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Spain and NATO

Did you know that it was a Spaniard who guided NATO through its first major peacekeeping operation? Find out what actually triggered Spain to join NATO in 1982 and why its accession was so important for the Alliance. Read about Spain’s early years as the 16th member of the Alliance.

Spain will be a loyal and active member of the Alliance and will contribute to it with all the drive of a people which has just recovered its freedoms and wishes to preserve them in the peace and justice of the international community.

Leopoldo Calvo-Sotelo, President of the Spanish Government,
speaking at the opening ceremony of the NATO meeting in Bonn, 10 June 1982


Strategically positioned between the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean, Spain joined NATO in May 1982. Its accession occurred during a period of international unrest: an accelerated arms race between the two super-powers – the United States and the Soviet Union – the outbreak of the Falklands War, the rise of Solidarność in Poland and repeated acts of terrorism across Europe.

Becoming the 16th member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization was, with hindsight, a natural continuation of Spain's foreign policy and a mark of its vital geostrategic location for Western European defence. Its role within NATO grew exponentially as the Berlin Wall fell and new members from the other side of the Iron Curtain joined the Organization. Spain took on a full role within NATO while the Cold War came to an end. Soon a compatriot would be taking the helm of the Organization, guiding NATO through its first major peacekeeping operation and the ongoing transition from a Cold War organisation to a fully flexible security organisation engaged with new partners and prepared for new threats and challenges.


In 1982, Spain was already part of the international community through its membership of the United Nations (1955), the World Bank (1958), the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (1961) and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (1973). From 1975 onwards, the country sought to open up to Euro-Atlantic affairs and play a greater role in European diplomacy. It also started to introduce reforms that profoundly modernised Spanish society. A speedy transition to democracy was set in motion while, in parallel, Spain became increasingly open to the international community. It entered the Council of Europe in 1977, joined NATO in 1982 and the European Economic Community shortly afterwards (1986).

Test yourself on these milestones!

November 1975: Juan Carlos I becomes King and Head of State.
December 1978: adoption of a new Constitution.
15 June 1980: Foreign Minister Marcelino Oreja explains the need for NATO membership.
18 February 1981: Prime Minister designate Leopoldo Calvo-Sotelo commits himself to making Spain NATO's 16th member.
29 October 1981: Las Cortes Generales (the Parliament) vote in favour of NATO membership.
29 May 1982: the Instrument of Accession is signed by Spain's Head of State, HM King Juan Carlos I.
30 May 1982: Spain formally accedes to NATO.

(Spain) has made this choice in her desire to take a new step, parting from the period during which she was kept apart from the political and defence institutions of the European and Atlantic Community…

Foreign Minister José Pedro Pérez-Llorca

One of the fathers of the 1978 constitution, Foreign Minister José Pedro Pérez-Llorca explains the reasons behind Spain's accession to NATO: "From her advanced position in Europe (…), Spain is linked to the Western community by history, tied by old but growing family bonds with the peoples of Latin America, and projected into close friendship with the Mediterranean, Arab and African countries. She wishes to deepen the relations between all the people of the world, and has made this choice in her desire to take a new step, parting from the period during which she was kept apart from the political and defence institutions of the European and Atlantic Community, whose values, culture and way of life she helped to shape in a decisive way." (Speech to the North Atlantic Council, 10 December 1981).

Spain was indeed a strategic link with the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, and with Latin America, North Africa and the Middle East. Spain was also committed to the principles and values of the Washington Treaty. It was a natural candidate for NATO membership and NATO was a natural continuation of its foreign policy.

Once it had deposited its Instrument of Accession, Spain acceded to NATO on 30 May 1982. In the video below, Spain is welcomed into the NATO family by the 15 other member states during a gathering in Bonn, Germany, 10 days after its accession.


Spain hosted World Cup In June 1982, just two weeks after its accession to NATO, Spain hosted the World Cup.

