Given the improved Portuguese–Spanish bilateral relationship over the past decade, many have wondered if such a Iberolux sort of union is now possible.
There is an ancient adage in Portugal: “de Espanha nem bom vento nem bom casamento.” Loosely translated into English, it means “neither good winds nor good weddings come from Spain.” The expression refers to both geography and history: the winds from Spain bring hot, dusty, muggy air to Portugal; and marriages between the crowns of Spain and Portugal have occasionally resulted in the loss of Portuguese independence. Even though the 20th-century Iberian dictators António de Oliveira Salazar of Portugal and Francisco Franco of Spain shared a corporatist ideology, they maintained a distant relationship for many years. These are references to the past, of course, and things have changed.
Since the revolutionary events of 25 April 1974, there have been many positive changes, including the lessening of the historical animosity between Portugal and Spain. It was simply astonishing back in 2009 to see the leaders of each country, José Luís Rodríguez Zapatero of Spain and Portuguese Prime Minister José Sócrates, jointly campaigning for Socialist Party candidates for the European Elections in both Coimbra, Portugal, and Valencia, Spain. Prior to that event, there had also been a close relationship between the conservative governments of Spanish José María Aznar and Portuguese José Manuel Durão Barroso (2002–2004). They famously met with American President Bush and British Prime Minister Blair in March of 2003 for a one-day emergency summit in the Azores in advance of the Iraq War. The current relationship between socialists Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez and Portuguese Prime Minister António Costa is also very strong; these leaders, along with Portuguese president Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa and King Felipe VI of Spain, met last year to reopen the border between the two countries that had been closed due to COVID-19. The improvement of the Spanish–Portuguese bi-lateral relationship since 25 April 1974 is simply astonishing.
In light of this new Iberian harmony, Rui Moreira, the mayor of Oporto, suggested in 2020 that a deeper relationship should now be explored between Portugal and Spain, similar to that which exists between Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg (the Benelux model). This “Iberolux” idea, suggested in the 2004 book by Paulo Rangel called “Uma Democracia Sustentável” (A Sustainable Democracy, Edições Tenacitas, 2010) envisions closer economic and political coordination between the two states. It is a certainly a noble idea; cooperation among nations is always better than conflict. Given the improved Portuguese–Spanish bilateral relationship over the past decade, many have wondered if such a Iberolux sort of union is now possible.
Let us briefly consider the question.
First, A Europa Connosco
Mário Soares was correct: joining Europe was an essential element of post-April 25 Portuguese foreign and economic policy. During the chaotic period following the Carnation Revolution of 25 April 1974, Soares strongly advocated for closer ties with the countries of Western Europe in order to break Portugal out of its isolation from Europe and as also as a means to develop the national economy.
Who can ever forget the remarkable “comboio da liberdade” (liberty train) voyage from Paris to Lisbon, which brought Soares back to Portugal from political exile in France? Soares was greeted by huge crowds at each train stop—at one stop, Soares wrote that the train conductor even waited for him to announce the time to depart.1 There was a great celebration in Lisbon when he arrived on 28 April 1974; Western Europe, in the person of Soares, had arrived in Portugal.
“A Europa Connosco” (Europe is with us) – the political slogan used by the Portuguese Socialist Party in the 1976 legislative elections – resonated with a plurality of the electorate. This European vision, much more than a specific political strategy, represented part of a new Portuguese existential identity, as Soares noted: “we are Europeans, we feel European and we want, we are Portuguese, that our country will finally make its voice heard and actively participate in the construction of Europe.”2 The European Union seemed to be the perfect solution to participate in the life of greater Europe as well as to replace the fascist-era lusotropicalism model.
The move to join Europe was perhaps the single most important step in bringing Portugal to modernity; Portugal today is almost unrecognizable from the days of the Estado Novo. Following a long process, Portugal finally joined the European Economic Community, now called the European Union (EU), in 1986. Membership provided significant financial support for a variety of needed projects: roads and other infrastructure have been modernized; educational curriculum has improved; and professional opportunities for the Portuguese have become global in scope. Portugal has undergone an amazing series of changes in a short time.
There are, of course, drawbacks to membership in the EU. Critics have pointed to a variety of problems, including the perceived preference of larger states over smaller ones in the decision-making process; that the EU brings more bureaucracy and less democracy to member states; and that the EU places unfair pressure towards austerity on smaller countries, including severe spending cuts to meet sometimes unrealistic budget deficit targets.
In spite of such difficulties, Portugal has managed to be an important player in the EU: it emerged in relatively good condition from the financial crisis of 2014; avoided political turmoil; and remains committed to European integration. Arguably, on balance, then, the experience of Portugal with the EU has been positive. Portugal is now a modern, European country.
Second, A Espanha Connosco?
Soares, of course, never called for “A Espanha Connosco” (Spain with us), except perhaps in the larger context of Portugal and Spain being equal member-states of Europe. The historical animosity between Portugal and Spain has certainly lessened in recent times, but history runs deep. It does not just go away.
