines the repercussions of the socialist victory in the general elections of 14 March on Spanish foreign policy and the main problems the incoming Administration will have in implementing its foreign-policy election pledges.


The incoming socialist (PSOE) government says it wants to implement and consolidate major changes in all areas of Spanish foreign policy. In terms of Spain’s relationship with the US, we foresee a radical change in the support shown so far for the new security agenda of the Bush Administration, particularly over the issue of Iraq. On Europe, the PSOE has already flagged very visible signals to its European counterparts that it wants to see progress on the European Constitution. Lastly, besides adopting a new stance on relations with Latin America and the countries of the Mediterranean basin, the socialists propose a multilateral volte-face on the position held by the outgoing conservatives on world governance.

Taken together, these changes mean a 180-degree swing from the foreign policy pursued by the successive governments of the Popular Party. In none of these areas will it be easy to unravel the skein spun by the conservatives to produce a ball of suitably socialist shape. However, it is on the issues of Iraq and the European Constitution where supposedly clear principles vie with muddied realities and where, to boot, quick decisions are most required. The international reputation for the next several years of Spain’s new government will largely depend on how it tackles these problems in the next few months.


Manage a Legacy and Keep a Promise
The dramatic events of 11 March, the unexpected victory of the PSOE in the elections three days later, and the pledge by premier-elect José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero to pull Spanish troops out of Iraq made Spain the centre of world attention. It was remarked upon here that not since the Civil War had Spain aroused such interest among world public opinion and the international media. The truth is that, aside from the extensive shocked coverage of the terrorist attacks, the number of editorials on the rights and wrongs of Zapatero’s intention of withdrawing Spanish troops from Iraq was unprecedented. The political and emotional references to the 1930s (‘spirit of Munich’, ‘Zapatero, the new Chamberlain’, ‘Spain votes for appeasement’) in such conservative journals as The Times, the Wall Street Journal and even Germany’s Süddeutsche Zeitung and Die Welt was countered with equal vehemence by the New York TimesWashington Post, Financial TimesEconomist and Le Monde. In the twelve months separating the summit meeting in the Azores from the massacre in Madrid, Spain enjoyed an international prominence unparalleled in contemporary history.

True, with world attention focused on Spain as a result of 3/11, the announcement by the PSOE that it will withdraw Spanish troops from Iraq on 30 June unless the United Nations ratifies the occupation has caused grave international concern. The problem may well widen the breach in transatlantic relations which has reappeared despite the pious attempts to paper it over by ‘looking forward’ (viz. the recent smiling reconciliation of Bush and Schröder). It may also have an effect on US and British domestic politics, after the recently elected Zapatero spoke of the ‘war lies’ of Bush and Blair, not something likely to leave them or their voting public unmoved. The cover of the Economist, bearing a struck-off Aznar playing card with the by-line ‘One down, three to go?’ could hardly be more revealing of international sentiment at Zapatero’s election triumph and, worse still, Aznar’s unheralded defeat, just one week after Newsweek had sung his praises in a special number on Spain.

Clearly the immediate task facing the new socialist government will be to explain first and manage second the pledge made by Zapatero before the terrorist attack but repeated by him afterwards with peculiar emphasis. The first thing will be to explain fully, producing all the evidence, that the pledge of a withdrawal from Iraq was prior to the events of 11 March, meaning that the Madrid deaths had nothing to do with it. It was the result of opposition to a war fought on what had clearly become false pretences, the presence of weapons of mass destruction and Iraq’s role in international terrorism. Obviously the problem is that those to whom these explanations are directed, not only the United States and the United Kingdom but other European countries, too, while admitting that the attacks and the withdrawal are not necessarily cause and effect, will bring strong pressure to bear on Madrid to see them as such.

So the second job of the government will be to counter the arguments of those, such as the Democrat presidential candidate John Kerry and even the German Defence Minister Peter Struck, who consider that 3/11 invalidated Zapatero’s pledge and therefore want Spain to keep its troops in Iraq, regardless of what the United Nations says. However, one imagines that within the PSOE there will be enough people to see that a flagrant breach of that promise will subject the government to the same syndrome as occurred in 1986 when the socialists pushed through a referendum on NATO membership having previously fought an election on a platform opposing it. Any backtracking now would force Zapatero to do precisely what he won votes for having opposed: pursuing a foreign policy in the teeth of overwhelming public opposition.

