December 16, 2016
The year 2016 has been a terrific one for Russian President Vladimir Putin. The rising tide of populism across Europe has brought to the forefront far-right populist leaders, in France and Germany, for example, who espouse pro-Russia rhetoric. The elections of Donald Trump in the United States and pro-Kremlin leaders in Moldova and Bulgaria have been celebrated in Moscow. Meanwhile, Europe has become more divided over refugees, economic stagnation, and Islamic extremism. Will all this weaken the West’s resolve to stand up to a revanchist Russia?

Hopefully not, said Spain’s foreign minister, Alfonso María Dastis.

“It is true that when you look at some of the comments of some candidates in the forthcoming elections in the West there may be some reason to be worried,” Dastis said in an interview at the Atlantic Council on December 16.

In France, for example, François Fillon, a former prime minister who has called Russia a “crucial partner” for Europe, is a frontrunner to win the presidential election in 2017. In November, pro-Russian candidates—Rumen Radev in Bulgaria and Igor Dodon in Moldova—were elected presidents of their countries.

Nevertheless, Dastis was hopeful about the future. “I am an optimist and I hope that in the end we will stand up for our values and if that means that we have to be stronger vis-à-vis Putin we will be doing it,” he said.

The Obama administration has accused Russia of meddling in the presidential elections, and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) has concluded that this was done with the intent of ensuring a Trump victory. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) on December 16 said it agreed with the CIA’s conclusion.

“[The Russians] are pursuing their own interests, which is something that we all do,” said Dastis.

“Maybe some of the means they are using are disputable. We certainly do not accept those kinds of means of hybrid warfare or cyberattacks. We are doing our best to be protected against them and we will have to deal with them, if they come, defending our own interests and values,” he added.

Spain and NATO

Responding to exhortations—most notably from Trump—for all NATO member states to meet their financial obligations toward defense, Spain’s foreign minister, Dastis, said such contributions cannot simply be measured in financial terms.

“I don’t think you can measure the military effort and the contribution to transatlantic security only in pure military expenditure,” Dastis said.

“First, you have to define military expenditure. We define it in different ways in different countries,” he said. “There is money that you spend, but there are also contributions in kind.”

Only five of NATO’s twenty-eight member states currently meet the goal of spending 2 percent of their GDP on defense. Spain spends less than 1 percent of its GDP on defense. At NATO’s Wales Summit in 2014, all member states had pledged to meet the 2 percent target. Noting that Spain has struggled with an economic crisis, Dastis said: “Recovery is taking place and we are now increasing military expenditure.”

On the campaign trail, Trump described NATO as “obsolete” and also appeared to make US military support for NATO member states conditional on whether those states had met their financial obligations to the Alliance. Since his election, Trump has told officials, including US President Barack Obama, that he will preserve the US commitment to NATO.

“We remain hopeful that the [Trump] administration will realize that transatlantic security is critical and that in the context of NATO we both—Americans and Europeans—can work together,” said Dastis.

In an interview with the New Atlanticist’s Ashish Kumar Sen, Alfonso María Dastis spoke about the populist tide sweeping Europe, dealing with Russia, and coping with the United Kingdom’s decision to leave the European Union. Here are excerpts from our interview.

Q: On the campaign trail, Donald Trump was critical of NATO member states that have not met their financial obligations to the Alliance. Spain spends less than 1 percent of its GDP on defense. What is your government doing to meet the 2 percent spending goal?

Dastis: First, you have to define military expenditure. We define it in different ways in different countries. It is not that easy to exactly measure how much each country is spending. We have had a difficult economic position in the past. We have managed to improve the situation. Recovery is taking place and we are now increasing military expenditure. I don’t think you can measure the military effort and the contribution to transatlantic security only in pure military expenditure. There is money that you spend, but there are also contributions in kind. We are doing a lot of that in our naval and air bases that we are using together with the Americans to improve transatlantic security.

Q: What is Spain’s view of the transatlantic security relationship in light of Donald Trump’s election?

Dastis: We are hopeful that transatlantic security is going to be maintained and even strengthened. We know that there is an issue of we, Europeans, sharing a bit more of the burden. We can do it with a better coordination between the European Union and NATO itself. In the latest ministerial meeting in Brussels a couple of weeks ago we agreed to over forty measures to improve that. We remain hopeful that the [Trump] administration will realize that transatlantic security is critical and that in the context of NATO we both—Europeans and Americans—can work together.

Q: Why, in your opinion, are we seeing a rising tide of populism in the West and what can be done to reverse this trend?

Dastis: It has to do with how people feel threatened by globalization. There is sometimes also an issue of identity. In Spain, we are rather fortunate—you may call some of the movements that are now in the political landscape of Spain populist—but we don’t have any issue of xenophobia and we don’t have an extreme right movement.

What you have to do is to realize that in the world you have to accept differences and diversity, and we have to work together toward improving the lot of the people.

Q: Do you share the concern that growing populism in Europe and Trump’s election in the United States will weaken the West’s resolve to stand up to Russia?

Dastis: I hope not. It is true that when you look at some of the comments of some candidates in the forthcoming elections in the West there may be some reason to be worried. But I am an optimist and I hope that in the end we will stand up for our values and if that means that we have to be stronger vis-à-vis Putin we will be doing it.

Q: The Obama administration has accused Russia of meddling in the US presidential elections. There are reports of Russia trying to influence the elections in France and Germany next year. Is Russia trying to undermine the liberal world order? What is the Russian game plan?

Dastis: They are pursuing their own interests, which is something that we all do. Maybe some of the means they are using are disputable. We certainly do not accept those kinds of means of hybrid warfare or cyberattacks. We are doing our best to be protected against them and we will have to deal with them, if they come, defending our own interests and values.

Q: What does a Brexit mean for Spain and how are you preparing for it?

Dastis: We regret that the people of the United Kingdom voted for Brexit because we have very close and strong ties. We intend to keep them that way so we are going to work with our European friends and our UK friends to find an accommodation that will enable us to keep those ties, adjusting them if they finally go ahead with the idea of leaving the European Union.

Q: Are you concerned that Brexit could be the beginning of the unravelling of the European project?

Dastis: I hope not. I don’t think so; rather the opposite. It will make us realize that the European Union is important for all of us and will give us the opportunity to renew our impetus and our path and our pace toward European integration.

Q: Your predecessor, Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo, talked about planting the Spanish flag on Gibraltar. What is your government’s position vis-à-vis Gibraltar and the Brexit negotiations?

Dastis: Gibraltar is a part of Spain that was ceded under the Treaty of Utrecht over 300 years ago. It is legitimate that we want to get our territorial integrity back, but we are going to try and persuade the Gibraltarians that in the context of Brexit if they want to remain in the European Union, as they voted for, and if they want to enjoy the rights of being in the European Union, it is in their interest to work with us. I am confident that we will find a way.

Ashish Kumar Sen is deputy director of communications at the Atlantic Council. You can follow him on Twitter @AshishSen.

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