Joining NATO made Spain part of a collective defence alliance and integrated the country more closely into Western European institutions. Membership of NATO would soon be followed by membership of the European Economic Community. Moreover, being part of the Alliance enabled greater cooperation between the Spanish armed forces and the militaries of the other Western Allies, creating synergies and opportunities to learn from each other.

For NATO, Spain’s geostrategic location at the crossroads of international maritime and communication routes between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean made the country a key military and economic asset for the North Atlantic area.


Perhaps the founding members of the Alliance had always considered Spain as a future member? The grounds had certainly been prepared earlier on. In 1953, Spain and the United States signed the first of their bilateral agreements called the Madrid Pacts. These set out the conditions under which the United States could use naval and air bases on Spanish territory. The bases hosting American air forces were in Zaragoza (Aragón), in Torrejón de Ardoz on the outskirts of Madrid and in Morón de la Frontera, near Sevilla in the south-west of Spain, where American forces are still present today. The Rota naval base near Cádiz was used to host American naval forces, which are also present today. This cooperation with United States eventually became part of Spain’s contribution to NATO once it had become a member.

A close ally during the Cold War

The Madrid Pacts authorised the creation of joint Spanish-American bases. In total there were three treaties: one on mutual defence aid, one on economic aid and the third was a so-called 'protective' treaty.

It was under the administration of Eisenhower, war hero and newly elected President of the United States that these treaties were signed (1953). During his tenure as NATO's first Supreme Allied Commander Europe (1950-1952), General Dwight Eisenhower, or 'Ike' as he was known, had requested that every single founding member of the Alliance boost its defence efforts: the Korean War had suddenly made the Soviet threat real. When he stepped down from his functions to run successfully for the American Presidency, he indirectly extended the military reach of the Alliance through these bilateral agreements with Spain. Spain became a strategic asset in the West's power struggle with the Soviet Union.

The Madrid Pacts did not comprise a security guarantee, but they brought Spain closer to NATO strategy and war planning. They were regularly renewed so, over time, Spanish air and naval forces became increasingly aligned with those of NATO. By the time it joined NATO, Spain's defence was as intertwined with NATO doctrine and strategy as any non-member's defence could be.

Through its cooperation with the United States since the early 1950s, Spain had already brought its military concepts and doctrine relatively close to those of the Alliance. Furthermore, in 1970 it introduced a defence procurement policy to strengthen its manufacturing capability and provide modern equipment for the armed forces. The armed forces for their part experienced a progressive and profound transformation, which ran hand in hand with the changes taking place in parallel across the entire country.

At the time of Spain’s accession, the sheer number of the country’s military forces would boost the conventional defence capability of NATO: 340,000 armed forces and 1 million reservists, together with 800 tanks, 200 combat aircraft and substantial naval forces. They would also reset the balance between European and American contributions to the Alliance. Spain’s contribution would boost NATO’s ability to fight a protracted war and protect vital sea lines of communication and transit; it would reinforce the Alliance’s presence in the Eastern Atlantic, the Western Mediterranean and the Southern Flank in general, while strengthening the protection of the entire Iberian Peninsula.


Since its accession to NATO, Spain had been participating in the political side of NATO, but not in the integrated military structure, as was the case for other NATO members. This meant inter alia that the armed forces stayed under national command, but could operate with other NATO forces in an emergency.

Spanish public opinion on NATO membership evolved over time. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union was not seen as an immediate threat and the waves of anti-nuclear protests that swept across Europe in the early 1980s fuelled an existing fear of nuclear accidents. In 1966, four US thermonuclear bombs were spilled over Spanish territory and into coastal waters; all four bombs were recovered, but the issue of nuclear weapons remained politically charged. In addition to the immediate practical danger, some people thought NATO accession could antagonise the Soviet Union and make Spain more vulnerable to nuclear attack. As a result, anti-NATO rallies were held in Madrid on 15 November 1981 calling for the dismantling of American bases. Opposition gained momentum in 1983 when peace associations in Spain coordinated their efforts and joined other European peace movements such as the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) in the march against the deployment of American medium-range Pershing II and cruise missiles in northern Europe. With this level of political engagement, public awareness of the Alliance was high in the country.

