Europe's Libya Intervention: Spain

9 MINS READMar 30, 2011 | 12:18 GMT
Editor's Note: This is the final installment in a five-part series examining the motives and mindset behind the current European intervention in Libya. We began with an overview and follow with an examination of the positions put forth by the United Kingdom, France, Italy, Germany, Russia and Spain. Spanish Foreign Minister Trinidad Jimenez said March 29 that the option of exile is still available to Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi since he has not been charged with any crimes. Madrid has therefore backed Rome's position that exile should be an option to end the conflict in Libya. Spain is participating in the international coalition by providing airbases for U.S. AWACS and refueling missions. It also has sent four F-18 fighter jets and a refueling aircraft as part of its contribution to enforce the no-fly zone, along with an Aegis-capable frigate and a submarine to participate in the enforcement of the arms embargo. The Spanish decision to intervene in Libya has not garnered much attention in the global press. However, it stands out as Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero's most notable foreign policy decision, one made only weeks after being elected, involved pulling Spanish troops out of Iraq in April 2004. The Iraq pullout strained Madrid's relations with Washington, as the U.S. perceived it as hasty and pandering to public opinion panicked by the Madrid train bombings, which took place immediately before March 2004 general elections. In reality, Rodriguez Zapatero had campaigned throughout 2004 on an anti-Iraq War platform and thus used the Madrid attack merely as a trigger for a decision he probably would have made regardless. The decision to intervene in Libya can thus be seen as a way to revitalize Spain's image as a country capable of international activism when the need arises — especially in the Mediterranean, its area of national interest — but also as a last-ditch effort by an unpopular government to raise its profile ahead of elections in early 2012. (click here to enlarge image)

The Luxury of Isolation

Spain has often stayed aloof from European geopolitical entanglements. Geography makes this choice possible. Essentially, Spain dominates the Iberian Peninsula. The Pyrenees leave it geographically isolated from core Europe. Its colonial linguistic and cultural links to this day provide it access to a large and lucrative Latin American market where its goods and services (especially financial) can out-compete its European rivals, giving it easier markets than the rough competition in Europe proper. Throughout its last century, Spain has been more self-absorbed than most large European nations. Catalan and Basque agitation for autonomy and independence, Madrid often has had no choice but to focus solely on internal threats — giving it fewer resources with which to address foreign issues. This geographic and political aloofness combined with uniquely strenuously internal security requirements for a major European power (even greater than those imposed on the United Kingdom by the Irish question) have made Madrid's place in the Trans-Atlantic security establishment one of the most ambivalent. Rodriguez Zapatero's about-face on Iraq from the stance of his predecessor, Jose Maria Aznar Lopez, is therefore unsurprising. Because of its isolation and because the Trans-Atlantic alliance matters less for Madrid than for others in Europe, Spain is probably the only major country in Europe that has the luxury of pursuing such dramatically opposed policies purely on the domestic political calculus of its leaders. For Spain, the security benefits of NATO membership therefore never really have been clear. Focused on internal security — for which NATO membership is of little use — Madrid's only true international concerns have been its proximity to North Africa and the subsequent ill effects of organized crime and smuggling. NATO's security guarantees do not apply to the Spanish exclaves of Ceuta and Melilla, across the Strait of Gibraltar from Spain and surrounded by Morocco, which claims the territories. One could still argue that Spain's NATO membership certainly would be at least a psychological reason for Morocco to reconsider plans to seize the two territories. (click here to enlarge image) Therefore, Spanish NATO membership ultimately is about being accepted into the club of Western European states, which was still in serious doubt in the immediate years following the Franco dictatorship when Madrid joined the alliance in 1982. Joining the alliance at the time was a simple way to reassure Madrid's European allies that Spain would not renege on its commitment to democracy and that it would use NATO membership to begin reforming its military leadership. Madrid joined the European Union four years later in 1986. Spain has used its membership in NATO and often-close alliance with the United States to balance against the France- and Germany-dominated European Union. Spain often feels sidelined by the Franco-German leadership duo and has never been able to form a counter to it by allying with the United Kingdom or Italy. Spain's relationship with the United States has therefore proven useful in keeping Berlin and Paris on notice that Madrid's acquiescence to all things agreed upon by Continental powers is not a given. Precisely because Spain's NATO membership was more about international assurances and the balancing of its U.S. and European commitments — and not about its core security interests — Madrid has had the luxury of ambivalence, as indicated by the extreme change of policy between Aznar and Zapatero on Iraq. This ambivalence was further exemplified by the 1986 referendum, organized by a Socialist government, to see Spain withdraw from NATO, the first and only such referendum by a NATO member. The referendum was handily defeated by a popular vote, but the very act of holding it illustrated Spain's attitude toward the alliance: A country truly threatened by adverse geopolitical conditions and therefore truly in need of a security alliance would not seek to depart such an alliance. In the Libya intervention, Madrid accordingly seeks to illustrate its solidarity with the United States and the other main European powers. For Rodriguez Zapatero in particular, the intervention is a way to illustrate that Madrid does not shy from international military action, especially as Spain already participates in international efforts in Afghanistan — thereby absolving Spain of its departure from Iraq. Also important for Rodriguez Zapatero is proving that despite its considerable economic crisis — and fears that Spain could be the next eurozone economy after Portugal to require a bailout — Madrid can still play an important foreign policy role.

