When Stratfor analysts work to understand the constraints and compulsions of nations, they always begin with geography. It’s at the core of our unique methodology, grounded in the practice of applied geopolitics, that shapes how we view the world.
In this episode of the podcast, we explore the geopolitics of Spain and the primary geographic challenges that come from within its own borders. From the invasion of the Moors to the secessionist movement in Catalonia, Stratfor analysts Mark Fleming-Williams and Emily Hawthorne discuss the history of constraints facing this southern European nation, how it has responded throughout time and what new opportunities the future holds for Spain.
On Geopolitics columns at Stratfor Worldview
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Faisel Pervaiz [00:00:00] Hello, I'm Faisel Pervaiz, a South Asia Analyst here at Stratfor, and this podcast is brought to you by Stratfor Worldview, our premier digital publication for objective geopolitical intelligence and analysis. Individual, team, and enterprise memberships are available at worldview.stratfor.com/subscribe.
Mark Fleming-Williams [00:00:33] Those underlying identities, it's kind of the story of Spain to an extent, is that when times are good and money's sloshing around then things are okay, but when a crisis arrives, which is what happened after 2008, those fragmentations emerge and that's what we've seen with Catalonia.
Ben Sheen [00:00:58] Welcome to the Stratfor podcast focused on geopolitics and world affairs from stratfor.com. I'm your host, Ben Sheen. Stratfor sees the world differently. Instead of headlines and political rhetoric, we look at geopolitical realities and constraints, it's built into the unique methodology that drives all of our work, leveraging a deep understanding of history, politics and geography to deliver informed perspectives on today's events and develop a more accurate view of the future. In this episode of the podcast, we take a small step back to show how we view the world through a conversation on the geopolitics of Spain with Stratfor analysts Mark Fleming-Williams and Emily Hawthorne. Thanks for joining us.
Emily Hawthorne [00:01:41] I'm Emily Hawthorne and I'm talking with my colleague Mark Fleming-Williams, and today we're talking about the geopolitics of Spain. Mark, let's start with geography, what makes Spain unique?
Mark Fleming-Williams [00:01:51] It's divisions, it's divisiveness. First of all, let's start with how high it is. It's the second highest altitude country in Europe after Switzerland and so that means that you have a lot of difficulty communicating across the country, and this is, when we're talking geography, we're talking two millennia history and the way geography has played in the formation of Spain. What then ends up happening is if you've got a mountainous and hilly country, you end up with little pockets of civilization rather than strong communication and civilization that you get on a vast plain like you would in the north of Europe, for example. The other thing to bear in mind within this is actually that Spain doesn't have very many good rivers for communication as well, so you don't have the Rhine and the Danube and these long, big, wide rivers that you can navigate, so you end up with these little pockets of languages and cultures which spring up and form very strong, specific identities in small, little areas. Gor example, we've got the Basque Country on the French border, and their language actually predates Indo-European, so it's one of the oldest languages in Europe, that's lasted for many thousand years because of these natural barriers, that's a common story across Spain. You've got these divisions caused by the geography which has created a history of fragmentation across the country.
Emily Hawthorne [00:03:12] How has this geography shaped Spain's history?
Mark Fleming-Williams [00:03:16] First of all we've got the fact that it's divided by its geography as we've discussed, the second aspect to bear in mind is its positioning as well, it's at one end of Europe, it's also just the Straits of Gibraltar away to North Africa and the Arab world, so that has created this kind of mix of European and Arabic cultures. It was conquered by Arabs back in the seventh and eighth centuries and we see after that, we see a very drawn out process of these northern Christian kingdoms slowly fighting their way down Spain to reclaim it in the Reconquista. Because we have these divisions we've talked about, this doesn't happen in a unified way, so this isn't one big effort, this is the Galicians on the left and the Aragonese on the right. They're going down in strips rather than as one big wave. And so as Spain emerges, modern Christian Spain emerges, then we keep these divisions separate, and it comes all the way up until 1492 where you get this very odd coincidence that in 1492, just at the moment where Fernando and Isabella are kicking the last Arabs out of Granada in the south, in the same year they're discovering the New World. Another thing to bear in mind in this, and again, going back to the geography, is that because we've got these divisions, because we don't have the rivers, because we don't have the flat plains, it's actually quite hard to create money in Spain. It's quite hard to create the kind of wealth that you see in places like France and Germany and around London through history, so it's a wonderful coincidence from a Spanish perspective that they happened to unify just at the moment
Mark Fleming-Williams [00:04:49] where they discover the most incredible, sensational source of wealth in the world, which is Latin America. You then have this 200, 300-year period of silver and gold coming across the Atlantic. And so, in a way, the flaws in Spanish geography are kind of papered over by the fact that you've got all this money coming in, and which makes everything okay, but it doesn't, because you get huge inflation problems and the Spanish Empire is a nightmare because you've got English privateers preying on the trade route, you've also got a land empire on the continent as well, so essentially it sounds good but there's a lot of headaches. Underneath the surface, throughout all this time, we still have these different identities and we still have these different languages and cultures, and when that Latin American connection breaks, when Spain can't keep it going anymore in the early 19th century, then all that kind of misery comes out to the surface, and the 19th century and early 20th centuries are full of division, culminating, well there's various Carlist Wars in the 19th century, but then culminating in the huge Spanish Civil War from 1936 to 1939. It's not divisions from that perspective of region against region so much, although you can see the regional identities to an extent, but it is to Spain, it's Catholicism against secularity and it's division across the page. Throughout so much of its history then, these divisions were allowed to exist but it was okay because there was money, but when the money dries up, then it really comes to show.
