See also: Special Dossier “The foreign policy of the next government”.


Presentation, by Emilio Lamo de Espinosa, Chairman of the Elcano Royal Institute.

What can we expect of Spain’s foreign and European policy over the course of the next parliament? Continuity and change in the programmes of the four main parties, by Rafael Estrella, Deputy Chairman of the Elcano Royal Institute, and Ignacio Molina, Senior Analyst at the Elcano Royal Institute.


The Elcano Royal Institute, which is about to celebrate its 15th anniversary, has been working on three tasks over the course of its short but active history that are appropiate to a laboratory of ideas. In the world of think tanks, where the English language predominates, the three words that denote these tasks all begin with the letter “A”: analysis, assessment and advice. Our institute does indeed concern itself with carrying out international and strategic studies with the greatest degree of rigour possible and, as a result, throughout this time we have been providing both our society and the foreign reader interested in a Spanish perspective with serious and sophisticated knowledge on these matters. But our efforts extend beyond the provision of solid and detached analyses, because there is also a significant critical and, above all, prescriptive component, which is what sets us apart from an exclusively academic research centre. Setting out from a position that is independent but also committed to the collective interests of the country, our reports and documents venture to assess prospective opportunities and threats, indicate our shortcomings, identify good comparative practice, and note potential innovations that might enable Spain (whether its public sector, its civil society or its population in general) to insert itself into globalization and the process of European integration.

The difficult situation we have all faced in recent years has strengthened us in the conviction that the future of Spain resides, to a large extent, beyond its borders and we have to raise awareness of the fact that a good connection with the exterior is fundamental for the success of the country: an advanced democracy that benefits from security and that improves its prosperity on the sustainable foundations of competitiveness, social inclusion and respect for the environment. We are, moreover, a mid-ranking power that can exercise effective influence on the world – defending our interests and promoting our values and ideas – and that should also take on important responsibilities beyond its borders. This is why at the Elcano Royal Institute, far from taking refuge in an ivory tower of pure thought, we have redoubled our efforts in the practical side of our research. We thus aspire to be an authentic laboratory of ideas and a workshop of knowledge at the service of Spain (and, by extension, of the European Union, of Ibero-America and the incipient global Governance), using our expertise to critically evaluate reality and ultimately giving constructive recommendations as to how it can be improved.

Indeed, over the course of the parliament that is now coming to an end we have been especially active in this area of applied thought. During these years the Institute’s Action Plans have been clearly focused on reassessing Spain’s international and European position in the context of the crisis and the major upheavals in our environment. There are many publications and activities that deserve mention but allow me to give a necessarily brief summary that at least includes the important 2014 report “Towards the strategic renewal of Spain’s foreign policy” (which we undertook autonomously but in dialogue with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation and with almost 200 experts, public decision-makers, representatives of civil society and all the political parties). That document was later partly included in the Foreign Action Strategy that the Spanish government approved less than a year ago, just as a similar work undertaken at a European level and in collaboration with Swedish, Polish and Italian think tanks (the 2013 report entitled “Towards a European Global Strategy: Securing European Influence in a Changing World”) is now influencing the drafting of the EU’s new Global Strategy, which Federica Mogherini will be presenting to the European Council in 2016.

It is also essential to mention our contribution to the National Security Strategy, which was revised in the summer of 2013 and has given rise to various single-sector sub-strategies. The Institute ensured that the approved document would have continuity with that carried out in the previous parliament, so that the idea of updating rather than providing a simple replacement could strengthen the consensus between the various political actors. Alongside our global terrorism programme and many other analyses of security, addressed without exception from a comprehensive perspective that transcends strict defence issues, it is also worth highlighting the 2014 report entitled “Spain, looking to the South” on the strengths and weaknesses of our relations with the vast region that extends from the south of the Mediterranean to the Sahel.

