Spain’s King Felipe VI Comes to Washington (9/16)     Print

michaelmosettigBy Michael D. Mosettig, former Foreign Editor of PBS’s The News Hour

The Wilson Center think tank in Washington often plays host to international heads of state and government. Less frequently does a center named for a U.S. president who entered a European war to "make the world safe for democracy" hear from a European monarch whose nation has struggled with that concept for nearly 100 years. But for Spain's King Felipe VI the visit and keynote speech at a security forum seemed smooth and effortless, a glimpse for Americans in the audience to see why his popularity ratings are at 81 percent 15 months after he took the throne following the abdication of his father amid some scandal.

The lanky, 46-year-old monarch, whose unaccented English was honed during his graduate studies at Georgetown University, stayed within the bounds of modern constitutional royal protocol with a speech that touched on themes and values without wading into specific policies. That included an homage to President Woodrow Wilson, whom he hailed as one of America's greatest leaders. But the king did take on the boiling European migration issue as one demanding humanity and respect for human rights. As one of the forum panelists noted earlier, Spain has absorbed five million immigrants, mostly from Morocco,  a proportion second only to the United States to its population of 47 million. And as that panelist noted, it also has sent millions of emigrants around Europe and the world, perhaps honing a sensibility to migrants absent in other nations where immigration has provoked the rise of anti-immigrant and racist political movements.

King Felipe said the worst of his country's severe recession is over while acknowledging unemployment is still unacceptably high. In a 12 minute talk, he emphasized Spain's ties to America and how he reminds audiences at home it is "an American nation."  Otherwise, he shied away from domestic issues such as separatist movements in his own country, especially in Catalonia where huge demonstrations seem to be pointing to a vote on possible independence. The king's first official U.S. visit opened with a White House meeting with President Obama and will conclude with a journey to St. Augustine, Florida, the first Spanish outpost on the American continent. During the photo op with the King on Tuesday, Mr. Obama used the occasion to assert that dealing with the Syrian civil war was key to getting at the migration issue.

And that was the theme of much of the Wilson Center forum discussion, co-hosted with the Spanish think tank Elcano, that preceded the king's keynote. As Bruce Riedel, a long time US official and analyst put it, the mass migration can be pinned to a half century of bad governance in much of the Arab and Muslim world, especially Syria, a state following a Stalinist model. The migrants and refugees have been stacking up in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan and initially had no desire to venture as far away form their homelands to Europe, said Anglo-Spanish academic Charles Powell. But their despair over civil wars and terrorism only deepened, and the floodgates have begun to burst.

Powell also took on a skeptical American questioner, asserting that the German decision to shut its borders represented a collapse of the Schengen open borders policies in continental Europe. Powell asserted that Schengen is not under serious threat, that a European leaders summit will work to ameliorate divisions, even as the EU appears to the outside world "to be disunited in adversity."

Much of the forum was preoccupied with the issue of what happens to migrants from the Middle East and elsewhere once they arrive and are settled in EU nations. The problem, insisted Spanish academic Fernando Reinares, is not with first generation arrivals but with second and third generations. Among many of that cohort, alienation sets in, exacerbated by joblessness.The allure of joining an "Islamic Nation" draws thousands of European youth to the jihad movement. "We have to do something to counter the negative influences of their identity crisis."

Michael Mosettig is a member of European Affairs Board of Advisors and a guest lecturer at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS)