After several years of taking a back seat in Brussels, it seems that Spain is wielding more influence at the EU-level. While the country has already flexed its economic muscle by successfully lobbying for the appointment of its former finance minister, Luis De Guindos, as the new European Central Bank (ECB) vice-president, the government has subsequently turned its focus to carving out a more prominent role for itself in EU security and defence policy.
Recently, Spain staged a demonstration of its naval capacity in the town of Rota by simulating an anti-piracy action at its naval base for an audience of more than 60 EU diplomats. Of particular note was the attendance of the 28-member states’ ambassadors who make up the EU Council’s Political and Security Committee (PSC). Spain has thrown its hat in the ring to lead the anti-piracy mission, Operation Atalanta, once the UK leaves the EU next year. It will be up to the PSC to decide sometime in the next month which country will take over the prestigious operation in the Horn of Africa.
Operation Atalanta isn’t the only prize that Spain has its eye on. It would also like to see Rota designated an EU operational headquarter after the UK leaves the EU in 2019. The EU has five such headquarters with France, Germany, Italy and Greece hosting the other four. While the Spanish Defence Ministry calculated that the new HQ would necessitate a €1.5 million investment, Rota is well placed to take on this responsibility. The town, which is located in the southern province of Cadiz, hosts Spain’s largest naval base and is already home to the most significant US naval presence in Southern Europe.
Unfortunately, there are a few chinks in Spain’s armour that could undercut its ambitions to take on a more high-profile role in EU defence policy. While Spain is indeed a historic naval power, its military capacity has been limited due to years of underinvestment. Currently, Spain spends just 0.92% of its GDP on defence. The only other NATO countries that spend less are Belgium and Luxembourg.
In recognition of this deficiency, the Spanish Government announced earlier this year that it would be ramping up its military spending. Specifically, it has committed to increase defence expenditure by €18 billion over the next six years. Nevertheless, this increase amounts to just 1.5-1.6% of GDP and therefore will not meet the 2% target that NATO members agreed to back in 2006.
That being said, Spain has been strategic about how it deploys its limited military spending. For example, at over 19%, Spain’s major equipment expenditure falls just slightly short of NATO’s 20% benchmark. NATO members are also expected to allocate 10% of their defence budget to operations, a goal most members fail to meet. However, despite Spain’s small military budget, it has contributed to the majority of NATO-led operations and all EU military missions.
Funding concerns aside, Spain has an important ally that may tip the scales in its favour – France. The French are eager for Spain to help fill the security and defence vacuum that will be left after Brexit. Ideally, the French see Spain assuming responsibility for Operation Atalanta with France taking over the UK’s Maritime Security Centre of the Horn of Africa (MSCHOA). This, combined with the fact that Spain is the only country to have consistently participated in the mission, suggests a high probability that Spain will be successful in its lobbying efforts.
With a stable government, improving economy, and the absence of any hardline anti-EU parties in parliament, Spain is in a comparatively stronger position than the majority of member states to lead in this regard. It should therefore be a welcome sign that the country is keen to return to the centre of EU activity and further proof that Southern Europe is no longer being overshadowed by its northern partners.