Zapatero’s pledge leaves him just two options: keep the first part of the pledge and withdraw the troops on 30 June or, on the contrary, put all the government’s efforts into keeping the second part (on UN ratification) and keep the troops on station. As argued hereafter, neither choice is easy.

With respect to the first option, the obvious starting point is to admit that although voters were punishing the Popular Party for its policy on Iraq, they –all of them– are responsible for the outcome, regardless of whether they actively or passively opposed the war. This is particularly true of the Socialist Party, obliged to assume responsibility for a legacy for which it was not responsible. Thus, although a Spanish withdrawal from Iraq would have a negligible effect militarily, our co-responsibility for post-war Iraq is as obvious as our co-responsibility for the war. One of the wider lessons to be learnt from this war is that a modern democracy cannot restrict the checks and balances it applies to the foreign policies pursued by its government to simple post hoc chastisement of government mistakes. Given that responsibility for foreign policy extends well beyond the electoral cycle, it would be worth finding ways in which such significant collective decisions as participating in a war could be subjected to greater political and legal ratification by parliament, in accordance not only with national constitutions but also with international law.

In any event, despite the terrorist attacks of 3/11, it seems clear that a Spanish withdrawal from Iraq will not look like irresponsibility and isolationism, but maturity and commitment to an international order based on different principles from those employed by the coalition that waged war on that country. To encourage this interpretation, a Spanish withdrawal should be presented as the next step of a long-term effort to bring peace, sovereignty and democracy to Iraq, rather a further lurch into chaos, civil war and a permanent protectorate. At the same time it should be seen as part of a strategy that in the light of 3/11, seeks to put the fight against international terrorism at the top of the international agenda. It now seems clear to all parties that the war in Iraq has weakened, rather than strengthened, the fight against the real threat, international terrorism. Although it looks the simplest solution, bringing the troops home should not be presented as a purely Spanish affair. On the contrary, the international repercussions should be emphasised, rather than swept under the carpet. Inevitably, faced with having to make the best of a bad job, the retreat will be presented as part of a wider strategy for Iraq, one that the socialist government should invite others to contribute to, particularly its fellow European countries with troops in Iraq. Assuming such a leadership role in the present circumstances will be no mean feat. Inevitably, there will be tension with the governments of Italy and Poland. However, there appears little choice in the matter.

The other option consists of putting all the emphasis on the second part of the pledge: that post-war Iraq be governed equally between the Iraqis themselves and the United Nations. This is no easy option, either. Even were the incoming government to use all its diplomatic influence in achieving this objective goal, the chances of obtaining results before the 30 June would be virtually nil. That means a long drawn-out argument over time-spans, delays and conditions that Spaniards will quickly interpret as fudging the commitment made by Jose Luis Rodríguez Zapatero. In addition, the government will easily find itself arguing against the proposal, as, if approved, Spanish troops would not only have to remain in Iraq indefinitely but the expeditionary force would probably have to be strengthened and given greater responsibilities, thereby heightening the risk of casualties.

In fact, for Spanish public opinion to countenance this argument for not bringing the troops home, those European government which, like the PSOE, were most opposed to the war would have to accept the UN mandate as sufficient justification for sending out their own troops. Staying in Iraq and, in addition, being able to claim the merit of having brought the UN (ie, France and Germany) in, would be a comfortable scenario for the socialist government, as, aside from other advantages, it would allow it to act as lead spokesman in restoring trans-Atlantic relations. However, the French and Germans may well have a problem with having to deploy troops in Iraq to get Spaniards out of a hole. Convincing them may not be as easy as it looks. Seen in this light, this plan falls somewhat short of foolproof.

The government has set itself two tricky options requiring, in each case, genuine leadership ability. Moreover, whichever way Spain moves, if it wants to avoid being seen as a weak-kneed isolationist it will have to beef up its international cooperation, particularly with Europe, in the fight against terrorism, besides sitting down with the United States to study what international terrorism is really all about and how to tackle this and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

Cutting the Gordian Knot of the Constitution
After Iraq, the European issue is, without doubt, the one that arouses most interest in the light of the election victory of the Socialist Party. Many people are banking on a swift end to the negotiations on the European Constitution, paralysed since the Brussels summit last December. Although it is clear that the effects of the socialist victory can only be judged in the medium term, there is one issue on which the incoming government will have to take its stand immediately: power sharing in the enlarged Union and, in particular, Spain’s weight in the Council of Ministers.

