Spain had an empire and Britain had an empire, then why are the British so uncertain about Europe and why is Spain so sure?
The Lisbon Treaty on 20 February 2005 was the last time that Spain had a chance to express a view on the European Union. Although turnout was just 41 percent, 81 percent of voters went for “yes”. I was living in Madrid at the time and my memory was that with cross party support, there was hardly a campaign. It was also a time of great prosperity. The general vibe was ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’. Post-austerity, I suspect the numbers would be closer (although it would still carry).
Among elites, the view remains similar to that of the philosopher José Ortega y Gasset, who is remembered by the phrase “Spain is the problem and Europe is the solution”. The problem is more specifically ‘The Two Spains’, which is a phrase from a short poem by Antonio Machado. Europe keeps Spaniards away from the left-versus-right division that divides them. Working together in Europe makes Spain feel as one; local rows are forgotten.
The other benefit that the European Union has brought is infrastructure. Spain has a great tradition of engineering and there are a number of large construction companies who went after the money on offer from structural funds to build roads, bridges, tunnels, train tracks, airports, schools, and hospitals. So unstoppable did this machine become that they kept on building, even when they didn’t need to build any more. Athens has many white elephants but at least they had the Olympics. While making their Olympic bid, Madrid built in advance many of the venues that would be needed. This turned out to be a waste of money when they didn’t win.
Today in Spain, you have to go looking for signs of its former empire. A school holiday is a moment of terror for my daughters as they run to their mother, shouting “please Daddy, not another Museum!” The Museo Naval in Ferrol is a particular favourite of mine. It relays the fascinating history of the Spanish Armada and many other tales. There is also a cheeky cousin, the Museo Naval in Madrid, which although smaller is equally thorough. I’ve also dragged my little ones through the Museo de Americas, which tells the story of the Spanish explorers in the New World. Any time I’ve visited, it’s been almost empty and a quick look on Trip Advisor tells me that other people found the same.
In contrast, the British Museum in London and the Imperial War Museum are always full. As is the Greenwich Observatory, where the Harrison timepieces are on display. The MAN (the Museo Arqueológico Nacional) in Madrid was recently given a facelift. They do their best but there is no Elgin Marbles or Rosetta Stone. They must look over at the queues to enter The Prado, the Reina Sofía, the Thyssen (Madrid’s three great art museums) and say, just give us a chance!
The Imperio Español came to an end with the Treaty of Paris in 1898 when Spain gave up the remaining bits of New Spain that they hadn’t relinquished already. Cuba went, as did Puerto Rico and the Philippines. At the time, they held onto parts of Morocco (and they still retain two enclaves today in North Africa: the territories of Ceuta and Melilla). You could even add the Canary Islands to this, although those are not seriously claimed by anyone else.
As with Britain, the influence lives on through the language. Just short of 500 million people speak Spanish as their native language. There are also places in Latin America that held onto their conquistador names (there are Granadas everywhere).
The power exerted these days is of a soft kind. No one in Spain speaks of an Empire 2.0 project. The relationship is close to one of mutual respect. And do you know what? This is something I quite like.