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Zapatero at the White House

Interview: Diana FongNovember 15, 2008

DW-WORLD.DE spoke to a Spanish foreign policy expert about his country's special invitation to attend Saturday's G20 summit in Washington after years of being snubbed by the Bush administration.

A collage of the White House, a US flag and Spanish Prime Minister Zapatero
Bush invited Zapatero to the White House at Sarkozy's requestImage: AP/DW

In little more than 30 years, Spain has metamorphosed from the poverty and isolation of the Franco dictatorship to become the world's 8th largest economy and one of the most politically tolerant countries in Europe. But it is not a member of the G20 group of leading industrial nations and developing countries invited to Saturday's emergency summit in Washington to discuss global financial reforms.

Socialist Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero is also the only major European leader who has never visited the White House, largely due to a falling out with outgoing President George W. Bush over Spain's unilateral troop withdrawal from Iraq in 2004. But this time, an invitation to the prestigious summit matters.

Since France's President Nicolas Sarkozy held two seats in his dual role as current EU President and G20 member, he gave one up. The Netherlands, Czech Republic and a few Arab states all jockeyed for the extra seat, but Spain won out after Zapatero's intense lobbying efforts.

DW-WORLD.DE spoke to Jose Ignacio Torreblanca, 39, head of the European Council on Foreign Relations in Madrid about Spain's participation at the G20 summit and bilateral relations with the United States.

Jose Ignacio Torreblanca, head of the European Council of Foreign Relations in Madrid
Jose Ignacio TorreblancaImage: Jose Ignacio Torreblanca

DW-WORLD.DE: Does Spain deserve to be at the G20, rather than the Czech Republic, which holds the next EU presidency starting January?

Jose Ignacio Torreblanca: Whether Spain deserves to be among the G20 cannot be framed in legal, but in political terms. The question is, does it make sense to include Spain? Can Spain make a contribution to the goals of the G20? Why can't this club be a G22 or G30 for that matter?

The problem for Spain is that there are already enough Europeans in the G20 or the G7 subset of rich industrial nations, plus the EU also has a seat. So why bring even more European partners to the table when the legitimacy of the club would be enhanced by expanding membership to include non-Western nations?

It would seem that Spain has a good argument for being a member based on its economic might and an annual growth rate of nearly 4 percent in the last decade or so. It has even surpassed G8 member Italy by some economic indicators like per capita income. So why is Italy, for example, in and Spain out?

This has to do with the latecomer effect when certain structures were already in place and we weren't yet ready to be a part of them. Spain only joined the European Community (forerunner to the EU) in 1986 and had a referendum in favor of NATO membership the same year. We had just entered the world stage at a time that the institutions ruling the world were changing due to the end of the Cold War.

Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero
Zapatero lobbied hard for the invitationImage: AP

Even (former Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria) Aznar had a high international profile and tried to get Spain to be the 8th country when the G7 was expanding into the G8, but at that time the G7 members wanted to include Russia for geopolitical reasons instead of adjusting their membership rules to include yet another EU country.

Aznar was the opposite of Zapatero: He tried to enhance Spain's profile in the world by being close to Bush and Blair and supporting the Iraq War, which the Spanish public was very much opposed to.

Yes. Zapatero didn't feel the need to be a member of the G8 in order to further Spain's foreign policy goals.

Besides, the socialists have pushed for more ideological goals that promote intercultural understanding or alleviate poverty under the UN umbrella, such as Alliance for Civilizations or the International Alliance against Hunger, so being part of a rich G8 club that represents inequalities would've been seen as contradictory. Also, the anti-globalization movement has hardly made it attractive for us to join the G8, even if we were invited.

But why is this G20 summit different?

Because this is not G8 or G20 business as usual -- it's about reforming global capitalism and we need to be part of the discussion on what went wrong with the international finance system and how we can collectively get out of the mess. Why should Argentina be there and not us?

What is the state of Spain's economy now?

Election rally for Zapatero
In a sense, Zapatero can thank Bush for his election victories, says TorreblancaImage: AP

We have a very flexible, deregulated market, but that makes us more sensitive to economic cycles. When there's growth in Europe, we can easily jump into the wave and surf. Our construction boom has been the main engine of phenomenal growth in the last few years and Spain's open labor market enabled a wave of immigrants to fill plenty of low wage jobs, which were very much in demand at the time of economic take-off.

But when there's an economic slowdown in Europe, we also suffer more heavily than the others, since these are the very jobs that also get axed quickly in a crisis.

The Spanish financial system seems to have weathered the crisis better than the UK and US. None of Spain's banks went belly up and the current crisis has been a boon for Banco Santander, so maybe the others have something to learn from Spain at the summit?

What we have learned about banks is that we know nothing about them. The trouble is that the inter-lending banking system, which is crucial to the world economy, has dried up since banks don't trust each other anymore.

(Former Socialist Prime Minister) Felipe Gonzalez once claimed that Spain's got the best banking system in the world, but I'd be a bit cautious about that.

It's true that our banking practices have been more conservative than other Europeans due to self-regulation and stricter government oversight. We haven't had bailouts yet in Spain, but the credit squeeze has forced the government to inject fresh liquidity into the system. We have problems too, so the main argument for going to Washington is not to teach anyone a lesson.

President-elect Barack Obama answers questions from reporters in front of the West Wing of the White House
Zapatero is likely to visit an Obama White House more oftenImage: AP

Zapatero's first and last trip to the Bush White House should help improve US-Spain bilateral relations.

Opposing Bush has helped Zapatero get elected (in 2004) and win re-elections (earlier this year), so maybe he can even thank Bush for helping him to become prime minister.

Do you see relations improving under President-elect Barack Obama?

Yes. Obama has a more multilateral vision of world politics. He understands that complex problems require complex solutions that need to be negotiated with allies. We can do a lot together -- to tackle poverty and climate change. Even on hard military issues in Iraq and Afghanistan, we can at least talk to the US, although we might see things differently. The atmosphere in an Obama White House is going to be more conducive to disagree in a polite way, and I expect the personal chemistry between Obama and Zapatero will be good.