Sunday, January 29

High-flying diplomacy | Spain


The Spanish Minister of Foreign Affairs, José Manuel Albares, reviews the Spanish military at the Adazi base (Latvia).
The Spanish Minister of Foreign Affairs, José Manuel Albares, reviews the Spanish military at the Adazi base (Latvia).Marina García / Nolsom-MAEC

23,435 kilometers, a state visit, four international summits and 30 bilateral meetings. Some unprecedented, such as with the new head of the Foreign Office, Liz Truss, or the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov. Not counting the impromptu talk with the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken or the phone call to the Israeli Yair Lapid. Spanish diplomacy moves at an incessant rhythm, ready to make its voice heard in all forums, although not all have the same echo. EL PAÍS has followed the Spanish Minister of Foreign Affairs, José Manuel Albares, for nine days and has peeked into the back room of an international politics that takes place in corridors and airplanes, away from the spotlights, cameras and press conferences.

Wednesday, November 24. Albares accompanies the Kings to Sweden. As minister of the day, he attends the audience of Felipe VI with the Prime Minister, the Social Democrat Stefan Löfven. It is a farewell: he has resigned and will be replaced that same day by his party partner, Magdalena Andersson. However, that night at the Royal Palace they meet him again. The first female head of government in the history of Sweden has only lasted a few hours: she has lost the budget vote and, after the departure of the Greens from the ruling coalition, she has resigned. Albares cannot repress a comment: “We were supposed to be unstable from the south. The myth of the Nordic countries is falling ”. In international politics, myths are becoming as fleeting as fashions. And the one who sets the trend at the gala dinner is Queen Letizia, who wears a 300-euro dress made of recycled polyester. It is a design by the Swedish firm H&M, a nod to sustainability and its hosts. More discreet is the tailcoat for rent from the head of Spanish diplomacy. “The boys of Usera [el barrio madrileño donde se crio] We have no wardrobe bottom, ”he jokes. The suit looks tailored, but it’s tailor tricks experimenting. The fabric is intact and when you return it, the hem will be pulled out to fit the next customer’s size.

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Friday 26. In Santo Domingo, the minister exchanges the tailcoat for the guayabera. The election of the new Ibero-American secretary general arouses unusual interest. A seemingly nondescript position has become the subject of contention with four contenders at stake. Even the foreign ministers of Cuba and Venezuela, Bruno Rodríguez and Félix Plasencia, who are regularly absent, attend the meeting. Albares meets with both. To the first one he demands the credentials of the Efe journalists. In the second, that he resume the dialogue with the opposition. “I’m not saying they are easy interviews, because you have to say things that are not pleasant to hear, but if you speak clearly the first time, then no one is misled,” he explains. Although Spain has not yet seen clear that an active foreign minister will occupy the position, Chilean Andrés Allamand, minister of an outgoing moderate right-wing government, asserts his personal relationships and even gains the support of Cuba. He is elected “by consensus”, in the words of Albares. That means that half a dozen votes have been needed and that he has won by 12 to 8 the Ecuadorian Rosalía Arteaga. This is called “consensus” in diplomatic parlance, in which a “verbal note” is a written piece of paper.

Albares with the Cuban Foreign Minister, Bruno Rodríguez, in Santo Domingo.
Albares with the Cuban Foreign Minister, Bruno Rodríguez, in Santo Domingo.MAUC

Saturday 27. Back in Spain, the Falcon 900B of Air Force Group 45 in which the minister and his team are traveling goes into a storm. The device starts to bounce as if it were driving on a bumpy road. Albares is sleepy and mistakes the scourge of rain on the glass of the cabin for the sound of water against the windshield of his car. He is startled by a flash of lightning that illuminates the night and a jolt that forces him to hold on to avoid falling to the ground. Óscar, one of the escorts, says that there is a raft under the seats and no one asks him if he is serious. For a while, the apparatus continues to jump and the passengers sit inside a cocktail shaker. Until they land at the Lajes base, where the Portuguese officer and assistant who attended them on the outward stopover await them solicitous and impeccable, as if they had not moved from there in those 24 hours. Already in Torrejón de Ardoz (Madrid), Air Force technicians warn that the device has suffered structural damage to the tail and fuselage due to the impact of lightning.

Sunday 28. The advance of the omicron variant causes the closing of borders. Thousands of Spaniards are trapped in southern Africa and Morocco. In Foreign Affairs, the emergency team is activated: it coordinates with Iberia the dispatch of a plane to Mozambique, which will repatriate 121 Europeans; and seven flights to Casablanca, from December 2 to 12. Albares orders the suspension of permits for diplomatic personnel in the affected countries. This does not prevent complaints. For those who suffer from a fire, firefighters always take too long to arrive. In crises, the first neck in danger is that of the minister. The head of Spanish diplomacy knows well that the evacuation of Afghanistan cost his British and Dutch colleagues their jobs.