Felipe González’s Socialist party (Partido Socialista Obrero Español – PSOE – Spain’s Socialist Workers’ Party) won the general election in 1982, becoming the first Socialist government in the history of Spain. The PSOE had promised to address NATO membership, and it kept its promise. On 12 March 1986, a referendum on NATO membership was held, outlining the following conditions:

  • Non-integration into NATO’s military structure;
  • Non-deployment of nuclear weapons on Spanish soil;
  • Reduction of US military presence in Spain.

The referendum came out in support of continued NATO membership. A few months earlier, on 1 January 1986, Spain had become a member of the European Economic Community, at the same time as Portugal. Within three months, it had secured its position and status as a democratic power ready to contribute to stability and economic development within Europe. 


As an era of peace and détente gradually succeeded to decades of hostility between the two superpowers – the United States and the Soviet Union -  Spain reconsidered its position vis-à-vis NATO: in 1996, the Spanish Parliament endorsed the country’s participation in NATO’s integrated military command structure. This decision coincided with the nomination of Javier Solana as NATO’s first Spanish Secretary General (1995-1999). As NATO Secretary General and fellow citizen, Javier Solana took great pride in congratulating Spain on its decision in a statement made on 14 November 1996.


Francisco Javier Solana de Madariaga was NATO's first Spanish Secretary General (December 1995 - October 1999).

Within days of taking up his responsibilities, NATO deployed its first peacekeeping mission since the end of the Cold War – the NATO-led multinational Implementation Force (IFOR) in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Solana negotiated the foundations of NATO's new relationship with Russia and Ukraine, reinforced partnerships with other former Warsaw Pact member states and welcomed the first three Eastern European countries into the Alliance as fully-fledged members on 12 March 1999: the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland. A full agenda if there ever was one!

Catch a glimpse of Solana arriving at NATO Headquarters, Brussels, on 19 December 1995.

In July 1997, Madrid hosted a historic NATO summit (below, photo on the right) that marked the Alliance’s rapprochement with Russia and Ukraine. The summit celebrated, among other things, the signing of the NATO-Russia Founding Act on Mutual Relations, Cooperation and Security, which had taken place in Paris just a few weeks earlier in May (below, photo on the left). These agreements opened the way to a new era in which Spain would play a vital role.

A very special unit…

High-risk interventions, covert operations, freeing hostages and arresting dangerous individuals… these are just a few of the activities that make up an ordinary day for the GAR – Grupo de Acción Rápida or Rapid Reaction Group. Normally fighting the Basque terrorist group ETA back home, the GAR was deployed, for instance, to Kosovo in support of the NATO peacekeeping mission initiated under UN Security Council Resolution 1244 in 1999. This is just one instance where Spain’s expertise has served the collective effort of the Alliance to maintain peace.

The GAR is part of Spain’s Guardia Civil – a corps that depends both on the ministries of defence and internal affairs. The Guardia Civil was one of the first Spanish military forces to contribute to a NATO operation. It joined the NATO-led multinational Stabilisation Force (SFOR) in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where NATO was responsible for implementing the military aspects of the Dayton Peace Accord (1995-2004).

Spain joined NATO at a time of heightened international tension and fear of nuclear obliteration. Then came “the end of history” as described by Francis Fukuyama when the Cold War era that had defined international relations for nearly half a century imploded. While Spain continued to introduce internal reforms to shape itself into a modern, dynamic democracy, the Berlin Wall fell, and the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union were dissolved. Then as international power play was turned upside down and former adversaries became partners, Spain decided to participate in NATO’s integrated military structure, embracing the international security challenges that came its way, together with its fellow Allies. A feat indeed to peacefully bridge two eras at an international level, but also at a domestic level.

To discover how Spain contributes to the Alliance today, visit NATO on the map.