We have also made significant efforts to ensure that the Spanish perspective should help shape the debate on the future of the Eurozone – excessively dominated by the narrative of certain central countries – and here it is worth highlighting the 2014 study “How to Fix the Euro: Strengthening Economic Governance in Europe”, jointly published with Chatham House and AREL. Many other studies into the security of investments abroad, risks and opportunities for the Spanish economy, development aid, energy and climate change complete our contribution to the economic sphere. And to conclude this necessarily brief summary, it is important not to overlook other outstanding facets of the Institute’s output: the ongoing project to measure Spain’s presence in Brussels, the series on our bilateral relations (with Brazil, Morocco, Mexico, Algeria, etc.), the collection of annual perspectives and challenges entitled “Spain in the World”, the Observatory of Spain’s image abroad (OIE), the veteran Barometer of Opinion (BRIE) and the now well-consolidated Global Presence Index, which ranks Spain as the 11th country in the world with the greatest international presence in absolute terms.

The time has now come to address another key moment in Spain’s insertion into the world: the general election of 20 December. The present publication represents a further step in this attempt to analyse, assess and make recommendations regarding the role that we play and that we can play in international affairs. In a few days Spaniards are going to cast their verdict on a range of political projects at the ballot box and it strikes us as essential that the international and European agenda is present in the election debate. We thus decided some months ago to draw up a questionnaire that would endeavour, first, to interrogate the main political parties about their foreign priorities and secondly to offer the electorate and observers information and commitments on such matters. The novelty of this study is that the main role is taken by the representatives of the four political parties that – according to all the opinion polls – will obtain sufficient votes and parliamentary representation to enable them to effectively shape Spain’s future foreign policy until 2020. From its neutral position the Institute prefers that it is they who freely express the outlines of their programmes and sincerely extends its gratitude to their leaders (in the case of PP and PSOE) and their foreign affairs representatives (in the case of Ciudadanos and Podemos) for having agreed to answer our questions. Neither our appreciation nor our relatively restricted protagonism are an impediment to our critical and prescriptive approach however, either in the brief introductory analysis or in the design of the questionnaire.

And as a demonstration of this demanding approach, allow me to conclude with a lament that is directed not at one party in particular and perhaps not even all of them together, but rather at our country as a whole. It is clear that we find ourselves at a crossroads in our political system and that this election will be critical relative to those held since the end of the transition to democracy. Many important issues are at stake: the economic model after many years of crisis, the future of the welfare state, a possible institutional reform, momentous developments in territorial organisation and the strengthening of the very legitimacy of our democracy. But among all these undoubtedly transcendental issues, I regret the fact that the debate on our foreign and European policy does not also occupy a central position. This is a collective criticism of our political and social agents, of our intelligence, of the media, perhaps of the electorate itself, excessively wrapped up in domestic concerns. There are enormous global challenges that we cannot afford to ignore (security, the economy, development, energy, migration, science and culture), just as we cannot ignore our role in the great regional spheres (above all Europe, Latin America, the Mediterranean and the Atlantic but also the Asia-Pacific region and subSaharan Africa). Attempting to fill this gap in the electoral debate and to champion, before and after the election, the importance of this agenda are the two main motivations of this publication.

Emilio Lamo de Espinosa, Chairman of the Elcano Royal Institue

What can we expect of Spain’s foreign and European policy over the course of the next parliament? Continuity and change in the programmes of the four main parties

Last summer, looking ahead to a political calendar that included a general election at the end of the year and with all the opinion polls indicating the dominance of four parties, the Elcano Royal Institute decided to put to these political forces a series of questions on the major issues of foreign and European policy. The 20 or so questions that were posed, set out one by one in what follows, seek to offer the reader a more or less complete, although not excessively detailed, overview of the main priorities in the foreign agendas of the Spanish political parties. Bearing in mind that any governing permutation will involve these parties, the present document also serves as a means of determining the extent to which we can expect continuity or change and agreements or disagreements in the field of Spain’s foreign relations over the course of the 11th parliament, which will commence in 2016 and in theory is due to conclude in 2020.

The first major conclusion points to a significant degree of convergence. Reading all four of the completed questionnaires suggests that – while there are differences of detail, intensity and focus – the parties have a similar way of conceiving the general outlines of Spain’s foreign policy. It is true that the “new” parties (Ciudadanos and Podemos) seek to provide innovations, contrasting with the traditional content that continues to characterise the discourse of the “old” parties (PP and PSOE). Thus, despite the ideological differences that separate them, both of these pairs reproduce in a virtually identical way their response to the question concerning the three major priorities for the next four years. Both Mariano Rajoy and Pedro Sánchez, who respectively provided the answers for the PP and PSOE questionnaires, single out the immediate environment (the EU), the other strategic regions (the Mediterranean, Latin America) and multilateral objectives. Podemos and Ciudadanos somewhat surprisingly pick out procedural aspects such as improving decision-taking, transparency and accountability, placing higher emphasis on new issues (democracy, development, citizen involvement, Spanish talent) than on the classic geographical formulation.

