Spain lugs its political fights, scandals and protests into the NATO summit

EuroActiv Politico News

MADRID — For three days, again and again, Spain’s political baggage kept getting pulled into the NATO arena, threatening to overshadow accomplishments the Spanish government wanted to tout as it hosted world leaders.

The NATO chief’s noncommittal language didn’t help, either. 

Outwardly, Spanish officials were upbeat, saying they got exactly what they wanted during the gathering — a NATO pledge to defend its southern flank and preserve allies’ territorial integrity, plaudits for its defense spending plan, a smooth summit with historic agreements. NATO had nothing but lavish praise for the host on its 40th anniversary as an alliance member.

“We’ve really achieved our national goals in this summit,” Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez said as the summit came to a close, marking a major moment for him on the international stage.

That’s not how everyone here in Madrid saw it. 

That NATO pledge? It doesn’t technically extend to defending Spain’s northern African territories, Ceuta and Melilla, as some Spanish political parties were quick to note. NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg’s equivocal response when pressed on the issue only fueled the debate.

Those additional U.S. warships? The spending plan? Sánchez will need the support of his main parliamentary nemesis, as his traditional partners oppose both.

And on the Sunday before the summit, thousands even took to the streets chanting “NATO No” and “defense money for schools and hospitals.”

Looming over it all was a simmering controversy over the treatment of 2,000 people, 23 of whom died, trying to cross a wire fence separating Morocco and Melilla. Sánchez came under fire for initially praising the Moroccan police before later backtracking after admitting he hadn’t seen the troubling images.

So while Spain got a chance to show off its majestic capital, hosting world leaders at its Royal Palace and world-class Prado museum, it also inadvertently showed off the political squabbles and local scandals that have at times hampered the country’s ability to assert itself internationally.

Still, Spanish officials were adamant that political disputes couldn’t erase the country’s progress within NATO.  

“We are all committed with our security, no matter if the threats are on the eastern side or on the southern side,” Sánchez said, a distinction he said was the result of his government’s lobbying efforts. 

Picking a fight with Sánchez

Ceuta and Melilla are two small, autonomous cities bordering Morocco. While both are classified as Spanish territories, Morocco disputes this and questions their sovereignty. 

The two enclaves are not technically covered under the famed Article 5 clause — an attack on one member is an attack on all — buried in NATO’s foundational treaty of 1949, which predates Spain’s membership. The text says the mutual-defense pledge applies to the mainland of each member, as well as each country’s islands “north of the Tropic of Cancer” — a geographical scope that includes Spain’s Canary Islands but excludes Ceuta and Melilla.

Yet heading into the Madrid summit, NATO was preparing a new mission statement, its so-called Strategic Concept, a document updated only once a decade. That gave Spain an opening to raise the issue. 

Ultimately, Madrid secured a commitment in the document that NATO would “preserve the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all Allies.” The wording was chosen in lieu of a more generic option that would have simply referred to the “alliance’s territorial integrity,” a Spanish official said.

Yet Spain’s biggest opposition party, the Popular Party (PP), instantly seized on the absence of explicit references to Ceuta and Melilla. The right-wing party has made preserving Spain’s territorial integrity a key talking point ahead of what is shaping up to be a fraught general election next year.

Stoltenberg failed to quell the criticism when asked whether an attack on the territories would trigger Article 5 — bringing all of NATO into the fight. He said that would be a “political decision” for the allies, far from reassuring words. He then reiterated the response a few days later, before adding: “Rest assured NATO is there to protect and defend all allies.”

The border between northern Morocco and the Spanish enclave of Melilla, a day after at least 23 African migrants died in a bid by around 2000 people, mostly sub-Saharan African, to force their way into Europe | Fadel Senna/AFP via Getty Images

Speaking to reporters at the summit, Spanish Foreign Affairs Minister José Manuel Albares appeared frustrated with the whole affair. He stressed that NATO’s protection of Ceuta and Melilla had never been in doubt in Spain’s 40 years in the alliance. And he pointed out that none of NATO’s strategic documents have ever singled out specific territories.

“Honestly, I don’t understand all these questions these days about Ceuta and Melilla,” he said. “This is the first time that I hear of this potential debate which for me has been very clear and today has been clarified definitely.”

