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New Bottles for Old Wine? The Foreign Policy Priorities of the EU’s Spanish Presidency

Commentary, 22 March 2010
International Institutions, Europe
What is good for Spain is not necessarily good for Europe, and vice versa. Post-Lisbon, which will dominate the agenda?

As the first permanent presidency of the EU under the new Lisbon Treaty, the Spanish term will offer an insight into the direction this new system may take. When it comes to Europe the friction remains in prioritising between the national and the European. What is good for Spain is not necessarily good for Europe, and vice versa. Post-Lisbon, which will dominate the agenda?

By Luis Simon, for

Zapatero EU

The new, fancy, post-Lisbon, bottle might not disguise the taste of Europe's old wine after all. Perhaps not even one bit. Arguably, the chief aim of the Lisbon Treaty (heir of the infamous Constitutional Treaty) was to respond to the prospect of an enlarged and more diverse Union with a more coherent voice in foreign affairs. Widening (enlargement) and deepening have always gone hand-in-hand, and the expected 2004 'big bang' enlargement called for big bang deepening. Hence, the boldness of the unfolding Lisbon regime: a permanent president of the European council that provides the Union with a permanent face; a double-hatted high representative with an inside track to both the Council and the Commission and a potential to marry the two institutions' foreign policy agendas; a vast European External Action Service, which will facilitate the much cherished coherence (or so it is claimed); and a mutual assistance clause that flirts with the concept of a common defence. These are no small goals.

In their own neighbourhood, Europeans have witnessed an increasingly assertive Russia in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus and an America that cares less about the old continent and some of its immediate neighbourhoods (as shown by the missile defence row and the 2008 Georgian War). Further afield, the expansion of China's influence in Africa and a financial crisis, which has been a true 'revolution in strategic affairs', have strengthened China's global voice and accelerated the shift of economic and geopolitical attention towards the Asia-Pacific region. Most recently, a combination of debt and unemployment in southern Europe, the so-called PIIGS (Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece and Spain), threatens the common currency - Europe's chief accomplishment of the last two decades. If anything, the call for a coherent European voice in foreign affairs is more urgent, not less.   

But it might just so happen that an enlarged and more diverse Europe in an ever-more volatile world does not make a good home for Lisbon's hoped-for coherence. We may be finding out right now; the Spanish presidency of the EU is the first of the Lisbon regime. It offers an interesting indication of things to come.

A New Spain

Spain is all grown up these days. Jose Ignacio Torreblanca, director of the Madrid office of the European Council on Foreign Relations, nicely captures a widespread sentiment in Madrid:[1]

It is legitimate to wonder just how much Europe needs Spain to achieve its goals. Successive enlargements have resulted in a clear dynamic of re-nationalisation: much to Spain's perplexity, Berlin, London, Paris and Rome have put Europe [in] second place, asserting their national orientation without complexes. Spain, much to her regret, is forced to make choices too.

Dressed up in Madrid's characteristic Europeanism, the foreign policy priorities of the Spanish EU presidency bear a remarkably national flavour. Of course, what is good for Europe may often be good for Spain and vice versa. But politics is about how good. And when it comes to prioritising, what is optimal for Spain is not necessarily so for Europe.

Good for Europe?

Madrid is committed to the development of two of Lisbon's foreign and security policy trademarks; the launching of the External Action Service and the development of the solidarity clause. Madrid has also praised its allegiance to the 'high positions', and put forward an agenda for the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) that includes the setting up of a defence ministers council, the use of the battlegroups, progress in the realm of capabilities (particularly strategic airlift), and greater collaboration with other international actors, notably NATO.[2]

Two initiatives in the realm of CSPD are particularly promising. The designation of the Operations Centre as the preferred operational headquarters for battlegroup operations could not only improve the prospects of using the formations, but also bring important improvements to the Union's capability for the planning and conduct of CSDP military operations, provided the measure is accompanied with an increase in the personnel and resources of the permanent nucleus of the Operations Centre.[3]

The other notable initiative is the idea of intensifying the efforts against piracy off the Somali coast, both through a potential Security Sector Reform CSDP mission in Somalia and a potential beefing up of EUNAVFOR ATALANTA.[4] So far so good: this feeds into Spain's narrative of supporting a political Europe.

But then again, not all that is good for Spain is necessarily good for Europe. For all of Madrid's expressed support of the 'High Positions' and promises of a low-profile presidency, reports of stolen thunder already abound. Spain's flirting with the idea of tabling a debate on the 'pros and cons' of Europe's arms embargo to China has been met with scepticism in Brussels and beyond. Not only is there no political support among partners, let alone appetite to go public on the matter; according to the Lisbon Treaty, the initiative on CFSP matters corresponds to the high representative.[5]

On another matter, President Obama's refusal to attend a high-profile EU-US spring summit in Madrid has echoes of Kissinger's telephone number for Europe. It highlights what was already an open secret; political will remains vital to get the new institutional machine running.

