DEFENSE

Ahead of Joe Biden’s arrival in the White House, Spain allows extension of US military deal

Treaty regulating American troop presence in Rota and Morón expires in May, and Madrid hopes that the review will give it an edge on trade issues

The US naval base in Rota (Cádiz).
The US naval base in Rota (Cádiz).ROMÁN RÍOS / EFE

The Spanish government will allow a one-year extension to a bilateral defense agreement with the United States that expires on May 21, in order to let the incoming US administration get organized and define its political guidelines.

The expiring agreement will need to be revised next year to accommodate new demands for an increased US presence at the Rota military base in southern Spain. This review could provide the Spanish government with additional clout in its effort to improve its position in bilateral trade relations, which have suffered under the Trump administration.

In 2011, Washington secured an eight-year extension to the Agreement on Defense Cooperation in order to ensure stability for the deployment of four Arleigh Burke-class destroyers, 1,200 troops and 100 civilians at the Rota naval base in Cádiz province. There is another base in Morón de la Frontera, in Seville province.

The US Defense Department has also asked Spain for permission to send two more ships and 600 sailors to Rota. This, however, requires a modification of the bilateral agreement, which Spain views as an international treaty that requires parliamentary approval.

Although the conditions of the 2011 eight-year extension were negotiated with then-Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero of the Socialist Party (PSOE), the reform of the treaty that provided a framework for the agreement went into effect in May 2013, under Zapatero’s successor, Mariano Rajoy of the Popular Party (PP). The eight-year term has extended into the current administration of Pedro Sánchez of the PSOE, who heads a coalition government with junior partner Unidas Podemos.

The Agreement on Defense Cooperation includes a final provision stating that if neither party gives the other a six-month notice of its intent to the contrary, the deal will automatically be extended for periods of one year.

More time for Biden

By allowing the one-year term to take effect, the Spanish government is giving additional time to US President-Elect Joe Biden, who will be sworn into office on January 20 and will need to build his teams. Considering that Donald Trump has just sacked his defense secretary, Mark Esper, Madrid feels that there is not enough time for both countries to renegotiate a new defense deal by May 21.

Without the extension, the agreement conditions would have triggered a year-long period for the US to withdraw its personnel and removable property from Spain, which would have a significant economic impact on the local economies near both bases.

Although political relations between Trump and Sánchez have been cool – Sánchez has not once been asked to the White House in the two years that he has held office – military relations have not deteriorated.

The deployment of four destroyers to Rota was originally described as a contribution to NATO’s missile shield, but the ships have since been used for other purposes, including a missile attack against a Syrian regime base in 2017 in retaliation for the use of chemical weapons.

The Spanish government has authorized the Pentagon’s request to replace its four destroyers in Rota with more modern ones. The first one, the USS Roosevelt, arrived in May 2019 and three more are expected to be delivered between now and 2022.

In September of last year, The Washington Post named Rota as a candidate to house the headquarters of USAFRICOM, the United States Africa Command, which handles military operations and relations with African countries, if it was taken out of Stuttgart, Germany. But the Pentagon has never brought this up with Spanish defense officials, said sources at the ministry.

Trade relations

The Spanish government is aware that Washington is interested in the military and security aspects of the agreement, and the need to revise it in 2021 could come at a good moment for Spain as it seeks to redefine the trade relationship. In any case, Spain is not expecting the new administration to eliminate Trump’s tariffs on Spanish products overnight, a negotiation that would fall to the European Commission in any case.

Diplomatic sources said that there is some leeway on a few issues, such as the sanctions imposed on Spanish entrepreneurs in connection with Title IV of the Helms-Burton Act, which allows the US secretary of state to deny entry to individuals who “traffic” in property that was confiscated from US nationals by the Cuban government from 1959 onwards.

Latin America policy, particularly with regard to Cuba and Venezuela, is one of the issues where Spain hopes to have a channel of communication open with the new US administration.

English version by Susana Urra.

More information