As we know, the dispute between those countries which, like Spain and Poland, favour the distribution of votes agreed in Nice in December 2000 and those which, like France and Germany, with the tacit support of the United Kingdom and Italy, support the principle of the double majority (according to which, decisions of the Council of Ministers require the support of the majority of the countries and the majority of the population) has now become the Gordian knot of the Constitution.

For sure, the problem faced by the EU is not the first such instance of a dispute over territorial representation. However, the Germans, which defend pure proportionality of the Council of Ministers, do not practice it at home. In the Bundesrat, Bremen, with only 662,000 inhabitants, has half the votes (three) of North Rhine-Westphalia which, with 18 million inhabitants, has six votes. In reality, not even the European Parliament, which only represents the population, applies proportionality in the purest sense. Germany, with 17% of the population, only has 13.5% of the deputies, while Spain, with 8% of the population, has 6% of the seats, meaning that the available margin for adjustment for Spain’s 50 parliamentary seats is small indeed.

Although this is not the place to go into all the arguments for and against double majorities (see ARI 121/2003 and 292/2002), the main problem with the system is that, although in abstract a double majority is more transparent, efficient and equitable than any rival system (particularly that agreed in Nice), when applied to the European Union it could produce a significant shift of power to the larger countries to the detriment of the rest, particularly the medium-sized countries.

The key to the problem resides in the disparity of population of the countries of Europe. Of a total of 26 nations, the six largest –Germany, the United Kingdom, France, Italy, Spain and Poland– account for 75% of the total population, while the remaining 21 countries account for only 25%. In this context, the double majority means that the bigger countries, though incapable of imposing their decisions on the rest, as they need 14 countries to approve a given measure, are capable of blocking any measure they regard as counter to their interests. In principle, this means a de facto Directoire of the big countries, albeit a benign Directoire, subject to transparent, equitable, democratic and legitimate rules. However, the precise threshold of power held by the Big Six depends on what you consider a majority: simple majority, two fifths, two thirds, three quarters, etc. In short, the higher the population threshold (60% or 70%), the greater the blocking power of the big countries and vice versa: the higher the threshold of the States (60% or 70%), the greater the blocking power of the smaller countries. Thus, application of the principle of double majorities to a heterogeneous situation such as that of Europe in terms of population, combined with population thresholds of over 50%, could have contradictory effects from the standpoint of efficiency, legitimacy and equity, precisely the points that a double majority is supposed to guarantee. For example, a combination of thresholds of 50-83 would turn the principle of a double majority into an automatic and perpetual right of veto for Germany.

The underlying problem with the principle of double majorities is that it produces different results in different circumstances. Accepting it, therefore, would be only the first step in a negotiation in which, in time, each State will try to obtain the combination of thresholds that best suits its interests. We should not be naïve about this. The proposal Giscard d’Estaing put on the table to be discussed (majority of States and three fifths of the population, generally known as ‘50-60’), is based on no better basic criterion than the interests of France. It was the result of an exhaustive analysis by the French Ministry of the Economy, which concluded that this was the combination that most favoured France’s position within the Union.

As for Spain, the position adopted so far by the outgoing government of the Popular Party was to reject the principle of the double majority per se, on the grounds that it was contrary to the agreement reached in Nice, which was highly favourable to Spain and foreign to the past practice and raison d’être of the Council of Ministers, which previously distributed votes on a weighted basis, not in terms of population. There has been very little discussion on the subject in Spain and such arguments as are advanced are either rhetorical or plain wrong. As an illustration, the outgoing government launched a long attack on the principle of proportional representation on which the double-majority rule is based while the opposition criticised the Nice agreement for giving a disproportionate amount of power to Spain. In fact, it is exactly the other way round. In Nice Spain was the only big country allotted a number of votes in proportion to its population; the other big countries obtained far fewer votes than their population figures warranted. What the big countries want now is to recover a greater semblance of proportionality by means of the double-majority system.