Indeed, any more iron-clad guarantee would require treaty change — which is not currently in the cards.

“Going further at this moment would be impossible,” Spain’s Chief of Defense Staff Teodoro López Calderón told Spanish state radio station RNE.

Carlota García Encina, an expert on transatlantic relations at the Madrid-based Royal Elcano Institute, agreed there are plenty of NATO reassurances that Ceuta and Melilla would be protected if attacked.

“It’s a debate with very political overtones,” she said.

The fight Sánchez wanted

Ceuta and Melilla were not supposed to be the Spanish government’s biggest focus this week. Instead, it wanted to get allies to pay attention to security threats arising from the south — namely terrorism, climate change and the weaponization of migration.

Spanish officials were hoping to push NATO to link the southern and eastern flanks, arguing that Russia was also expanding in African countries, either with its own troops or through mercenaries. That, too, was a threat to NATO allies, they insisted. 

In this regard, Spain succeeded. 

NATO’s new Strategic Concept warns the situation in the Middle East, North Africa and Sahel regions “provides fertile ground for the proliferation of non-state armed groups, including terrorist organisations” and “enables destabilising and coercive interference by strategic competitors” — a reference to the growing presence of Russia and China in those areas.

NATO allies, Sánchez later crowed, had committed to “ensuring our collective defense based on a 360-degree approach.”

The document’s words do carry weight, said García. But it’s not a “true strategy” for the southern flank, which would require countries beyond NATO — an approach Albares agreed would be “desirable.”

And yet again, Spain’s issues with Melilla grabbed the spotlight. 

Sánchez’s admission that he had not seen the brutal images of chaos at the Melilla border before praising the Moroccan police came on the second day of the summit. His left-wing coalition partner Unidas Podemos and three other parties have also agreed to request a parliamentary inquiry into the incident.

Bring in the destroyers

Two more of Spain’s top military initiatives — more U.S. warships in Spain and more defense spending — will require Sánchez to negotiate with occasionally unwilling partners.

After a meeting between Sánchez and U.S. President Joe Biden, the U.S. pledged to send two more U.S. Arleigh Burke-class destroyers to NATO’s Rota naval base in Southern Spain, upping the total from four to six. Each new ship is expected to add around 300 U.S. troops to the American military presence already in the country.

Madrid sees its ties to Washington as the country’s most critical bilateral relationship — one it needs to keep on good terms in case a conflict flares up with Morocco.

A Spanish senior defense official told POLITICO the ships won’t arrive in Rota until next year, and that the government will discuss the decision once the U.S. administration sets a date for the ships to sail. 

But first Sánchez would have to secure parliamentary support. 

Spain’s Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez greets US President Joe Biden at the start of the first plenary session of the NATO summit | Gabriel Bouys/AFP via Getty Images

Unidas Podemos, which opposes an increased U.S. military presence in Spain, criticized the deal and hinted it would vote it down in Congress. That means the prime minister will likely have to rely on his biggest opponent, PP, which has indicated it could support the addition.

“We don’t like this pact, it means more troops, more North American destroyers and more dependence and submission to the United States,” said Jaume Asens, leader of Unidas Podemos’ parliamentary group.

Albares, the foreign affairs minister, rebuffed the claim, stressing there was “no submission whatsoever” in the government’s decision. He described the agreement as evidence of “mutual trust” between the Spanish and U.S. governments.

Sánchez also needs support from other parties to push through his other flagship summit announcement — a commitment to spend 2 percent of Spain’s economic output on defense by 2029, bringing Spain in line with NATO expectations. 

The budget plan requires cross-party support because its length would inevitably tie the hands of the next government. 

The pledge also comes amid a cost-of-living crisis, with Spain’s inflation surging to 10 percent this month. 

In a message targeted at Unidas Podemos, Sánchez called on the parties that have historically opposed Spain’s membership of NATO to reconsider their position. 

“We must do it,” Sánchez said.

While there is political and social unrest over Spain’s NATO commitments, the country is largely in favor of its inclusion in the alliance — a Royal Elcano Institute survey conducted ahead of the summit showed 83 percent support among Spaniards and even 66 percent support among those identifying as left-wing. 

What’s more clear is that as Madrid returns to normality, the summit will continue to echo across Spanish politics for months.