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Jun 30, 2022

The EU and the War in Ukraine (II): Wider and Deeper. A View from Spain

Spain is experiencing a "watershed moment" of its own, with the public at times even favoring NATO’s intervention should Vladimir Putin not stop Russia’s offensive in Ukraine. There is also strong support for a geopolitical EU. To achieve it, widening and deepening must go together.

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The landmark Metropolis building at the start of the Gran Via is seen in Madrid, Spain, June 19, 2018. Picture taken using long exposure.
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Traditionally, the six founding members of what was once the European Economic Community—France, (West) Germany, Italy, and the Benelux countries—have always been reluctant to enlarge the European Union. In their view, there is a trade-off between widening and deepening the EU. The more members there are in the club, the more difficult it is to reach agreements. This explains why as early as 1994 the much-cited “Schäuble-Lamers paper,” written by the German Christian Democrats (CDU) Wolfgang Schäuble and Karl Lamers, proposed a “core Europe” (Kerneuropa) surrounded by concentric circles of loser integration. It is also why French President Emmanuel Macron, almost 30 years later, did the same when he addressed the European Parliament on May 9 and talked about the possible accession of Ukraine to the EU.

This view, however, is not shared in Madrid.

As a matter of fact, Spain has always favored the entry of Turkey into the EU. As a latecomer to the club, and perhaps the country that is most in favor of an “ever closer union” envisaged in the 1957 Treaty of Rome, Spain has always seen widening and deepening the EU as compatible. And it still does so today. Amid the most important military confrontation on European soil since World War II—one that involves Russia, a great power, and an EU siding with Ukraine on all fronts, apart from putting its own boots on the ground—the view in Madrid is that one should not put up any obstacles for Ukraine to join the club. Spanish elites are well aware of the modernizing capacity of accession (Spain joined in 1982, having left the Franco dictatorship behind it); why deny this privilege to others? Also, there is the feeling that this is an historic moment that should be used to strengthen the EU.

Bravo for the Zeitenwende

Against this backdrop, it is easy to understand why feelings in Spain, as in most of Europe, are running strong ever since Russia started its invasion of Ukraine on February 24 and the EU imposed sanctions; in Spain’s case it is perhaps even a little surprising since the country has no military culture.

Sunday, February 27, was particularly significant because German Chancellor Olaf Scholz gave his historic Zeitenwende speech. The same day, Josep Borrell, the EU´s High Representative for Foreign Affairs (and a Spaniard), declared that some EU member states would send fighter jets to Ukraine. This unheard-off bellicose discourse was received with cheers in Spain. Only a few resisted the euphoria of seeing—finally—the birth of a geopolitical EU, as Borrell declared on March 1 in front of the European Parliament—for many his most stellar moment as High Representative.

As in previous conflicts on the periphery of Kerneuropa (the Balkan wars after the break-up of Yugoslavia come to mind), there was immediately talk about the possibility of finally creating a European defense union worthy of that name. Some even speculated about the possibility of Germany embracing wholeheartedly the idea of building the strategic autonomy or sovereignty that the EU needs to survive in an era of great power competition. Paris and Berlin would work in tandem to achieve this. But slowly the bellicose euphoria started to fade. Like Germany, Spain is experiencing some sort of Zeitenwende itself, because Russia’s war against Ukraine has shaken the minds and hearts of many Spaniards, but the process of change is slow.

Increased Support for NATO

There are things that have changed, though. As in other Western European countries, there are many so-called “Putin-Versteher” (Putin understanders) in Spain, not least in the ministries of Foreign Affairs and Defense. Also, Russia sympathizers used to be quite prominently represented in talk shows. These voices have gone underground. As a matter of fact, as Borja Lasheras highlights, the Spanish government led by the Socialists—despite hesitancy by their junior coalition partner, the far-left party Podemos—has been surprisingly bold in supporting economic sanctions against Russia and sending troops and equipment to Latvia and Bulgaria to strengthen NATO’s deterrence. Foreign Minister José Manuel Albares has been particularly proactive in this endeavor.

Another important shift is increased popular support for NATO. And even most left-wing voters are in favor of sending arms to Ukraine. In March a majority of Spaniards supported direct NATO intervention in Ukraine if Russia would not withdraw. At that moment, jingoism was perhaps at its highest level.

All this emboldened the Spanish government to side with the United States and the Eastern European countries in taking a tough stand vis-à-vis Russia, at least rhetorically, although the fact is that, according to most measures, the financial and military support of Spain to Ukraine is well below what one would expected from the EU’s fourth biggest economy. As in Germany, the Zeitenwende in Spain is only happening gradually. This can be seen both in the actions of the government and the attitude of the population. Spaniards were shocked by the images of the war in Ukraine, and given that it is a profoundly democratic country that cherishes citizens rights and privileges and the values that are inherent to the EU, there was a strong support for defending Ukraine against Putin’s tyranny by all possible means.

On the Fence

Now, however, war fatigue is starting to show, as the latest poll conducted by ECFR shows (see also “What Europe Thinks… about Ukraine” in this issueLINK). According to the poll, Europe can be divided today between the “peace camp” (those who think that stopping the war and avoiding further escalation should be the priority, even if this means that Ukraine will have to give up some of its land) and the “justice camp” (those who believe that Russia needs to pay for its atrocities and therefore the EU needs to help Ukraine to push the Russian troops back to the borders existent before the invasion).

In this division, fewer Spaniards are in the peace camp than the Italians, Germans, and French, but at the same time fewer Spaniards are in the justice camp than the Polish, Swedish, or even the German and French. In other words, a relatively high number of Spaniards are on the fence and worried about the war. Tellingly, when asked what their biggest concern regarding the war is, of all the countries polled, Spain has the highest number of people who mention “the economic downturn or losing my job.” With the scars of the pandemic still visible, prices rising, and credit tightening, this is not surprising.

All of this brings us back to the discussion about widening and deepening. As a country that at some point in history had territories all across the planet (this year marks the 500th anniversary of the first circumnavigation of the globe by Magallanes and Elcano), Spain is very aware that power vacuums need to be filled. Therefore, the eventual incorporation of Ukraine into the EU needs to be seriously considered from a geopolitical and strategic point of view. But, as Jacob Kirkegaard has pointed out, this should be accompanied by a deepening of the fiscal union—first, to off-set the short-term economic effects of the war, perhaps with the issuance of debt for a recovery fund both for Ukraine and those most affected from high energy prices across the EU, and, second, in the medium to long term, to spend more on joint defense capabilities.

In this regard, Spain has always been quite pragmatic. The debate shouldn’t be either NATO or the EU’s strategic autonomy. The vision shared in the corridors of Spain’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs is that “coordination and compatibility” of NATO and increased European defense autonomy are possible. What worries a lot of policymakers and pundits in Madrid is that, with France, Germany, and to a certain extent Italy showing certain cynicism in their support for Ukraine, as denounced by Simon Kuper, the Eastern Europeans will definitely reject the idea of building European strategic autonomy or sovereignty, because they do not trust their western neighbors. This will weaken the EU’s geopolitical standing, which is precisely what Spain wants to avoid because it is firmly convinced that we need a geopolitical union to compete in the new era of great powers. And in 2024 we might have another Donald Trump in the White House.

Miguel Otero-Iglesias is a Senior Analyst at the Elcano Royal Institute and Professor at IE School of Global and Public Affairs.

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