But neither is all that is optimal for Spain the same for Europe. The foreign and security policy priorities of the Spanish presidency are many, and reflect the always imperfect marriage between continental rhetoric and national substance. Europe's priorities include the need for a transatlantic economic dialogue and greater transatlantic co-operation in the fight against terrorism; a reminder of Europe's commitment to stability in the Middle East, including a praising of the Spanish-Turkish 'Alliance of Civilisations' platform; the need to continue to engage in Europe's Eastern neighbourhood; progress in the development of a strategic relationship with Russia; support for continuing enlargement negotiations in the Western Balkans and Turkey; a re-invigoration of the Union's engagement in Asia, including a closer relationship with Japan and greater co-operation with China, India and ASEAN, and so on.[6]

However, the bulk of the weight of the Spanish Presidency's foreign policy agenda falls onto two distinctively 'national' areas: Latin America/Caribbean and the Maghreb.

Looking West

Spain calls for a 'qualitative leap' in relations with Latin America and the Caribbean, namely an emphasis on the 'strategic' nature of the Union's relationship with Mexico and Brazil, the need to advance towards trade agreements with Central America, the Andean countries and Mercosur, and the establishment of a co-operative framework for regulating relations between the Union and Latin America/Caribbean.  

Special attention will be given to the consolidation of the Union's strategic partnerships with Mexico and Brazil. The first EU-Mexican Summit, to be held in May and hosted in Spain, will highlight 'the new strategic character Mexico has acquired for the EU'. There are also hopes to instil new impetus in the negotiations for an EU Association Agreement with the Central America Integration System, the Multipartite Trade Agreement with several Andean countries, and an EU-Mercosur Association Agreement. Additionally, the EU-Latin America/Caribbean Summit aims for the approval of an action plan that establishes the main objectives of a bi-regional co-operation framework.

The Mediterranean and Maghreb

Secondly, the importance of the Mediterranean region and the Maghreb in particular is highlighted. The first EU-Morocco Summit, to be held in Madrid in the spring, hopes to develop Rabat's 'advanced status' within the framework of the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP), and there will be renewed emphasis on negotiations for a framework agreement between the EU and Libya. Furthermore, Algeria is seen as a potential partner for the Union, most notably in the field of energy.

The second summit of heads of state and government of the Union for the Mediterranean (UpM) will revamp the Euro-Mediterranean Free Trade Area Project and assess the status of the implementation of the six large projects approved at the previous Paris summit - the Solar Plan, Supporting Business, Maritime and Land Highways, De-pollution of the Mediterranean, Civil Protection, and Higher Education and Research. The summit will also concentrate on the consolidation of the UpM's institutional structure, including the implementation of its secretariat. Finally, in one of the most distinctive and promising proposals on the foreign and security policy front, the Spanish Presidency has pointed to the need to increase co-operation in CSDP with UpM partners.

Relative Gains

While many of the foreign and security policy priorities of the Spanish EU Presidency are good for Europe, they are better for Spain. If the change from a rotating to a permanent presidency system is going to result in greater European foreign policy coherence, the strategic part of agenda-setting must fall onto the new high positions, leaving the rotating presidencies the task of using their greater administrative resources to provide a support infrastructure. This is the only way to prevent EU foreign policy agenda from amounting to little more than a reflection of an incoherent mess of national priorities.

Is this Spain's fault? Not so much. The word in Brussels is that the Spanish presidency 'doesn't count', that it is 'exceptional'; the fact that the Treaty was ratified by the Czech Republic only in November 2009 left the Spanish limited room to adapt to a Lisbon-style presidential mindset. It is the Belgian Presidency, in the second half of 2010, that will set the template of how a 'Lisbon presidency' shall develop.

Do questions of timing and procedure account for the ongoing incoherence in European foreign policy? Will EU member states, particularly the bigger ones, allow the high positions to monopolise the strategic direction of the Union? It is unlikely. The first test of post-Lisbon coherence for the European Council was to appoint strong personalities to the new positions. But Europe's member states preferred to appoint low-profile figures and concentrated on securing influential Commission portfolios instead.

A re-run of the driving logic of European integration - the prominence of the national over the European - is most likely to underpin the unfolding scramble for positions within the nascent European External Action Service. In this regard, its 'exceptional' presidency of the EU leaves Madrid in a place to secure an enviable position within the EEAS machinery - so perhaps it was good timing after all.

The views expressed above are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI

[1] Una España confusa en una Europa desorientada, 19 January 2010. Presidencia en la sombra (European Council on Foreign Relations).

[2] The Program for the Spanish Presidency of the European Union (pp. 5-6). Ministerio de Asuntos Exteriores y Cooperación. Secretaría de Estado para la Unión Europea.

[3] Luis Simon, Command and Control? Planning for EU Military Operations, Occasional Paper n 81 (January 2010), EU Institute for Security Studies.

[4] Intervention of Spanish Minister of Defence Carme Chacon before the Spanish Senate on the priorities of the Spanish EU Presidency on CSDP, available at

[5] Financial Times, 'EU divided on lifting China arms embargo', 31 January 2010.

[6] Op. cit. in note 2, pp. 11-13.

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