Spain in NATO: From opposition to the Presidency

Article published on Dec. 22, 2002
From the magazine
Article published on Dec. 22, 2002
After an intense debate that provoked a multitude of protests, confrontations in the left-wing, and a strong intellectual argument, the referendum of 1986, when the “yes” vote won by a small margin, was finally held.

At the start of the 1980’s in the midst of political transition, Spain was in a difficult position. The left had inherited an ideology that, with the abandoning of Marxism and its conversion into “social democracy”, was in the process of transformation in the rest of Europe. This evolution was adopted at the time by Felipe Gonzalez’s PSOE in the historical political rise to power that gave him the massive approval of the middle classes in 1982. But, the PSOE was also the heir of a confused and argumentative period, artificially prolonged in Spain by francoism and romantically fed by the desire for change. It was this desire that marked the arrival of the socialists at “the other side of the river”, the place of power, the shore that, for years, had been forbidden and unreachable.

Retrospectively, these binding ideologies, which the young party now separated from the old fascist regime was a keen subscriber to, ended up creating stumbling blocks that the PSOE, already a serious party of power, had to get around and overcome. This was not done, however, without many sectors of the Left feeling extreme resentment and a sense of having been deceived by the PSOE.

One of these traps that the PSOE laid for itself without having the much-needed historical perspective, perhaps due to the youth and inexperience of its leading novices, was Spain’s entry into NATO. This was a spectacular turnaround in recent Spanish political history on the part of the PSOE, and is something that today is seen almost with a certain feeling of ingenuity. It provoked almost revolutionary activism amongst the Spanish, causing massive protests, the use of catastrophic watchwords and inciting one of the most popular war cries in the history of our democracy – “bases NO, outside NATO”. This all led to the PSOE offering the very well known, and later fulfilled, electoral promise of a referendum on freeing Spain from the Yankee yoke in a future that would be gloriously led by the socialists. The leaders of the PSOE, however, already under the weight of power and officiality, under the pressure of responsibility and international reality, defended Spain’s entry into NATO, a policy over which they had greatly criticised the former UCD government.

The Break up of the Left

However, this change of ideological direction had its political cost. NATO stopped being an issue of the state. The supposed “betrayal” of the socialists, the party that in their years of opposition had led many of these anti-NATO demonstrations and protests, and that now defended the entering of Spain into the Alliance as a means of getting closer to the big international institutions (aware that NATO was a more than useful accompaniment to entry into the EU) gave rise to the start of a “Left of factions”. This was a very divided Left, made up of medium or small organisations situated in the margins progressively abandoned by the PSOE. With a united Left as a national centre and the later emergence of the nationalist left-wing parties (BNG or ERC), this divided left became home to the most radical voters, defrauded by the “centre” socialism of the PSOE. The issue of NATO in Spain isn’t the only problem, but its procedure (the referendum), that divided Spanish society and that Felipe Gonzalez himself later declared a political error, resulted in an irreparable split in the Left. It should be pointed out here that the victory of the “yes” vote was small (it was won with 52% of the votes) and was caused by the electoral pull of a PSOE on the crest of the wave. The referendum, however, was rejected in the Basque Country, where they continued the tradition of voting against the national majority as a form of demand for their political singularity, even when this involved going against rationality of their political, social and economic strategy.

Entry with Condition

Although entry into NATO was conditioned by Spain at various points, including the progressive reduction of the military presence in Spain and the limitation of Spain’s participation in the military structure, it’s certain that NATO membership reinforced the position of our young democracy in the international western context and helped its interweaving in the process of creating an EU that, lacking common military structure, would not be conceived without the protective cloak of NATO. Later, events took place in an unforeseen way. The Berlin wall fell along with the Iron Curtain. Consequently, Cold War stopped being a real threat, the theme and motive of the emergence of the Alliance, and became the hackneyed backdrop of the 007 films – the aesthetics and the mythical and nostalgic atmosphere being of long ago eras. The world then undertook a change in the make-up of its international order, something that didn’t really define itself until the fall of the twin towers on 11September 2001. This day marked the arrival of a new nuclear and insipid enemy that makes international military organisations, like NATO, almost obsolete, and these organisations demanded (in the present reality they demand) an integrated strategy formed simultaneously by judicial, policial, and political fronts at an international level. In other word, what they want is a globalisation not just of economies and markets, but also of justice and political coordination.

Part of this international period of change was led by Javier Solana. This appointment meant even more to Spain in the international Alliance, and constituted the recognition of the international and open-minded mood of the governments, both socialists and centrists, that led the transition to democracy. Solana later occupied the post of CFSP Representative, responsible for the foreign policy of the EU. These appointments symbolically sealed the parallelism of two institutions that had two intense purposes for a Spain whose transition to democracy didn’t just mark political change, but her effective integration into an international context that, for 40 dark years, she had been isolated from.