In general however, while the phrasing used to express certain positions may occasionally be perceived as divergent, there is a unifying central thread that in our view can and should foster political dialogue and serve as the basis for achieving a significant degree of consensus over the course of the next parliament. This predisposition towards consensus translates into certain specific areas where wide-ranging agreement already exists, such as the need for good relations with Morocco, or the importance placed on the Spanish language and culture, but also affects areas where stances on the face of things are more distant. Thus, despite the criticisms of the three opposition parties towards the current orientation of Spanish diplomacy, they all agree that there is potential for Spain to have greater sway and projection in the world, that the “country-strategy” has the potential to be a good public diplomacy initiative, and the strategic exercises in the major spheres of foreign deployment and security are positive. It is also worth pointing out the shared emphasis on multilateralism – in principle under the mandate of the United Nations and subject to parliamentary control – that all parties place on the perennially controversial question of military missions abroad.

In short, there is a high degree of convergence in terms of identifying the elements that may form the basis of consensus on foreign policy. And along with the references to the most important tasks facing Spanish foreign policy, there is broad and novel agreement on the need to construct a “social consensus” that strengthens the political consensus surrounding Spain’s foreign policy.

For obvious reasons, disputes emerge more starkly when it comes to evaluating current foreign policy, whether the judgement is made by the governing party or the opposition parties: the former being more approving, the latter more critical. Apart from negative assessments of a generic character – such as those referring to Spain’s alleged loss of influence – the specific areas where dissent with the post-2011 record are most explicitly expressed relate to the management of such issues as energy dependency, cuts to development aid, the emphasis given to “Marca España” and the lack of agreement surrounding the Foreign Action Act (issues that are criticised by all three opposition parties). Podemos is the most critical of the three and attacks other aspects of security policy (especially, the revision of the defence agreement with the US), negotiations surrounding the TTIP and the alleged abandonment suffered by the Western Sahara.

By contrast there are also certain areas where agreements are especially notable: for example, in the favourable stance on Europe and the commitment to greater European political integration, although not all the parties give explicit support for a federal model of Europe. In general, bearing in mind the Eurosceptic currents swirling around almost all the member states and the reduction in Spaniards’ confidence in the EU during the crisis and the accompanying austerity measures, it is notable that all respondents go out of their way to express their support for the European project and that Podemos even emphasises that the accusation that the party, its members and supporters are against Europe is a “myth”.

No less remarkable is the attention and amount of detail given to some of the answers relating to Spain’s energy policy. As well as references to Spain’s energy mix, a commitment to a change of model and issues relating to climate change, there are new approaches and proposals that elevate energy policy to the position of a significant strategic variable in our foreign policy and in Spain’s geopolitical positioning. It is here also that it is possible to perceive a phenomenon alluded to by Mariano Rajoy in his first answer, namely that the boundaries between foreign and domestic policy are nowadays highly blurred.

By contrast there seem to be few new ideas contained in the answers referring to Spain’s relations with Latin America and the revival of the Ibero-American community. Although no profound differences emerge, we believe that the parties’ approach is excessively vague and it is therefore necessary – even urgent – to engage in a process of reflection and pooling of ideas that incorporates the new dynamics, some of great significance, that are unfolding in the region, one that lays the foundations for a solid and coherent strategy for Spain to follow vis-à-vis Latin America and its surrounding area and, in particular, towards Spanish-speaking countries. Running in the same direction, the answers address the need to encounter a new model of cultural dissemination, an essential aspect of foreign policy and our public diplomacy, where the Cervantes Institute, extending its presence throughout the Spanish-speaking world, would assume a broader and larger role.

