Madrid is back in the EU game, but the Catalan problem hurts its image. Spain, recovering slowly but surely from a deep recession is now re-emerging as an important player in Brussels. Painful structural reforms have already contributed to high growth rates. The freshest OECD’s economic outlook for Spain foresees that the recovery is projected to remain robust and the growth will be above 2% over the 2017-18 period. Although the unemployment is still relatively high it has fallen from 27% in 2012 to 18% in 2016. These positive outcomes make Spain more confident in becoming a policy maker rather than a policy taker within the EU.
Unfortunately for the EU but luckily for Spain, Brexit and Poland’s self-isolation in the EU benefits Madrid. It presents the opportunity to fill the space left by the UK which Spain has already started to take an advantage from. For example, Madrid participated in the “Big Four Meeting” (France, Germany, Italy and Spain) at the palace of Versailles in March this year during which the four countries backed the old idea of multispeed Europe. This symbolic (in terms of content) meeting was rich in signing declarations. It showed the world that the four wealthiest and most populous EU countries are determined to invest in the continuation of the European project. They also urged for a reform of the EU which would allow member states to choose their desired degree of integration. The leaders suggested that while some member states would cooperate more closely on economic or defence matters, the others could decide to join in later.
It is worth stressing that the EU integration process has always been at the core of the Spanish national project. Ever since the Spanish democratic transformation (1976-1978), Europeanisation has been a synonym of converging with the West, and particularly with democratisation, modernisation of society and economy. Spain has never challenged Schengen, the common currency, the European External Action, the common migration and asylum policies or more economic integration. On the contrary, it is pushing for more of these EU policies. Additionally, despite some criticism at home, the government in Madrid does not challenge the EU recipes for undertaking structural reforms towards the full recovery.
Even though the European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker did not back the “multispeed Europe” in his last State of the Union, Moncloa (metonymy of the Spanish central government) understands that at the moment, there seems little doubt that the EU is heading toward some kind of a two-speed Europe (with the Eurozone countries in the heart of making decisions). The divisions over refugees’ allocations, the posted workers bill and the rule of law among the Member States explain why the old idea of a “Europe a la carte” is back on the table. No matter whether we call it “multispeed cooperation”, “differentiated cooperation”, “different levels of integration” or “cooperation at different speeds”, an enhanced cooperation in more areas is becoming a reality.
Spain is in favour of further European integration (even if it happened through the differentiated cooperation) and its interests are frequently aligned with the broader direction of Europe. For example, it is in favour of closer cooperation in the area of the Common Foreign and Security Policy, the migration policy, the fight against terrorism and in favour of the monetary union. As for the EU trade policy, Spain believes that the EU should remain open to the world as the Union needs to grow faster, become more prosperous and competitive. In this year’s State of the Union, President Juncker reiterated that the ongoing trade talks with Mexico on modernisation of the trade pillar of the EU-Mexico global agreement from 1997 and free trade agreement with MERCOSUR (launched in 1999) are expected to be secured by the end of this year. This coincides very well with Madrid’s foreign policy priorities at both the national and the EU level.
Regardless of the still-solid foundations of Spanish Europeanism and the optimism related to the increase of Spain’s influence within the Union, the Spaniards are tired of it. They blame the EU for both austerity and internal devaluation. The polls from May 2017 showed that 51% of people do not trust the European Union (in comparison with 23% in 2007). Additionally, the EU predominantly conjures up a neutral image but positive attitudes towards it have declined significantly from 64% in 2007 to 37% in 2017. In order to attract the citizen’s approval for intensified cooperation at the EU level, the Spanish government and the EU should do more to improve the EU’s image.
However, Spain will not become more influential in the EU, if it does not solve the Catalan problem quickly. The ongoing campaigns for consequent referendums and the extensive media coverage by the European press may give the impression that Spain will disintegrate. Some media outlets are spreading fake news, for example comparing Barcelona with Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 and some have already mentioned “Catexit”. The Europeans often have a tough time understanding the facts about Catalonia.
In the upcoming months, we should expect more initiatives coming from Madrid. These should include some of Spain’s “lessons learnt”, such as its input in managing migration to the EU) but also its competitive advantages, for example the knowledge of the Southern Neighbourhood countries and Latin America) in order to make its priorities heard at the EU level. However, the most pressing issue is to solve its problems at home. The polarising politics in Catalonia may spread to the rest of the country which would threaten its existence. Regardless of what Catalonia does after October 1, be it the cancellation of referendum, unilateral declaration of its independence or the call for new elections, Madrid cannot allow this state of play to continue. It should start gaining “Barcelona’s heart” and restore Spain’s territorial unity. The two governments should reengage in the negotiation process and find solutions beneficial for both sides. Madrid simply cannot afford to let Barcelona go.