Spanish think tank: Spain needs to anchor itself in EU’s ‘big four’

Ignacio Molina (L) [Elcano Institute/ Flickr]

Spain has to cement itself among the European Union’s ‘big four’ after the United Kingdom’s departure from the bloc, the Elcano Royal Institute’s lead analyst told EURACTIV’s partner EFE.

“Spain’s influence is still well below its full potential,” Ignacio Molina said and he urged the Iberian nation to respond to the “demands” for it to play a greater role in Europe, as well as Latin America and the Mediterranean, especially the Maghreb region.

Ignacio Molina is a senior analyst at Spain’s Elcano Royal Institute.

He spoke to Catalina Guerrero.

Europe has managed to position the debate about its own future ahead of the Brexit debate. Is this a sign of the EU’s intelligence or resilience during tough periods?

It is a combination. Since the 23 June referendum, the absolute priority was to cauterise the wound so there would be no contagion. There were fears about systemic failure. They’ve had a certain amount of luck because public opinion generally believes that the British have made a mistake and shot themselves in the foot. That’s helped.

But it is true that for the big challenges facing it in the coming years, including the Brexit negotiations, the EU needs a good horizon. Historically, Europe has functioned in this way. In the autumn, EU leaders met in Bratislava and established that defence and security could be mobilising factors, then along came Trump. That helped to show that we have to take the matter seriously, as well as pushing for more in terms of justice and eurozone governance.

It also seems like we are at the end of a cycle, with elections in France and Germany, a coincidence given their legislative cycles are five and four years, respectively. Of course, there is also Brexit and populism. These factors made it almost mandatory that a debate on the future of the EU be opened to coincide with the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome.

The European Commission released its White Paper, which is different to its normal projects and is more blank canvas. It laid out possibilities rather than ideas and said it will not take sides, telling Europe it should be written together.

The conclusion of France, Germany, to a certain extent Spain and the institutions themselves, is that progress should not be stopped because significant challenges lie ahead of Europe, and it needs members that are truly committed to the project and its values.

An EU with a hard core would allow those that do not feel comfortable with certain measures to fall into a second grouping, which the UK could eventually join.

It would not be a bad outcome but it would cause tensions.

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In your “Spain in the world in 2017” report, recently published, the Elcano Royal Institute calls for Spain to be more involved in the EU, Latin America and the Mediterranean. How can it secure that role?

Spain has the institutional, demographic and economic clout to be the fourth most important member of the EU. Obviously France and Germany are in a different league because they are the founders, but Italy and Spain are up there too.

That does not mean that the smaller countries should not be taken into account because, in the EU, there has always been tension between the largest and smallest members. Spain is a country that has pushed for a strong Commission that helps the smaller nations. But, obviously, though Spain accepts that France and Germany have a special role, we can imagine Spain also partaking in that role.

This role doesn’t mean just going to a summit in Versailles, it means coming up with ideas, participating in debates, being constructive.

We speak about, for example, security and defence, the costs involved with Spain could prove to be unpopular.

But if Spain wants to play in the big league then there will be some political costs, as being a big player means accepting certain obligations.

In your report you speak of a “crossroads” and how parallels should not be drawn between Scotland and Catalonia, in terms of Brexit. What do you think about Spanish Foreign Minister Alfonso Dastis’ comments that an independent Scotland would have to get in line to negotiate with the EU about potential membership?

There is no queue, so I think that is questionable. What is certain is the Commission’s own rules on what happens to a country that becomes independent from a member state: that country leaves the EU and becomes a third country, and membership has to be negotiated from scratch.

This idea of a queue is questionable because Scotland is part of an EU member state at the moment, which complies with community law and so would, obviously, tick all the boxes easier than, say, Turkey.

And, moreover, it’s a European country that would gain its independence largely because the UK is leaving the EU.

The parallels have to be done very carefully because, in Scotland’s case, it would be a constitutional, legal procedure, agreed with London, and has nothing to do with unilateral action.

Would Spain veto Scotland’s membership? Spain’s government has never said that at any time.

It would be good if Spain could avoid looking like a rigid state because it is quite the opposite, it is a decentralised country afterall. The matter with Catalonia is a unilateral subject.

The two issues differ and we must be careful not to contaminate the debate and pay attention to the relationship between the UK and Spain.

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Are you in favour of a hard or flexible position in the upcoming Brexit negotiations?

I am in favour of Europe not punishing the UK. Obviously, they cannot be rewarded but they mustn’t be punished either. One way to proceed would be to treat the UK like Canada, because the Norwegian and Swiss models aren’t possible. Engaging with them in that way would not be a form of punishment. That would be a reasonable approach.

It’s a complicated divorce, which could go off the rails. There are many European citizens over there and many Brits here, there are many children involved and a lot of interests at stake. Spain isn’t interested in punishing them because they themselves would be punished.

In your report you are hopeful that the wave of populism in Europe has been halted, despite many uncertainties. You don’t even rule out the possibility of two big pro-Europeans triumphing in the French and German elections, in the form of Emmanuel Macron and Martin Schulz.

Compared with the extreme-right of Marine Le Pen or conservative candidate François Fillon, Macron is more distinct, more European. In terms of Germany, current Chancellor Angela Merkel and Schulz are both pro-Europeans, although Merkel is a bit more rigid when it comes to governance of the euro. What Schulz has going for him is that his victory would renew the country’s leadership and that he would be just as, if not more, pro-European than his predecessor.

Should Spain also enhance its role in the relationship between Latin America and the European Union?

It is true that one of Spain’s greatest assets is its ties with Latin America. There are shared interests and values there. It presents a huge opportunity for the country.

It’s an opportunity that has also taken on an added dimension since the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) derailed, meaning governments in the region are now more interested in collaborating with Europe and Spain.

We can imagine the Mercosur and Mexico agreements being brokered, given Trump’s dispute with the latter, and Europe diversifying its economic reliance on the United States.

The Spain of today is not the weak one of seven or eight years ago, Spain is stronger and does not look down on Latin America with condescension.

Spain has a chance to play a dual-role: as ambassador of Europe to Latin America and vice-versa.

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