The chief political virtue of acting Spanish President Mariano Rajoy is a negative virtue and consists of doing nothing, or as little as possible, of watching and waiting, of holding your cards close to your chest and remaining silent, until finally your opponent makes a move, and stumbles and falls into error.
This tactic doesn’t make for glamorous politics but it is highly effective. The homicidal dictator Franco was a master at it and he was in power for forty years in Spain. It is this tactic which explains how it is possible that Rajoy’s corruption wracked Partido Popular won most seats at the Spanish General Election last Sunday. The interim period between the hung Parliament of last December and Sunday’s rerun, saw the other main parties, Podemos, the PSOE and Ciudadanos engage in what looked from the outside like a kind of political vaudeville act– people constantly walking in and out of doors, shaking hands one day, bumping into each other the next – in what appeared to be a common search not to find common ground. Rajoy, meanwhile, did what he does best: nada.
The electorate’s patience was exhausted, its interest sapped over six endless months and the PP unexpectedly won last Sunday, though without a working majority. Pablo Iglesias has attributed the poor electoral showing of Podemos to fear of change, but sheer tedium is a more likely answer. The Left lost one million votes because too many people didn’t bother turning out to cast their ballot paper; politicians tend to forget that most people don’t share their all-consuming interest in the affairs of the public realm.
Thus is was that when Nicola Sturgeon arrived in Brussels last Wednesday, having been universally praised for her statesmanship and seriousness after the disastrous Brexit vote, Rajoy was in ebullient mood and all ready to do his best to stand out from the European crowd and put the spoilers on the day, something which he never fails to do when the word Scotland is even murmured.
Rajoy’s chief passion would appear to be the Spanish national football team and the Spanish national basketball team, and his favourite reading material, apparently, is the Madrid sports newspaper, Marca. So overriding is the sporting passion of Spain’s President that, upon beginning his address at the funeral of Nelson Mandela, at the FNB stadium in Johannesburg, Rajoy announced to the mourners and state dignitaries present, and to the embarrassment of millions of Spaniards at home, just how proud he was to be in the same place where Spain had won the 2010 World Cup, thus showing the same skills in diplomacy as he did the other day when Nicola Sturgeon arrived in Brussels in the middle of the gravest EU crisis ever.
Rajoy’s most sophisticated and oft repeated political maxim is “Spain is a great country”, followed closely by “Spain is a great nation”, and while nobody openly disputes that assertion, the problem is that Rajoy seems to think that everybody else is Spanish, or ought to be, and that Scotland forms some part of Greater Spain, as do 80% of Spain’s paranoid media outlets – with El Pais in pole position – which never fail to misinform, traduce and distort Scotland, its relation to the United Kingdom, and its pretensions to recover the national sovereignty ceded in the Union of Parliaments of 1707, all the more urgent after the Brexit fiasco.
The PP are a nationalist party in a way which is just inconceivable for anybody in Scotland to begin to imagine, because playing on fears of the unity of Spain is a guaranteed vote winner in the Peninsula. Which is why Scotland serves so well in the cracked looking glass of Spanish foreign policy as a surrogate for Catalonia. Nor is Scotland alone in this role. Rajoy’s government would appear to have no real interest in what is going on in the rest of the world – with the obvious exception of sporting tournaments which are presumably followed with fanatical zeal in La Moncloa, the Presidential Palace – except as it pertains to Spain, and plays in Spain, and can be capitalized on in Spanish domestic politics. Scotland is just one example of many.
It was Spanish Foreign Secretary Margallo who was the first European foreign minister to visit Moscow after the annexation of the Crimea, so important to Russian nationhood according to Putin in a way which, say, Catalonia might be argued to be to Spain. More recently, Venezuela has been making the headlines, with the Spanish establishment seeking to smear Podemos by associating them with the regime there, something Le Monde ridiculed recently in the French press. There have been so many visits by Spanish establishment politicians to Venezuela of late, that there is a reasonable case for an hourly shuttle service between Madrid and Caracas. And Rajoy, a man with a passion for austerity economics, chose to visit Greece on the eve of its bailout referendum, anxious that his own domestic austerity policy should not be undermined by the democratic will of the Greek people.
With the tectonic plates of Europe shifting under our feet, Spanish foreign policy stands out in Europe as anachronistic, inflexible and inward looking; out of step with these new changing times: never constructive, always negative. Rajoy would much rather Scotland remain part of the UK, sure, but that is none of his business, and should never come before the integrity of the European project and the dream of a united Europe, in which Scotland has played and continues to play an important part, and has just overwhelmingly endorsed in the Brexit referendum.
Nor should anybody overestimate the power of Spain within the EU, whose decision making process is based on mutual accord between 27 nations and which inevitably involves give and take on all sides, though it took just one phone call from Berlin at the height of the bond crisis for the Spanish Parliament to amend the Spanish Constitution, inserting a 3% deficit cap into what had been an “untouchable” text, with cross-party parliamentary support under former President Zapatero.
Spain might try to slow down an independent Scotland’s adhesion to the EU, but it cannot stop it, that would be unthinkable. And if it cannot stop it, why slow it down? Why not embrace it? It’s important to remember that since Spain joined the EU along with Portugal in 1986, no fewer than 17 countries have become EU members, including Malta and most recently Croatia.
With the EU in serious peril last Wednesday, Mariano Rajoy could not resist snubbing Scotland and thereby Catalonia – describing it as a region as he always does, just as El País newspaper never fails to do, except, of course, when reporting on the inconveniently named Six Nations rugby tournament – revealing himself to be every bit as much a nationalist as Boris Johnson and David Cameron, whose wild and reckless Brexit gamble has left EU leaders somewhere between apoplexy and disbelief.
What kind of foreign policy is this, in which Madrid is far more hostile to the idea of an independent Scotland than London is? Has any British Prime Minister ever expressed even the slightest interest in the domestic politics of Spain, or any Scottish politician for that matter either? Nobody with Europe’s interest at heart can take the Spanish position on Scotland seriously. No serious European politician would meddle in the affairs of a sovereign nation like Rajoy has done in the case of Scotland, time and time again, even going so far as to make an official address on the morning of Scotland’s exemplary democratic referendum in September 2014.
The next time Nicola Sturgeon is in town, if Mariano Rajoy cannot act like a caballero español and even acknowledge the important role Scotland’s First Minister has played over the last week in steadying the ship, then he should stick to what he does best: he should stick to doing nothing.
A Europe in crisis simply cannot afford Spain’s nationalistic and frankly narcissistic foreign policy right now, a moment when the EU needs all the friends and allies it can get.