Mark Fleming-Williams [00:06:17] That happens through '36 to '39, a horrific civil war, and the response then to deal with divisions is for a strongman ruler, we saw a lot of coups in the 19th century and obviously we get a military leader taking over in Spain in the form of General Franco, in '39. And so for the next 30 years, 35 years, 36 years we have a repressive, military rule which keeps control, homogenizes by force, essentially. We've got Catalan languages banned and that's just a kind of symptom of a much wider trend, as an attempt to overcome the divisions by military power and by force. After that we get liberalization from 1975 onwards, which is the phase we're in now, which is where you get this recognition from all sides that there's a desire to democratize, there's a desire to open up, there's a desire to be like other European countries, to kind of fit in. We see the last 45 years have been a period of trying to put the past behind and coming together to embrace liberalism.
Ben Sheen [00:07:23] We'll get back to our conversation on Spain in just one moment, but if you'd like to learn more about how Stratfor uses the lens of geopolitics to understand long-term trends and constraints on nations, you may enjoy our series of columns at Stratfor Worldview called On Geopolitics. That's where our senior analysts regularly share the way we view the world, and the nature of our unique methodology in the context of developing trends today. We'll include a link to Stratfor's On Geopolitics columns in the show notes, along with a link to our page of collected analysis and other assessments related to Spain. If you're not already a Stratfor Worldview member, you can learn more about individual, team and enterprise access at worldview.stratfor.com/subscribe. Now to part two of our conversation on the geopolitics of Spain with Stratfor's Mark Fleming-Williams and Emily Hawthorne.
Emily Hawthorne [00:08:13] We have these different dynamics of division and fragmentation in Spanish history, we have the religious versus the secular dynamics, we have these strong regional identities. As you mentioned there's this period of liberalism and the Constitution after Franco that the federal government did give the regions a lot of power, how do these aspects of fragmentation, how do they play into how Spain fits into the EU and how Spain really functions today?
Mark Fleming-Williams [00:08:41] Essentially, it's one of the biggest fans of the EU, it's one of the biggest flag-waving countries for it. Spain has the closest relationship within the EU with France and Italy and other Mediterranean countries which are all similarly minded in terms of monetary policy and tax policy and things like that. That's how it fits in within the region, it's got this Mediterranean perspective, this southern European perspective. It's always trying to preserve the EU and its place within the EU wherever possible. In terms of how the fragmentation plays into the politics, that's a thing which has really come into the fore in recent years. You get the Constitution signed in '78, the Constitution tries to recognize some of the fragmentation, recognize the different identities of Catalonia, of the Basque Country, and actually of Andalusia as well, which doesn't have such a historic push for regional identity. The new Spanish order is one of recognizing the cultural differences, and it works, it comes together. Spain is always a challenged country in terms of their, obviously, their various corruption scandals and things like that, but it broadly works, until the last decade. What happens in the last decade is the same thing which we saw in a lot of Mediterranean countries, and also Ireland, which is taking advantage of the euro, which arrives in 2000, and taking advantage of the new flows that that allows. Basically, it allows money to flow from German lenders to Mediterranean borrowers, and essentially there's a glut, they have the most wonderful time of rapid growth,
Mark Fleming-Williams [00:10:20] a lot of building and infrastructure. This, again, flows into the geography is that Spain has some of the most epic landscapes that you'll see, and if you drive through Spain now then you'll also see some of the most epic infrastructure. There was this great hope and boost and belief that the future can only get better and so they would need this incredible infrastructure in order to be ready for that. You ended up with this huge overspend which, when the crisis came, which of course it did in 2008, all the immigrants who they were expecting to come for this glorious future, obviously not only didn't arrive but then there were a lot of emigrants as well, so you ended up with all this infrastructure built to nowhere, to an extent, and for a population that wasn't really there anymore. As a result of this crisis that emerged 2008, 2009, we started seeing differences emerging again and those identities becoming more important again, specifically in the Catalan example, we've really seen those tensions begin to arrive. Those underlying identities, it's the a story of Spain to an extent is that when times are good and money's sloshing around then things are okay but when a crisis arrives, which is what happened after 2008, then those fragmentations emerge and that's what we've seen with Catalonia.