What will the new government do? Although in opposition the PSOE criticised what it called Aznar’s obsession about minorities with blocking power, Spain’s loss of real influence in Europe and the number of European MPs that Spain had conceded at Nice, the strategy of José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero was to refuse to support the government in the hope of winning a fresh (but different) agreement that maintained Spain’s relative power. Only days after winning the election, the future prime minister of Spain, while happily saying that he expected immediate progress on the Constitution as soon as he was sworn in, was decidedly ambiguous about what system or formula Spain will defend. Although this ambiguity should remain in place until the negotiations proper commence, statements made by the new Foreign Minister, Miguel Ángel Moratinos, to the effect that Spain does not need the power obtained in Nice, suggest that he is now ready to accept the principle of a double majority. The question is what threshold serves Spain’s interests best, an issue that should be looked at carefully, something which, by dint of negating the principle of double majorities and defending Nice, no one has yet bothered to do.

It seems evident that when it comes to talking about percentages, Spain should say quite clearly what thresholds it wants for itself and what for the European Union as a whole. For it is here that the fundamental contradiction lies. The proposals put forward in November to raise the population threshold from three fifths (60.0%) to two thirds (66.6%) were evidently aimed at raising the blocking power of Spain, but they had the side-effect of considerably raising the blocking power of France and Germany. In reality, given that France and Germany together account for 30% of the population of the EU of 27 States, it is understandable that the double-majority system, combined with a high population threshold, creates a real risk that a benign Directory of the Good and the Great leading to a de facto Franco-German stranglehold on the enlarged Union. Even with a population threshold of 60%, France and Germany would have had a blocking power of 75%, before negotiations had even begun.

Thus, admitting the principle of double majorities is not the end of the problem but the beginning. If Spain wants to run with strict proportionality, it should propose, at least as a working hypothesis, a rethink of the simple double majority (51-51), which was the plan the Commission took to Nice in 2000 and that the European Socialist Parties (ESP) has always supported. All the studies show that the double majority is the most equitable solution as it gives the big countries no further advantage than that of their population. It is also the most effective, in that it sets a level playing field for forming winning coalitions and blocking minorities. And, lastly, it is the system that ought to produce the best results in terms of European integration, as it strengthens both the European Parliament and the European Commission. Alternatively, if the vertigo produced by a double simple majority in the governments of the big countries is too much to cope with, they could compensate with a three-fifths (60-60) double-majority formula in which they would keep their power in the Council vis-à-vis other EU institutions, but without over-strengthening the hand of the big countries while, at the same time, giving the smaller countries greater clout when it comes to forming coalitions.

Alternatively or complementarily, given the problems of establishing what the population of each country is (… what do we use? national statistics, local statistics, electoral rolls? Do we admit immigrants without voting rights, residents of other countries, people under age?…), Spain could argue for the need for a formula to assign votes in the Council along the lines of that employed in the European Parliament, respecting the criterion of the double majority but making certain adjustments to pure proportionality when allocating effective voting rights.

Clearly, any option requires a prior decision on what kind of European Union we are looking for and what Spain’s role within that Union should be. Now may well be the time to hold that public debate that has not taken place so far. Although the schedule is tight, parliament should have the opportunity of giving this important matter some thought. Debate or not, the challenge for the incoming government, and for its EU partners, is to match the interests of the Union as a whole with those of Spain in particular. This is the end goal of the process of European integration and the one that will allow Spain to maintain a fair negotiating position in favour of the common interest but equally firm in defence of Spain’s own interests.


The legacy of the war in Iraq and progress on the European Constitution are the two main problems facing the new socialist government in implementing its election promises in the area of foreign policy.

Whatever the government decides on Spain’s presence in Iraq, it will have to take vigorous steps to strengthen international cooperation, particularly at the European level, in the fight against terrorism. As the same time, it is necessary to offer to discuss with the United States ways of determining just what the international terrorist threat is and how to combat both this and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

The next government will have to define its position on the distribution of power in the enlarged European Union and, in particular, Spain’s power in the new Council of Ministers. The challenge for the incoming government, and for its EU partners, is to match the interests of the Union as a whole with those of Spain in particular. This is the end goal of the process of European integration and the one that will permit Spain to maintain a fair negotiating position in favour of the common interest but equally firm in defences of Spain’s own interests.

José Ignacio Torreblanca
Department of Political Science and Administration, UNED