Spain, somewhere between David and Goliath

Article published on Oct. 6, 2003
community published
Article published on Oct. 6, 2003

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

Neither big nor small. That’s one way to sum up the confusing dilemma in which Spain finds itself over some key points of the rough draft of the future European Constitution.

Big countries against small ones. Ever since the unveiling of the upcoming European magna carta – which consists of an introduction, 460 articles and 5 protocols – a dialectical conflict has been waging among the less important and less powerful countries over the effects of the distribution of power on the chessboard of Europe. Spain, conscious of its limitations, and running the risk of losing its decision-making powers, has opted for a bipolar strategy. While it supports the initiatives of the ‘big ones’, it also prompts counterattacks from the ‘small ones’ that could serve its own interests.

The reform in the weighting of votes in the Council has been the greatest source of debate. According to article 24 of Part One of the rough draft, a new voting system would be introduced in 2009. If approved, decisions will be made by a majority of States, representing at least three fifths of the population of the EU, that is to say, 60%. It’s not difficult to see that the most highly-populated countries, like Germany with its 82 million inhabitants, will benefit the most, to the detriment of more sparsely-populated countries, such as Spain and Poland.

In this way, the influence of Spain and other small countries would be lost in the wake of the might of the larger ones. And, although in many other areas Spain is considered a country ‘with clout’, as far as decision-making is concerned it could find itself decidedly disadvantaged. Above all because, taking into account the population of the Iberian peninsular, the new system would lessen the country’s influence over the voting, rendering it practically impossible for Spain to veto the decisions of the big powers.

Nevertheless, and contrary to all expectations, Spain didn’t enter into the declaration subscribed to by the 15 small countries in June rejecting the distribution of power expounded in the text that the Convention, presided over by the Frenchman Valery Giscard d’Estaing, had been putting together over the past year and a half, although it did give a nudge of encouragement. What a balancing act.

Aznar and Nice

By reminding everyone of the Nice agreement, signed in December 2000, Spain’s President, José María Aznar, hopes to avoid a clash between the powers. And for months now he hasn’t lost an opportunity to declare to his influential counterparts that the new initiative would ‘rupture that consensus over which we were all in agreement’.

During the summit in Nice, Aznar fought, quite rightly, for Spain to be given 27 votes, only two less than the four largest countries. With this distribution, Spain – with the help of some of the medium-sized and small countries – could easily veto the agreements of the ‘big ones’, a privilege it would lose under the new system.

The small countries want a new distribution of seats to be discussed in the European Chamber. London, tactical ally of Spain in the Convention, has lent Spain its luke-warm support and has shown itself in favour of renewed discussion. But Spain remains firm and insists that it won’t settle for anything less than the agreement reached at Nice.

While the members of the ruling People’s Party insist that Spain mustn’t lose ground, Spain’s socialist party defends the amendment because it would mean a direct correlation between a country’s population and its number of votes.

‘Spain has behaved like a nationalistic government worried about the power of the vote’. This accusation, from the mouth of Diego López Garrido, a member of the socialist party that took part in the Convention, reflects the partisan antagonisms that exist even in view of the position of the country inside the EU. In the same vein, his colleague José Borrell adds that the new voting system ‘is actually more reasonable and democratic’.

There can be no doubt that the Spanish government is so concerned about this issue because it wants to maintain sufficient power to be able to veto the decisions of other countries. Nevertheless, the underlying justification of those in charge of drawing up the draft is that it will make it easier to decide, not easier to veto.

The clash over religion

Another source of friction between Spain and the other member states has been the explicit inclusion of the Catholic religion in the introduction to the Constitution. It states that the Magna Carta is inspired by ‘a cultural, religious and humanitarian inheritance’ … but not ‘a Christian inheritance’.

This clarification had been the express demand of the Catholic Church seconded by a very limited number of countries, including Spain, who maintained that ‘it is impossible to understand Europe without reference to Christianity’. As things stand, everything seems to point to the fact that Aznar is walking a lonely road, since even the leaders of Ireland and Poland refuse to join him.

The new presidency

In this political balancing act, it has come to light that Spain doesn’t always go along with the ‘small ones’ and wishes to stand at the side of the most powerful. On the issue of the appointment of a President of the EU, the Spanish government chooses to align itself with the ‘big ones’, that is with Germany, France, the UK and Italy.

It looks like, once the Constitution has been approved, it will put an end to the biannual presidencies in operation up to now, and instead there will be a stable president who would serve a five-year term.

Spain and the larger countries support this modification in order to avoid presiding over the Union every 13 years, which is the period of rotation which will be in force after the enlargement of the EU. The smaller countries, on the other hand, oppose the change, preferring the fairer system of biannual rotation.

Certainly many of the modifications aim to facilitate the creation of an integrated government with so many countries belonging to it and to avoid every decision having to go through a difficult and bureaucratic labyrinth with no way out. But nor can it be denied that this system will disadvantage the smaller countries and the new member states.

At the moment, each country has one Commissioner in the system – the larger countries have two – where they vote by majority. In order to speed things up, it is proposed that there be only 15 commissioners next to the ‘appointed commissioners’ without portfolio. The small states oppose this because it will deprive them of a right that the members have up to now had. And they are worried that they will have to occupy the post without portfolio.

In the eclectic European map, it is clear that Madrid is leaning on its alliance with London in order to be able to act more determinedly. It’s the same story with the debate over the creation of a European foreign minister, which has stirred up yet more trouble in the discussion over the upcoming Magna Carta.

In opposition to the rest of Europe, Spain and the UK would, in short, accept the creation of such a role if it carried little power and was answerable more to the Council (governments) than to the Commission.

Only a few weeks from the meeting of the Council of the European Union, the Spanish line of attack is fixed. While it shouldn’t hold its breath, Spain could possibly prove victorious in a battle or two when it sits down to debate with the rest of the EU on 4th October. It will strike a balance, naturally, between David and Goliath, though, most unlike the end of the legend, it is unlikely that the small ones will, this time, leave triumphant.