Emily Hawthorne [00:11:30] Mark, you touched on some of the crises, some of the corruption, some of the issues that Spain has in terms of generating revenue and some of those issues have gone back well into its history. Many people are familiar with the issue of unemployment in Spain, these very high numbers of unemployment, especially among the youth. Gow bad is that problem relative to other European countries and what are the other economic issues that are unique to Spain?
Mark Fleming-Williams [00:11:57] Spain was the kind of problem child, one of the worst offenders in terms of this kind of Club Med borrowers and debt crises, like Italy was a particularly bad one because it was so big, Greece and Portugal and Ireland were a little bit more manageable because the numbers were smaller. As you say, the unemployment in Spain was particularly bad, although, another thing to bear in mind here, is that Spain's unemployment is always relatively high compared to other European countries. It's got a very long history of high unemployment. Ehen we go over 25%, or to 25%, it's a big deal and it's terrible but it's not perhaps as terrible as if that had been the case in Germany or somewhere like that. Spain's economy did hit very serious lows and caused very serious problems in 2011, 2012, 2013, but it has since become the poster child for the way out of these problems. Basically with the bailout money which came from Brussels and the Troika, came requirements for reform as well and increased flexibility in the labor market and things like that. What we've seen in the last few years has been a resurgence in Spain in terms of very rapid growth, we've seen unemployment figures, they were so high to start with, they haven't come down to reasonable levels yet but they have been dropping. From a pure economic perspective, Spain is kind of the poster child for what you ought to be doing if you're Italy for example. That suits Spain very well, because as I mentioned, Spain is the biggest Europhile out there, hated being the problem.
Mark Fleming-Williams [00:13:26] What we saw in 2015 with the Greece crisis, for example, was Spain actually siding with Germany and saying the Greeks need to take their medicine, because Spain wanted to be seen as not the problem anymore, it wanted to be in the core and to draw attention to its successes. From a purely economic perspective, things have improved massively. There's still a long way to go in terms of unemployment and areas like that. There's also an argument that there's some really relatively good capacity in Spain because of all that infrastructure building in the 2000s, that doesn't need to be built as the economy grows, so there is potential for things to improve further. Particularly, with the improvement that we've seen from an economic perspective across Europe and across the world in the last year or two. The political situation is much more difficult, a lot of these problems emerged from the 2008 crisis and the economic crisis. There's a broader issue as well which is that there was this truce post-Franco which then lasted 25 years, the genie's come out of the bottle since then, and so we've seen regional fragmentation, we've got those regions actually demanding independence. In the case of Catalonia, the Basque Country, Galicia, they're probably not far behind, particularly if Catalonia gets any traction. Those voices, those regional identities have been finding their voices again. But then also the differences between the left and the right, we've had Podemos, which is a kind of a radical left party, they did quite well in the last election,
Mark Fleming-Williams [00:14:50] we've got Ciudadanos, who originally started as an anti-Catalan independence party but has become national and is kind of centrist. But between 1975 and 2013 or so it was really a two-party state. It really went back and forth between the center-left and the center-right, rather like the UK, but what we've seen since then is this fragmentation of all these different voices, very similar to the pre-1936 Spain. As a result, what you have is this Spanish parliament where it's very hard to get anything done, we've got a minority government at the moment for example. Spain politically is in this impasse and that's coming from this combination of the geography and the history and the cultures and the divisions in the country, which really makes it hard to see how Spain as a unified force can really make decisive moves in the future. It seems like the past has come back to haunt. All the forces within Spain are pulling in different directions and that makes it very hard to govern the country.
Ben Sheen [00:15:53] I hope you enjoyed our conversation on the geopolitics of Spain with Stratfor's Mark Fleming-Williams and Emily Hawthorne. For our latest analyses on Spain and related trends today, be sure to visit us at Stratfor Worldview. If you're not already a Worldview member, you can learn more about individual, team and enterprise access at worldview.stratfor.com/subscribe. Worldview members can also contribute to this conversation and engage with Stratfor's analysts, editors and contributors in our members-only forum, or if you have a question or even an idea for a future episode of the podcast, email us at [email protected], we really appreciate your feedback. For more geopolitical intelligence, analysis and forecasting, that reveal the underlying significance and future implications of emerging world events, follow us on Twitter @Stratfor.