Josè Marìa Aznar, the conservative Prime Minister of Spain, has been the U.S.'s strongest Continental ally in Iraq, defying France and Germany -- as well as Spanish public opinion -- to back the invasion and send Spanish troops to Baghdad. In the process, the 50-year old Aznar has become a leader of the European states that want to break the Franco-German grip on European Union policy and institute pro-U.S., free-market reforms.
Aznar has taken the French and Germans to task for ditching the Stability Pact, which limits deficit spending by Europe's governments. And he has triggered a showdown with the French and Germans over the voting rights of member states in an expanded and strengthened EU: Aznar fears the French and Germans want to weaken the clout of newer and smaller members.
Aznar is voluntarily stepping down as Prime Minister after national elections in March -- elections his party is expected to win because of Spain's strong economic growth. He traveled to Washington in mid-January to consult with President Bush on Iraq policy and assure him of Spain's continuing support. He took time out to speak with BusinessWeek Senior Editor Christopher Power and Chief Diplomatic Correspondent Stan Crock. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow. Note: This is an extended, online-only version of the interview that appears in the January 26, 2004 issue of BusinessWeek.
Q: A year ago, you made a bold decision to break ranks with France and Germany and support the U.S. and Britain in Iraq. How do you view your decision now?
A:We did what we had to do. Therefore we acted out of full conviction that international legality must be fully respected. We acted out of conviction that we can by no means accept impunity, and terrorism must be combated. And I'm convinced that the world is a better place today than it was a year ago. Which doesn't mean there aren't a whole lot of problems we need to solve. But we did what we had to do.
Q: Why is the world a better place?
A:There's a dictatorship has disappeared. A tyrant who assassinated his own citizens and people from other countries as well has been arrested. And the stability and security of the world has been enhanced. Hence, there's more of a chance today to spread the benefits of stability and democracy to more areas of the world.
Q: How can the transatlantic relationship be restored?
A:We're working to strengthen the transatlantic link, which is vital. I believe in the concept of the Western world and the values shaping the Western world. I believe in the pillars that we need to have in place to underpin that world.
The most important pillar of all is the Atlantic one. That has its political, economic, and security dimensions. And those are the three dimensions we really need to work on. The world is always better off when the U.S. and Europe act together. The risks increase for everyone when that doesn't happen. I do think we can establish a positive agenda to strengthen the transatlantic link. I know of no alternative to that.
Q: You have to live inside the house of Europe. Do you think Spain's hand has been strengthened by its support of the U.S.?
A:I believe in an Atlantic Europe, and that's really the Europe that we have and the only one possible, in my opinion. I think that this opinion of mine is shared by the majority of the European Union. We're determined to build a politically stable and economically strong Europe, but that is...quite compatible with our view of an Atlantic Europe.
Q: Does the U.S. support your vision of the Atlantic Europe? Could NATO's expansion lead to more difficulty producing a consensus?
A:The transatlantic relationship has enabled the Europe we know today to come about and be a strong, solid entity. The question today really is: Is there any alternative today to that relationship which would be as much of a guarantee [of] security?
My opinion is that the answer is no. The differences of opinion we've seen on certain issues have not been a good thing. All of us have to get down to work to move past these situations on either side.
Q: If your party wins the election as expected, it may be because of your economic record, rather than your foreign policy. Could Spain revert to a lower foreign-policy profile after you leave office?
A:No. 1, if we do win the elections, as I expect will happen and hope will happen, it will be because a majority support our policies.
Secondly, I'm convinced that the broad strategies that we've been implementing are going to continue into the future. We will continue to be at the forefront of everything that's involved in European construction, and in addition, we will continue to remain firm in our commitment to the transatlantic relationship.
The third thing is that I'm absolutely convinced that we're not going to see any retreat on the part of Spain from its current high profile and current commitments on the international scene.
Q: In December you confronted France and Germany over voting rights for member states in the expanded EU. Why?
A:I'm defending the interests of Europe and the interests of Spain. Those two things are extremely compatible. I do have respect for the interests that others are defending.
We already back in 2000 carried out institutional reform in Europe to prepare for a Europe of 27 members. Now people are seeking to change those agreements. People want to change the representation for each country at the European Council level. I see no reason to do that, especially when the system we agreed on hasn't yet been tried. I don't think that's the right way to go about things. I don't think it's serious.
It's the same thing with the Stability Pact for the economy and Europe. We agreed on a Stability Pact. Everybody is required to comply. Then all of a sudden, if someone is unable to comply, he complains the Stability Pact is no good.
It's hard to have confidence and trust if those are the rules of the game. I do hope we reach a final agreement. If we don't, it won't be Spain's fault. It will be on account of those seeking to impose certain rules and be very inflexible about it.
Q: Is there a way out?
A:I can't tell you. If everybody is saying they can't budge from their positions, I don't see an agreement happening. My position is firm, but not unmovable.
Q: What's your view of the challenge to France's and Germany's abrogation of the Stability Pact?
A:The rule has to apply across the board for everybody. The more economic wherewithal we have in Europe, the stronger we will be, and the more clout we will have. We're not headed in the right direction for that to happen, and that's a mistake.
The problem Europe has is not brought about by any given situation in time. It's a structural problem. The problem we have is lack of growth. That's because certain economies aren't flexible enough and haven't brought about enough reforms.
Q: Certain economies means France and Germany, correct?
A:Yes, the major economies in Europe.
Q: How do you keep the Stability Pact in place?
A:It's up to the European Commission to monitor whether states are meeting their obligations. It's clear that if member states aren't meeting their obligations, the pact will disappear. I think that's a mistake.
Q: Why don't you want to be in charge any more?
A:You need to know when to leave. If you're able to make a reasonable statement that your country is better off than it was eight years ago, then you need to know how to say goodbye. It's hard. But it's better for one to choose one's own exit strategy, having ensured your country is dynamic and stronger, than to have people point the finger at you and say, "Look at your country, full of problems."