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The Treaty of Barcelona Confirms Spain’s Emergence as Europe’s Top 'Pivot State'

Jeremy Cliffe

7 mins - 23 de Enero de 2023, 07:00

The signing of the Treaty of Barcelona between France and Spain has attracted comparisons to the Elysée Treaty, the foundational document of the Franco-German axis in Europe which celebrates its 60th anniversary on Sunday. The vast range of the new treaty makes it easy to see the parallel. It covers not just the forthcoming underwater hydrogen pipeline between the Catalan coast and Marseille, but also a much broader range of topics including rail transport, education, defence, security and international relations. The friendship between the two countries is today closer than it has been for a long time. A new Franco-Spainish axis is clearly emerging. 
But the Elysée Treaty was the product of a very different Europe. In 1963 the 'community' was a bloc of just six members. France and Germany represented about two-thirds of its total GDP. If Paris and Bonn agreed on something, that was almost invariably sufficient for it to be put into action. None of that is the case any more, and the current inflexibility in the Franco-German relationship (another motivation for the Treaty of Barcelona, at least from the French side) show hows it is struggling to adapt to today’s larger, more poly-centric, more fluid Europe.

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This new Europe is one of 27 members of the EU, eight recognised accession states (and two further potential applicants, Kosovo and Georgia), now 20 eurozone members, soon 29 Schengen members, four non-EU members of the single market and one anomalous but important former EU member (Britain). It is a Europe that abuts new challenges at every point of the compass: a fast-changing transatlantic relationship to its west, a contested Arctic to the north, war and autocracy to the east and south-east and migration and demographic transformations to its south. The relatively static and rigid conditions of the Cold War have given way to Europe as a constantly turning kaleidoscope, a Europe of an almost infinite number of potential coalitions and priorities around which to build them. 

It makes more sense to see the Treaty of Barcelona not as a belated Iberian answer to the Elysée Treaty of 1963 but a product of this fundamentally different Europe of 2023 - and, more than that, a Europe in which today’s Spain is uniquely well-suited to act as a 'pivot state'. In international relations pivot states are defined as having 'military, economic or ideational strategic assets that are coveted by great powers'. But the term also implies a certain mobility and freedom of manoeuvre, the ability to pivot between alternative partners who many not be able to work with each other (or are even rivals). Globally, they include Turkey, South Korea and Brazil. Within Europe, Spain now stands out as the leading example.

The Spanish government has done much to reinforce this under its 'nodal Spain' concept. It has deepened relations with France, now formalised in the Treaty of Barcelona, and built what I have previously referred to as a 'special relationship' with Germany. Spain remains a significant Mediterranean power with obvious links to Italy, Greece and, beyond, Turkey, but has also secured closer relations with northern European states like Denmark and Sweden. Its size suits this vocation well, making it it is big enough to see eye-to-eye with Europe’s leading powers but not so big that smaller states consider it overbearing. Its south-western, peninsular geography makes it a natural leader on the major multilateral topics; it is particularly exposed to climate change and migration, particularly valuable to Europe’s energy security (with its huge renewables potential and LNG terminals) and a gateway to much of the Global South thanks to its links with Latin America and Africa. 

Even in an arena where Spain has traditionally had less influence - central and eastern Europe - the country has in recent years invested in a more substantial presence. 'Communication between Estonia and Spain has never been this close before' said Estonia’s prime minister Kaja Kallas during a visit by Pedro Sánchez to Tallinn in 2021. It did not go unnoticed that after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year, the Spanish prime minister visited Kyiv to show his solidarity before his French, German or Italian counterparts. And while Spain could undoubtedly do more to help arm Ukraine, its overall support (bilateral and through the EU) is greater as a share of GDP than that of Germany, France or Britain

Of course, France and Germany remain more powerful in Europe than Spain. Given the eastwards shift in the continent’s centre of gravity, Poland is probably also more powerful. Yet where none of these countries can truly rival Spain is in the role of pivot state. France and Germany lack its agility and are more often greeted with suspicion in other member states (especially in the east). Poland, like Italy under Giorgia Meloni, suffers from having an authoritarian and instinctively eurosceptic government. The Netherlands, Austria, Romania can all be pivot states, but lack Spain’s weight. Their pivotal influence tends to be more regional than Europe-wide. 

The treaty signed between Macron and Sánchez on Thursday is just one of several moments in 2023 where Spain’s new status as Europe’s leading pivot state will be crucial. On 1 July, it will take on the six-month rotating presidency of the EU Council. The latter part of the year will also see Spain host the third summit of the European Political Community (EPC), the new strategic dialogue between 44 new EU and non-EU states. 

Spain should seize this year to raise its ambition in Europe yet higher with three transformative moves. First, it can make itself a leading force in eastern Europe by sending some of its 327 Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine and moving towards recognising Kosovo in support of the wider goal of EU expansion (deescalation between Madrid and the Catalan government surely provides greater room for this). Second, it can step up as a broker between France and Germany, and especially if Poland elects a moderate new government at its election this autumn, move towards establishing a Madrid-Paris-Berlin-Warsaw axis capable of providing the leadership today’s larger and more diverse Europe needs. Third, it should use the EPC summit to expand this promising new structure to the south to encompass Europe’s partners in north Africa. 

None of these would be easy. But they would change the geometry of Europe drastically for the better - and they are within Spain’s power, if it can find the will. 

The question of will reminds us that most important event of 2023 for Spain’s role as Europe’s top pivot state will not be any summit or geopolitical moment, but rather the country’s upcoming general election. The fact that the country today its more constructive and active in Europe than at any point since at least the economic crisis of 2008 is no coincidence. Rather, it is the product of a government that has dedicated energy and political capital to that goal, whose leading figures speak English (and sometimes French) and are closely familiar with the continent beyond the Pyrenees. A different government - one with far-right elements, or that is not focused on Spain’s external role, or is distracted fighting internal cultural wars - would not be able to sustain and advance this progress, and would likely mean the country sliding back into second-tier status. So be in no doubt that the future of Spain’s new influence in Europe will be on the ballot at the elections. As the old saying goes: foreign policy begins at home.

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