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A change for the better?

By By Peter Guest | Published:  28 December, 2009

Spain’s second “Plan Africa” emphasises multilateralism, but its basic motivations show little departure from previous initiatives, analysts say

In January 2010 Spain takes over the presidency of the European Union from Sweden. Once this transition would have been viewed as a progressive nation handing over to a deeply conservative one, but since its election in 2004 the socialist government of José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero has pushed a foreign policy agenda that has been – at least superficially – a break from that stereotype. A sizeable increase in the Spanish development budget and a greater level of diplomatic engagement towards sub-Saharan Africa are both symptoms of this new approach.

Spain has been building its diplomatic presence and cooperation in sub-Saharan Africa, opening new embassies and increasing staff numbers in others. The country has also committed to increase its international development spending to 0.7 percent of gross national product by 2012, up from just 0.24 percent in 2004. In 2008, the country appeared on track to meet this, with ODA equivalent to 0.43 percent of GNP, and in the most recent budget – a necessarily austere one, given the battering that the Spanish economy has taken in the current global downturn – development will rise to 0.5 percent of GNP. This increase will be directed towards low income countries. Of all the OECD’s Development Assistance Committee donors, Spain has historically given the greatest proportion of its aid to middle income countries, largely in Latin America. It has also promised to reduce the amount of its aid given in commercial credits.

The campaign that led to Mr Zapatero’s election was interrupted by the March 11 terrorist bombing of Madrid’s commuter trains, which killed 191 people. Many observers believe that the attack, three days before the polls opened, directly influenced the result, as Spanish voters moved away from the Atlanticist politics of José María Aznar’s ruling Partido Popular and towards Mr Zapatero’s Partido Socialista Obrero Español, which had promised to remove the country’s troops from Iraq.

The attacks, committed by a group of Algerians, Syrians and Moroccans, reignited debates within Spain about immigration and security. Spain receives more immigrants annually than any other European Union country, by virtue of its climate, which attracts large numbers of northern Europeans; its relatively open attitude to Latin American migrants; and its location on the Mediterranean Sea. Illegal economic migrants from West Africa, as well as asylum seekers, who, under European regulation, must have their applications processed in the first country where they make landfall, have historically caused tensions in Spain and its Mediterranean neighbours. Spain’s economy, heavily focused on the construction and agricultural industries, is a particularly attractive source of employment for low-skilled migrant workers.

Whereas the Aznar government’s African policy was focused on the Sahel and expressed in terms of transatlantic cooperation and the “War on Terror”, the Zapatero government’s language and approach has appeared more progressive and more expansive, pushing further south and west. Madrid’s policy has been laid down in two documents: the first “Plan Africa”, which outlined Spain’s African strategy from 2006-2008, and the second, launched in 2009, which will run up to 2012.

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