The Domestic Component, Energy and Morocco

There is also an important domestic political component in terms of how Madrid is pursuing the intervention. The center-right People's Party (PP) remains firmly ahead of the governing Socialist Party in national polls, having enjoyed a steady 13-point lead for the past six months. Rodriguez Zapatero is worried that government's austerity measures — imposed to curb Spain's budget deficit and comply with demands from Berlin — are losing him the support of his base among the center-left in Spain. Due to the legacy of the Franco years, the left in Spain tends to be generally anti-interventionist, with as much as 91 percent opposed to the country's participation in Iraq. Therefore, while the Socialist government is trying to raise Madrid's profile internationally, it must do so quietly, without much fanfare at home to avoid further erosion of its support from its base. That said, the intervention is thus far popular due to its multilateral nature. The danger for Rodriguez Zapatero, however — as it is for other European governments that have entangled themselves in the Libyan intervention — is that public support for a humanitarian intervention will not distract from economic austerity too long, especially if the intervention starts looking drawn out and inconclusive. (click here to enlarge image) On top of all this, Spain does have strategic interests in Libya, albeit not as great as Italy's. Spanish energy company Repsol YPF extracted 8.3 percent of its overall oil production from Libya in 2009, not an insignificant amount and comparable to the 10.7 percent that Italian energy giant ENI extracted. Spanish imports of oil from Libya are comparable to those of France, with 9 percent of total Spanish consumption coming from Libya, nowhere close to the almost 25 percent of its requirements that Italy imports. French firm Total does extract more oil from Libya, but as a larger company than Repsol, Libya is smaller as a share of the French company's total. As such, Repsol was not necessarily dissatisfied with the Gadhafi status quo in Libya and probably will look askance at the French and British moves. Finally, as a Mediterranean country in close proximity to the 32 million people of Morocco, Madrid must consider what Libyan instability means for the region. Protests have occurred in Morocco, although the situation is thus far still under control and violence has been sporadic. Madrid cannot oppose the international intervention in Libya because it does not want to set a precedent that it may need to reverse shortly. Regime change in Morocco, for example, could place Madrid's North African exclaves in an untenable situation or could produce an exodus of migrants that Spain will have to counter with aggressive naval force interdiction — as Italy is threatening to begin doing with migrants streaming from Tunisia and Libya. That said, Morocco is nowhere near the point of Libyan instability or even Tunisian/Egyptian-style unrest. Madrid definitely has an interest in joining in the intervention if for no other reason than to have a say in the post-intervention diplomatic resolution — when Paris and London may seek to use their patronage of the eastern Libyan rebels to enhance their respective positions. Madrid is wary of the French and British activism and is becoming far more aligned with Rome on the intervention than with Paris and London. This became clear in a meeting of European, American, African and Arab leaders in London on March 29, with Spain, Germany and Italy favoring an option of exile for Gadhafi to facilitate a conclusion to the intervention while France and the United Kingdom continued their strong demands for regime change.

Article Search

Copyright © Stratfor Enterprises, LLC. All rights reserved.

Stratfor Worldview


To empower members to confidently understand and navigate a continuously changing and complex global environment.