Let us skip to the Battle of Alcácer Quibir of 1578 against the Moroccans and the Turks, which led to a pivotal historical moment in Iberian relations. Although his body was never found, it is believed that King Sebastian of Portugal died in the battle. Since Sebastian had no children, the throne passed to his elderly great-uncle Henry of Portugal. Two years later, in 1580, King Felipe II of Spain was crowned King Filipe I of Portugal. Some level of autonomy was maintained for Portugal under his reign, but this changed dramatically after 1598 under Filipe I: taxes were raised; there was a move to relegate Portugal to the status as a mere royal province; and Spain failed to prevent Dutch conquests of Portuguese colonial possessions. Portuguese nobility could not stand for any of this, so they restored Portuguese national independence under John IV of the House of Bragança in 1640, and then prevailed against Spain in several small battles against the Spanish crown.
If we fast-forward some four hundred years, to 25 April 1974, we will find a similar dynamic. As the song “Grândola, Vila Morena” played on the radio in the early hours of 25 April – which was the signal for the start of the military action against the Caetano regime – Major Otelo Saraiva de Carvalho, who was in charge of the military operation, ordered troops to move against the Caetano regime in Lisbon. Otelo also ordered troops to close the border with Spain in anticipation of a possible Franco-ordered Spanish invasion of Portugal to support the Caetano regime.
The fear of a Spanish invasion among Portuguese political and military leadership remained for centuries. Of course, a lot has changed since the democratic revolutions in Portugal and Spain in the 1970s. Both countries are now members of the EU, and both work cooperatively in a number of areas, including in the fight against forest fires and drug trafficking. They also work together to increase EU funding for each country.
But the Spanish–Portuguese relationship is not all cookies and cream. They continue to have significant disagreements, both old and new. The ancient dispute over ownership of the municipality of Olivença and the smaller town and municipality of Táliga, at the Spanish–Portuguese border, has been ongoing since 1815. More recently, Spain continues to dispute Portugal’s Exclusive Economic Zone in the territorial waters off of the Savage Islands (close to the Canary Islands).
Perhaps more significantly, Spain approved the Almaraz Nuclear Power Plant in 2017 without any studies on the cross-border impact with Portugal, in violation of EU rules. This nuclear plant uses the Tagus river to cool its reactors; does not possess a great safety record; may be located in a seismic risk area; and will keep nuclear storage.3 Portugal is deeply troubled by this and has taken its dispute to the EU. Perhaps it is time to add “resíduos nucleares perigosos podem vir da Espanha” (dangerous nuclear waste might come from Spain) to the old adage?
Before getting too caught up in dreams of a new utopia called Iberolux, there are plenty areas of on-going concern in the relationship.
Third, Some Questions on Autonomy and Unity
To varying degrees, many regions of Spain want some greater autonomy or even independence from Madrid. For instance, based on the results of the 2021 elections, independence parties in Catalonia enjoy a slight majority in the regional parliament. Without going into the specifics of each case, the widespread desire among many regions in Spain for more autonomy from Madrid does raise some serious questions about the Iberolux idea.
Namely, if a close relationship with Madrid is beneficial, why do so many regions in Spain seek to lessen or break that connection? That question brings up other sub-concerns, such as, Would the regions of Spain be included as equal members of Iberolux, and especially those seeking greater autonomy or independence from Madrid? Would an Iberolux Parliament be formed? If so, how would representation be allocated from around Iberia? What would its responsibilities be? How would power be shared?
In addition, following the Benelux model, Iberolux would probably feature a new set of bureaucratic institutions, such as a General Secretariat, an Interparliamentary Consultative Council, and an Iberolux Court of Justice. As such, Iberolux might feature quite a large bureaucracy, raising still more questions, such as, Where would the General Secretariat be located? Which essential functions are needed that are not already being provided? What would the costs be, and who would pay for them?
There are clearly many issues to consider.
Given the close nature of the Portuguese–Spanish bilateral relationship over the past few decades, maybe we are indeed at the precipice of a new Iberolux sort of union. At the same time, perhaps the very fact that Spain has to engage Portugal as a sovereign nation-state, and as a fellow member of the EU, is precisely why things are going so well. If so, a change to that relationship may not be necessary. In any event, it is safe to say that “de Espanha nem bom vento nem bom casamento” does not apply any more.
Of course, Portugal has many other foreign policy priorities to focus on these days. In its current role as president of the EU for the next six months, Portugal will seek to finalize and start to implement a new ground-breaking law on emissions-cutting targets for Europe.4 The government will also work on improving the transatlantic relationship with newly elected President Biden; enhancing relations among the community of Portuguese–speaking countries; tending to the global Portuguese diaspora; and ensuring the ongoing well-being of Timor Leste.
Iberolux may be a noble idea, but it will probably have to wait for now.
1 Mário Soares, Portugal, quelle révolution?: Entretiens avec Dominique Pouchin, Paris : Calmann-Lévy, 1976: 24.
2 Luís Naves, A vida de Soares, parte IV. A luta pela Europa, Observador, 07 January 2017.
3 NS Energy, Almaraz Nuclear Power Plant, Extremadura.
4 Kate Abnett, “EU’s landmark climate law to be finalised within months,” Reuters, 6 January 2021.