The Triple Message in Spain’s Recognition of Palestine

May 22, 2024
5 min read
Spain's recognition of Palestinian statehood has symbolic rather than legal value, yet it sends an important signal at the right time to the Palestinians, the "Global South", and its fellow EU member states.

In a bold move, Spain announced that on May 28 it will join Ireland and Norway in recognizing the State of Palestine. Spain’s move, which has been openly considered for a decade and comes after months of shuttle diplomacy and public statements, should not come as a surprise. While not expected to impact realities on the ground in the immediate future, the move constitutes an important signal to the Palestinians, critics in the “Global South”, and fellow EU member states. 

Whether the unilateral recognition of the state of Palestine is conducive to the resolution of the conflict is a subject of long-standing controversy. Sweden’s 2014 decision to recognize Palestine—so far the only country to do so while holding EU membership—prompted a discussion within the EU about whether this was a sign of de-Europeanization or a laudable attempt by the Swedes to break the impasse and keep the vision of a two-state solution alive. The Swedish government, led by Stefan Löfven at the time, justified the move as a step toward a two-state solution and a just and lasting peace in the Middle East. This approach prompted harsh criticism from Israeli authorities and moderate criticism from the United States. 

Today, similar arguments are made around recognition as a tool to help break the policy impasse. Critics have argued that recognition is a short-lived grand gesture that prematurely and unduly rewards and legitimizes the corrupt, unaccountable Palestinian Authority, thereby reducing its incentive to reform. At the same time, waiting until there is a mutually agreed two-state settlement to recognize Palestine effectively gives Israel a veto over international recognition of Palestinian statehood. Those in favor—including the Spanish government—argue that the signal recognition sends can help push the dynamic forward by irrevocably enshrining the international community’s commitment to the two-state solution in international law. It is a message of hope to the Palestinians: The two-state solution will stand codified as the only legitimate goal of any future political process to be implemented, however slowly and incrementally, once the fighting has ceased.

Recognizing Palestine before it reaches any sort of conclusive peace deal with Israel is a clear breaking of ranks in the European Union, despite the long-established EU policy consensus on the two-state solution as the ultimate goal. Globally, Madrid’s position is by no means exceptional. On the contrary, it reflects the position of the majority. The United States and Europe—except for the nine EU member states that have previously recognized Palestine—today stand internationally isolated in their resistance to formal Palestinian statehood.  As of May 2024, 143 of 193 UN member states recognize the State of Palestine. UN voting behavior provides further indisputable metrics for the North-South divide on the Palestinian dossier. An October 27, 2023 UN General Assembly vote saw an overwhelming majority of 120 countries favor an immediate truce and adherence to international humanitarian law, but most Western countries opposed or abstained from the resolution. In April 2024, a UN Security Council vote to issue a recommendation supporting Palestine’s membership bid was vetoed by Washington.

The split at the UN reflects the global split on the interpretation of events following October 7.  The United States’ and Europe’s moral shipwreck and lack of decisive action to end the carnage in Gaza after over 35,000 Palestinian deaths has driven a deep wedge between Western allies and the rest of the world. Spain’s move will not undo the damage but could send a message to Arab societies and other parts of the world that stand in solidarity with Gaza as implicitly acknowledging Western negligence. Intended or not, it is a small, symbolic step toward making amends with the non-Western global majority—the need for which many other Western governments have yet to fully grasp.

Finally, Spain’s recognition of the State of Palestine is significant in the larger context of recent European foreign policy. The past two or three years have seen  some of the best and some of the worst of EU foreign policy, ranging from powerful, unified action on Ukraine to public bickering and unprincipled paralysis on Gaza. Increasingly, however, rising challenges are leading European governments to let policies be guided by fear. Nowhere has this been as true as on the Israeli-Palestinian dossier, where EU countries’ vested interests and lack of leadership have kept member states from using the levers at their disposal. As a result, EU policy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been trapped in a dysfunctional stalemate for over a decade. By stepping forward, Spain shows courage and leadership in a global electoral year—a crucial threshold moment that will set the course for the world order and the EU’s place in it. Spanish public opinion helps, of course—in a March 2024 Elcano poll, 78 percent of Spaniards across the political spectrum were in favor of a speedy recognition of Palestine. Even if Spain fails to fulfil its apparent goal of leveling the playing field and making the international communities’ commitment to the two-state-solution irreversible, it remains an example of entrepreneurial leadership that will also affect the way Spain is perceived in the EU. During an ongoing humanitarian and international security crisis, Madrid stops hiding behind the ranks of EU institutions and member states and steps forward at some risk, exposing itself to criticism from its allies—including Germany and the United States. It is the kind of courageous, principled leadership Europe will need more of if it is to maintain its relevance, integrity, and security in the volatile international reality that is already upon us. 

The views expressed herein are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy positions of GMF.