Rodríguez Zapatero, escaping the Azores

Article published on April 21, 2006
Article published on April 21, 2006

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

On April 17, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero reached the halfway point in his term as Spanish PM. Since pulling Spanish troops out of Iraq, he has continuously walked tightropes in Europe and around the world

In 2003, Bush, Blair and the former Spanish PM Aznar had a famous photograph taken in the Azores islands. It showed three friends united by a common mission. Two years into Zapatero’s government, the Azores photo must seem like a distant memory. During this period he has pulled Spanish troops out of Iraq, swung towards the left and made a series of grand gestures.

In search of a photo

While he may have left the Azores photograph far behind, he is still in search of a photo of his own, a defining political legacy for his time in office. He is also short of friends, with France weakened and Germany sliding towards the USA.

He now turns hopefully to Italy, where he is seen as a charismatic leader of the left, despite the Vatican’s disapproving comments following his legalisation of gay marriages. Prodi is also to pull his troops out of Iraq. Despite this searching for friends, Zapatero seems isolated. He only speaks Spanish and lacks the charisma of a great leader. He was very insistent that the first country to hold the referendum on the European Constitution should be Spain, and defended the yes vote to such a point that the stagnation of the ratification process left him deeply troubled.

However, he has worked hard to ensure that European anti-terrorism policies do not depend on American help. The long-awaited permanent ceasefire declared by ETA on March 22 may well mean that he has chosen the right strategy. Through his firm leadership on this issue, he has managed to resolve his problems with the other members of the Azores photo. Yet, problems remain in Spain’s relationship with Europe, as evidenced by the recent case of Spanish protectionism with the takeover bid by the German giant E.ON for the Spanish company Endesa.

Europe and the US

It is impossible to govern with one’s back to the US. This has meant that Rodríguez Zapatero has kept quiet about the Western Sahara’s long-running dispute with Morocco, an American ally. It has meant that more troops had to be sent to Afghanistan and that Zapatero has not become overly embroiled in the issue of secret CIA flights landing in Spain.

Spain’s relationship with the USA has certainly cooled off since Zapatero pulled Spanish troops out of Iraq. At the beginning of 2006, the USA refused to allow Spain to use its technology to build fighter planes destined for Venezuela. Yet this cooling has been accompanied by much stronger relations between Spain and the new left wing governments in Latin America. Evo Morales, the Bolivian president, started his international tour by visiting the Prime Minister’s residence, La Moncloa. It is precisely these personal similarities and political agreements that are not to Washington’s liking.

In attempting to find Spain’s place in Europe, Zapatero does share one thing with Bush – a desire to see Turkey enter the EU. Perhaps in his search for a place in Europe, he will find himself not only expanding its borders, but with an unexpected bedfellow.