Monday 29. The W hotel rises like a sail of almost 100 meters in the port of Barcelona. The atmosphere created by the dim light seems more conducive to discreet romantic dates, but the Union For the Mediterranean (UPM) has chosen it as the venue for its ministerial forum. Irene, Albares’s advisor, worries that alcohol bottles will be hastily removed from Arab guest rooms. The day before, the ministers of Morocco and Algeria excused their absence. They must attend the summit between the African Union and China in Senegal. Whether that is the real motive or a pretext, counterprogramming Beijing is a lost cause. Even so, the organization claims to have broken the attendance record, with 20 ministers.

Tuesday 30. From Barcelona, ​​Albares travels to the NATO meeting in Riga (Latvia). It does not fly in the damaged Falcon but in a much larger Airbus 310, but no less ancient: 40 years on its wings. The head of Spanish diplomacy takes his counterparts from Portugal, Bulgaria, Romania, Montenegro, Slovenia, Croatia and Albania, the latter the only woman. The VIP room, a cabin with two tables arranged as in the Renfe wagons, is the scene of an unusual summit with more than a quarter of NATO Foreign Affairs officials, who appreciate the free transfer. Without this Spanish courtesy, the Barcelona appointment would have been much less crowded. The foreign ministers discuss the quality of their respective wines and exchange news and rumors about their future German colleague, the green Annalena Baerbock, whom they will soon have to deal with. For a moment it would seem that this Iberian-Balkan group could serve as a Mediterranean counterweight to the lobbies from northern and eastern Europe, but neither Montenegro nor Albania are part of the EU. For now, it is only the beginning of a good friendship.

Summit of Iberian-Balkan Foreign Ministers in the VIP room of the A310 of the Spanish Air Force.
Summit of Iberian-Balkan Foreign Ministers in the VIP room of the A310 of the Spanish Air Force. MAUC

Wednesday December 1st. The thermometer reads -5 degrees at the Adazi base, 25 kilometers from Riga and 120 from the Russian border. On Tuesday the first big snow fell. The 346 Spanish soldiers from NATO’s EPF (Reinforced Advanced Presence) mission form in the open and the minister thanks them for their work in an improvised address that concludes with a resounding “Long live Spain!” Later, under cover, he greets many of them, from the Extremadura Brigade, and tells them that “their president”, the socialist Fernández Vara, has announced the inauguration of a new bridge over the Guadiana. “He is thinking of putting ‘April 25’ in it, to attract the Portuguese,” he adds as a confidence.

Thursday 2. Air Baltic flight BT109 transfers ten NATO ministers from Riga to Stockholm, Sweden. The wait to disembark takes forever. Several bodyguards carry weapons in their luggage and the Swedish authorities are holding delegations until they decide what to do with them. The Arlanda complex, where the OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) meets, has collapsed: kilometer-long traffic jams can be seen everywhere and sirens can be heard wailing. Albares’s agenda is full of appointments in the last 48 hours: for the first time he has met with the British Liz Truss, a folksy woman far removed from the prototype of a conservative politician, with whom he addresses Gibraltar’s future relationship with the EU, just 15 days from the end of the period initially set to reach an agreement. Or Sergei Lavrov, a kindly old fox who has led Moscow’s diplomacy with an iron fist for 17 years, to whom he raises his concern about the landing of Wagner’s Russian mercenaries in Mali. “It is a private company. The Russian government has nothing to do with it ”, he answers, washing his hands. With American Antony Blinken – “call me Tony,” he said when they met – he chatted informally about Silicon Valley in the run-up to the meeting. The minister still does not have an appointment to go to Washington, but he assures that he is not in a hurry. “I will go when the trip has content,” he alleges. One of the most relevant conversations is held with a counterpart who is thousands of kilometers away: the Israeli Yair Lapid. In a corridor Albares is seen glued to his mobile. “His case is very important for Spanish public opinion. No one here believes that she is a terrorist ”, he warns her. On the 7th, a commission must decide whether to grant conditional release to aid worker Juana Ruiz, sentenced to 13 months in prison.

Albares with the new head of the Foreign Office, Liz Truss.
Albares with the new head of the Foreign Office, Liz Truss.MAUC

Friday 3. “I want to get along well with your country but, above that, I want to get along with mine.” The phrase was said by Albares, in one of his first telephone conversations (they have not yet met in person), to his Moroccan colleague, Naser Burita, according to one of his collaborators. He repeated to the ambassadors that maintaining friendly relations with their foreign hosts is not an end in itself, but a means to defend the interests of the Spanish. Back in Madrid, he participates in the Council of Ministers. But the capital of Spain is just one stop on a tour that never ends. A few hours later he is flying to Rome. The office of the head of Spanish diplomacy has wings.


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