Spain: Normalizing the Foreign Relations of the State of the Autonomies

Normalizing the Foreign Relations of
the State of the Autonomies
For decades the foreign dimension of the widely celebrated Spanish transition
to democracy was unspectacular, with nothing dramatic enough to
attract international public attention and global headlines. But in March
2004, the tragic train bombings in Madrid three days before the Spanish
elections drew the alarmed attention of the world. The immediate and
very controversial withdrawal of the Spanish troops from Iraq, decided by
the newly elected Prime Minister Zapatero, gave unexpected international
visibility to Spanish foreign policy.
Continuity more than rupture has characterized Spain’s rapid adaptation
to the foreign policy standards of Western democracies. Surprisingly
enough, most of the international priorities of the newly democratic Spain
were almost the same as the Franco dictatorship. Both sought greater
participation in the European integration process and demonstrated a
commitment to western security schemes under a certain leadership of the
United States while maintaining particular attention to economic and
political developments in Latin America and to a lesser degree in the Arab
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Spain 37
States. The newly democratic Spain fulfilled its basic international ambitions
by the early 1990s, in less than two decades, with full membership in
the European Union and North Atlantic Treaty Organization, a major
peace conference on the Middle East in Madrid, and the institutionalization
of regular Iberoamerican Summits between representatives of Latin
American countries, Spain and Portugal. In this context, only the signing
and ratification of legal international conventions on Human Rights and
the establishment of diplomatic relations with both the Soviet Union and
Israel marked a clear and long-awaited departure from the past. In the long
term, however, the most influential source of renewal for Spanish foreign
policy has been the integration process of the European Union (EU).
While it has been characterized by continuity, the advent of democracy
has had interesting but subtle implications with regard to the country’s
foreign relations. The Spanish constitution, adopted in 1978, indicates
that “international relations” are the exclusive domain of the central government.
But from the beginning, regional governments have tried to develop
a certain presence abroad. Later, as a result of the inevitable political and
administrative learning process, autonomous governments in Spain also
began to press for the establishment of intergovernmental
mechanisms which would allow them
to participate more or less directly in foreign
policy issues, particularly in those areas which
involved their own powers. This increasing interest
resulted mostly from a combination of functional
and symbolic concerns.
For Catalonia and the Basque Country, governed
by moderate nationalists for a prolonged
period, developing a certain presence abroad
has always been very important. The appeal to
these autonomous communities was symbolic, as
it enabled them to present themselves as political
entities distinct from the rest of Spain. Certainly,
the central government has been reluctant to
allow this differentiation, but for the most part
these initiatives have been discreet and have not directly confronted
Spanish foreign policy designs. Sometimes, as in the case of the 1992
Olympic Games in Barcelona, close collaboration between the central and
autonomous governments has resulted in success for all the parties
involved. Conversely, among the very few exceptions was the failed attempt
of the Basque parliament to host a meeting of the Kurdish Assembly in
Exile. This planned meeting caused serious political concern in Madrid
and irritated the Turkish Ambassador in Spain. However, some of the central
government’s most conspicuous efforts to neutralize autonomous
governments’ international activism completely failed. For instance, in
The Spanish constitution,
adopted in
1978, indicates that
“international relations”
are the
exclusive domain
of the central
government. But
from the beginning,
regional governments
have tried to
develop a certain
presence abroad.
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38 Francisco Aldecoa / Noé Cornago
1994, a Constitutional Court decision ruled that the Basque Government
Delegation in Brussels can be considered official, since dealings with the
EU are no longer considered “foreign affairs.” Controversy remains, however,
regarding overseas offices established beyond the European polity.
Nonetheless, in a country as diverse as Spain, symbolic dimensions have
also been important for other regions not necessarily governed by nationalist
parties, such as Galicia, Canary Islands, or Aragon. The autonomous
region of Extremadura, for instance, was harshly criticized by the
Portuguese media in 1999 when the autonomous government included
the Alenteio region of Portugal in its official tourist maps.
In addition to the symbolic dimensions, economic issues have also
encouraged the international activism of the Autonomous Communities.
The communities are interested in increasing foreign trade, participating
in international fairs, prompting local tourism, and offering incentives for
foreign investments. Participation in the EU has been particularly influential
in defining the strategy of the Autonomous Communities with regard
to their role in foreign relations. As one of the most important recipients
of European funds, the Spanish State of the Autonomies has been very
sensitive to the political and institutional implications of the integration
process. European funds have been crucial for the creation of new technological
and transportation infrastructures and for elevating social protection
standards. They have also been the most powerful dynamic behind
the mobilization of subnational governments both at the domestic and
international level. Moreover, as a result of the serious impact of the EU
on diverse policy domains such as environment, industry, agriculture,
fisheries, energy or education, among others, regional governments are
increasingly adopting a certain European dimension to the whole policy
agenda. Even the erosion of subnational competences as a result of the
European integration process, which sparked complaints from the subnational
units, has contributed to a more thorough recognition of the political
relevance of Autonomous Communities.
Presently, the political system established by the Spanish Constitution of
1978 is being widely questioned. As a result of the new political climate
since the election of Zapatero, the new Catalan Statute of Autonomy is
now a reality. The Catalan Statute has set the pace for many other reforms,
creating expectations for the normalization of the foreign role of the State
of Autonomies after years of Byzantine disputes. Normalization can be
defined as the widely accepted recognition of the international activism of
regional powers within their own powers as a normal feature of the
Spanish political system. A sign of this trend could be the current reform
of the Spanish Foreign Service, which for the first time, at least in its initial
drafts, recognizes for the first time a certain role for the Autonomous
Governments in this field.
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