Spain’s election defied the notion that technocracy is prevailing over democracy in Europe. Recent government changes in Greece and Italy marked by the rise of technocrats were due principally to loss of credibility of their leaders. Other government transitions in Ireland and Portugal, due to the crisis, were achieved through the ballot box. Outgoing rime minister Zapatero’s long overdue realization of his own ineptitude led to his exit. He largely achieved victory in Spain’s March 2008 election by promoting a false sense of prosperity and security at home and abroad. Zapatero’s dithering, and a state of destructive denial, ensued after the start of the global crisis in September 2008. He limped along for another three years without any deep sense of urgency. After constantly wandering through political and economic minefields, he was eventually forced to call early elections. While Zapatero paid a price for his shortcomings, Spaniards will pay a much heavier price in the coming years.
Despite current economic difficulties, Spain’s political system has generally demonstrated greater maturity in recent decades when compared to other Mediterranean states of the European Union. This has been marked by longer-lasting governments, a younger and more dynamic political class, and more fluid decision-making. Furthermore, Spain’s dynamic private sector has gone global within a generation. Its businesses have played a critical role in setting the tone for Spain’s image abroad and the pace of its involvement around the world. Today, it is a leading investor not only in Latin America, but also the United States.
Under Zapatero, Spain’s foreign policy was excessively reactive. He largely muddled through developments. In Europe, Zapatero proved a political lightweight. He largely followed and did as told. Despite the current crisis and vastly reduced leverage, Mariano Rajoy must be more assertive and restore Spain’s diplomatic initiative in Europe and around the world.
He must now lead a real debate about Spanish foreign policy. There was practically none during the election campaign. Rajoy needs to define and clarify Spain’s strategic objectives and rebuild a consensus on Spain’s European and international roles. He must strike a proper realistic balance that is commensurate to Spain’s actual, and potential, standing. Defeatist notions of a bankrupt nation doomed to marginal status must be avoided. It benefits no one. Spain’s voice should and must be heard. It has much to contribute.
Zapatero’s departure will also not be missed in Washington, despite an improved bilateral rapport with President Barack Obama. From a U.S. perspective, Zapatero’s lack of leadership during the current crisis served as a dangerously weak link in the European chain.
Even with the victory of Rajoy, and his pro-U.S. Partido Popular, there will be no return to anything resembling the Bush-Aznar love affair. Close cooperation in international security and counter-terrorism will continue, as will Spain’s contribution in Afghanistan within a NATO context. A new Rajoy government will also mark increased U.S.-Spain coordination in Latin America. Converging regional interests demand it, ranging from democratization and human rights to combating the narcotics trade. Furthermore, the Rajoy government must also strengthen broader transatlantic collaboration in Latin America, particularly when considering Spain’s historic role and ability to shape European Union policy in the region.
Spain’s positive transformation since the 1970’s, after decades of autocratic rule, provides useful lessons for developing societies emerging from dictatorship, including the Middle East. Its solid institutions and strong rule of law serve as valuable examples of the benefits of peaceful progression. Overall, Spain has a responsibility to remain engaged in a rapidly changing world. Despite enormous domestic difficulties, Mariano Rajoy must rise to the challenges at home, and increasingly abroad.
Vicenzino is head of Global Strategy Project, a geo-political risk and international business advisory firm.