Poor economy set to keep Spain's focus at home

MADRID (Reuters) - Second-term leaders often turn a greater part of their energy to foreign policy. If Spain’s Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero is returned for another term in Sunday’s election, it’s a luxury he is unlikely to have.

Spain's Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero waves as he leaves after a televised debate with opposition Popular Party leader Mariano Rajoy in Madrid March 3, 2008. Spain will hold general elections on March 9. REUTERS/Juan Medina

For all the satisfaction in Spain over its rise up the ranks of European economies, its foreign policy remains in the second tier, and a grim economic outlook makes it likely to stay there.

The Socialist Zapatero kicked off his time in government in 2004 with a bold foreign policy move, pulling Spanish troops out of Iraq and loosening the close alliance with the United States fostered by his conservative predecessor, Jose Maria Aznar.

But, in terms of foreign policy impact, that has been about it from Zapatero.

With the economy hit by a steep decline in the housing market after 14 years of boom, there seems little chance the next prime minister will suddenly find time for foreign affairs.

Even close aides admit Zapatero has shown little interest in what goes on outside a nation that is increasingly cosmopolitan, but was long focused on gaining acceptance to the European Union after decades of isolation and economic backwardness.

“I would say that Spain punches below its weight,” said Charles Grant, of the Centre for European Reform in London, comparing the influence of the euro zone’s fourth-biggest economy to that of “some of the more important small countries like, say, the Netherlands or Sweden.”

On big issues, Spain usually follows the heavyweights France and Germany, although it broke ranks last month by rejecting Kosovo’s declaration of independence, which it feared would set a precedent for separatists in the Basque Country and Catalonia.

“Spain has made it look like the EU’s divided,” said Grant.

Zapatero has repaired relations with Morocco, which suffered under Aznar, and promoted a policy of engagement with Cuba that has brought modest results including the release of dissidents.

Spain was also one of the European countries with the best relations with Venezuela’s leftist president, Hugo Chavez, until an incident late last year at a summit in Chile when he was told to shut up by Spain’s King Juan Carlos.


Yet Zapatero’s star foreign policy initiative, the “Alliance of Civilisations,” meant to foster better relations with the Muslim world and particularly Turkey, has led to little more substantive than promises of joint film productions.

And, while Spain has deployed troops in Afghanistan, some NATO allies think they should make a bigger contribution.

Spanish diplomats are seen as effective negotiators within the European Union, but their focus is often on issues of immediate economic or political importance to Madrid.

“Spain tends to have regional policy,” said Grant.

“Obviously it’s interested in North Africa and Latin America, but it’s not interested in Russia. The Spanish line has been very much to never criticize the Russians.”

The conservative opposition, trailing in opinion polls, says it wants Spain to take a more prominent role in international talks on trade, finance and climate change.

But foreign policy has played almost no part in the election campaign and, apart from sending Spanish troops to Iraq, Aznar was not particularly engaged in foreign policy either.

Zapatero himself describes his foreign policy aims in modest terms, with a special emphasis on historic relationships with Latin America and North Africa.

“We should be a country that is respected by the major powers and appreciated by emerging and weaker countries,” Zapatero said at a press breakfast -- implying that Spain did not aspire to be a great power itself.


The contrast with the economy could not be more dramatic. Spain has grown used to having one of the fastest growth rates in the euro zone for the past decade, and it has overtaken Italy in per capita purchasing power. Its population has grown by more than 10 percent in the same period to 45 million.

Leading Spanish companies such as Telefonica and Banco Santander are among the biggest in their sectors in the world, and are household names in Latin America.

By returning Spain to its traditional role as follower of the European Union’s Franco-German axis, Zapatero also bade farewell to the foreign policy prominence Spain had acquired, for good or ill, as a cheerleader for the Atlantic alliance.

“Spanish foreign policy is completely based around the European Union,” said Jose Ignacio Torreblanca, head of the Madrid office of the European Council on Foreign Relations.

“If the European Union doesn’t work well, it’s in trouble.”

In particular, the September 11 attacks on the United States had polarized global affairs and squeezed out countries like Spain:

“The international and European context has been very bad for countries like Spain that are intermediate powers, with little military power, and that believe in multilateralism.”

The government has little time for those who suggest Spain had more influence under the pro-U.S. Aznar.

“Maybe what they really want is to be grudging towards the European Union, sneer at the United Nations and abandon any attempt at having an independent foreign policy in order to follow more powerful countries,” Foreign Ministry advisor Martin Ortega Carcelen wrote in the newspaper El Pais late last year.

But even one of Zapatero’s most prominent political allies, a well-known Socialist congressman who did not want to be named, recognized that foreign policy had not been Zapatero’s forte.

“It’s a psychological thing. When you get up in the Council of Europe sometimes you have to speak English and he doesn’t feel comfortable with that,” he said.

Jokingly, he added: “I think the constitution should be changed so all Spanish prime ministers have to be able to speak English.”

Editing by Kevin Liffey