Among the most glaring omissions (although here it is important to recognise the influence of the wording of the questionnaire, inclined as it is towards certain issues), there is a surprising lack of attention given to the United Nations Security Council, of which Spain is now a non-permanent member, and in general hardly any reference to multilateral governance or the responsibility that Spain can have at the G20 and other global forums (on human rights, climate, migration, gender equality and terrorism). And while it is true that the questionnaires were completed before the Paris attacks, there are hardly any mentions of the jihadist radicalism stemming from Daesh or generally to the war in Syria/Iraq. Nor does the refugee crisis seem to have the same importance for Spanish parties as it does for political forces in other European countries. Finally, another omission in the responses, except perhaps in the case of Ciudadanos, is the failure to refer to the internationalisation of the Spanish educational, scientific and technological system or the new opportunities abroad for a country that can see economic recovery on the horizon.

Responses to the section referring to organisation, procedure and resources vary from satisfaction with the current model expressed by the government (once the reforms of the recently-adjourned parliament have been approved) to the demand for a more significant role for the prime minister and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation made by both Pedro Sánchez and Ciudadanos. The former also takes the opportunity to advocate the role of the Autonomous Communities, while the latter criticises the politicisation of the diplomatic service. Podemos places great importance on the creation of an Office of Human Rights within the ambit of the prime minister’s office and a Citizens’ Council for Foreign Policy. Lack of money is only regretted in the context of development aid: nobody argues for more spending on defence or on diplomatic deployment.

Against this backdrop, the question regarding what can be expected of Spain’s foreign and European policy between 2015 and 2019 – an issue of undeniable interest in the run-up to the election – has a reassuring answer: continuity and dependence on the domestic agenda. After years of serious difficulties, which will not disappear in a hurry, it seems that a certain climate is becoming established among the parties (even among the “new” parties, which rail against the ills of bipartisanship) involving somewhat improved expectations concerning the role that Spain can play in the world and even some positive transformations in the international context that may contribute to this (Tunisia, Colombia and Cuba). They also recognise the conflicts of course (highlighting Ukraine and the perennial Middle East), and unsettling multilateral challenges (pandemics, climate change, radicalisation, poverty and inequality). Meanwhile the development of the European project, whereby all four parties want the EU to be able to speak with its own voice in the world, faces serious challenges and shortcomings that encumber its effectiveness.

Prior to concluding, and with the agreeable sensation stemming from well-answered questionnaires still fresh in the mind, it is necessary to make a final observation regarding the lack of political importance the four parties seem to attribute to international issues in the central part of their programmes. Although such a low profile may help to secure major agreements – given that foisting ideology on foreign policy leads to disagreements, as happened for example at the start of the 1980s on the issue of NATO or in 2003-4 with the issue of the Iraq War – the fact that greater political importance is not given to this field is a cause for concern. Indeed it seems extraordinary that not one of the responses to this questionnaire or the content of the subsequent foreign affairs sections of the manifestos expresses a single one of the parties’ main messages of the election campaign. It is clear that this will turn on domestic issues (economic recovery, austerity and inequality, the fight against corruption, the challenge to sovereignty in Catalonia, constitutional reforms, etc.) and it is possible that voters will opt for one or another party based solely on assessments of domestic politics.

It may be interesting to conclude this analysis however by recalling what took place a few weeks ago in another general election in a country with a global standing similar to Spain’s, namely Canada, which occupies ninth place in the Elcano Global Presence Index and is therefore a short distance from Spain (in 11th place) in terms of foreign presence. The candidates running for the prime minister’s office in Canada, a country that also faces significant domestic challenges of the economic and institutional variety, took part in a single-subject debate on foreign policy, and many analysts agree that this was the baptism of fire that catapulted Justin Trudeau, now leader of the government, to his lead in the polls. Something like this would be sadly unthinkable in Spain today, which overlooks its status as a midranking power. Neither Spain’s current political leaders nor their voters seem to be aware of the privileges and responsibilities that come with this status. Denying reality when it is disagreeable is understandable, but it is far less so when it involves undervaluing or scorning a situation with great potential. What is more, unless one believes in the important international position and role that Spain has or may have, it is difficult to be able to believe in the very project of the country itself. However much it denies to itself its own international standing, such a standing exists and from our perspective we would like to conclude that…  eppur si muove.

Rafael Estrella, Deputy Chairman, and Ignacio Molina, Senior Analyst.

See also: Special Dossier “The foreign policy of the next government”.