Jorge Urbiola: 'To be prepared for international events is to be prepared for the future that lies immediately ahead'

IE Focus

25 July 2012

Diplomat Jorge Urbiola is currently serving in the Spanish Embassy in the Ukraine. Here he shares his vision of the role diplomats play in international relations and foreign policy decisionmaking processes. Urbiola holds a PhD in International Public Law and has held key positions in Spain’s diplomatic service, including that of Personal Aide to the Spanish Prime Minister of the time, José María Aznar, Counselor in the Spanish Embassy in Serbia, Deputy Head of Mission in Mozambique, Deputy Head of Mission in the Ukraine, and Deputy Director of the International Law Department at Spain’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. 

When and why did you decide to join the diplomatic corps?

I have wanted to join the diplomatic service from as far back as I can remember. When I was nine years old my parents sent me to study English in Ireland, and ever since then the summers were the time of year when I travelled abroad to learn languages and discover new countries, new cultures, and new people. That’s how I got to know Ireland, France, Canada, and the US. At seventeen I began to learn German, and in the summer of 1989 I signed up for a summer course at Humboldt University in East Berlin. That’s 1989 in East Berlin! It was just a few months before the wall came down, an amazing experience.  I spent the following few summers working in a German multinational in Frankfurt and that’s how, little by little, I developed a vocation for all things foreign, so that when I finished my law degree I knew the direction I wanted my career to take.

What role do diplomats play in international relations?

A very different role to the one they did a century ago, due largely to advances in the field of communications. Before technology brought us communication in real time, diplomats had a far greater scope to act in the countries in which they were accredited, given that they were simply not able to consult the capital for many decisions. Today we have technologies like videoconference calls among heads of state and governments, or among ministers of foreign affairs, while TV channels broadcast news 24/7, often providing information even before diplomatic representatives do. All this has led to a shift of the center of gravity in terms of decisionmaking from embassies to ministries.

But this does not mean that diplomats now have a less important role to play, just that it is different from before. If a diplomat is good at his or her job, their minister or secretary of state will continue to rely on their support and expect them to supply criteria on which to base multiple decisions, rather than depend solely on information obtained from the media. Many major foreign policy decisions continue, in practice, to be taken by members of the diplomatic service. In short, a good diplomat still plays a crucial role in international relations.

What functions have you performed to date and which have you found to be the most rewarding? What was the most difficult time for you?

In chronological order my first position was that of Personal Aide to the Spanish Prime Minister of the time, José María Aznar, during the second legislature (2000-2004). For a young diplomat it  was magic. Obviously I had no influence over decisionmaking on a presidential level, but being the person who was closest to the Head of Government gave me a front row seat to Spanish politics at the highest level. My office was next to the Prime Minister’s, and I had to accompany him wherever he went, including foreign travel… as I said, it was a privilege.

My second post was that of Counselor in the Spanish Embassy in Belgrade, Serbia and Montenegro. What can I say about that time (2004-2007)? I have very happy memories of those years, life experiences, and above all friendships. The Balkans is one of the most exciting regions in the world, steeped in history, full of energy (not always well channeled, unfortunately), complete with a very interesting and surprising political scene that is not always easy to understand. They were exceptional years in both professional and personal terms. From a professional perspective, it was the secession of Kosovo that impacted me most. Following the air attacks by NATO in 1999, Serbia progressively lost its de facto sovereignty over the region. Although the rhetoric of the international community stressed that sovereignty was not in question, the reality was that secession would be a question of time. They were difficult times as a wave of violence was unleashed by the Albanian people against the Serbo-Kosovar population in 2004. It led me to choose Kosovo as the focus of my doctoral thesis, which I had just begun to write and which I would complete in 2011. I was living in Belgrade when, for example, Milosevic died, or during the separation of Serbia and Montenegro. In short, I owe a lot to that part of the world. I had the great fortune, moreover, of being there with one of Spain’s greatest ambassadors, Mallorca-born José Riera.

In Mozambique I served as Deputy Head of Mission between 2007 and 2009. It was a good professional experience, but more than that it was a life experience. Afterwards I came back to Madrid as Deputy Director of the International Law Department at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which is the advisory body in the field of International Public Law for the Spanish public administration. It was a highly specialized post and very rewarding for anyone who loves International Public Law, as I do. I specialized in Law of the Sea, which afforded me the experience of negotiating with our European partners in Brussels and representing the EU as Presidency in hard and very interesting negotiations in New York, at the General Assembly of the United Nations.

I am currently serving as Deputy Head of Mission at the Spanish Embassy in the Ukraine. It is still early days yet to sum up my experience here (I have been here for less than a year), but my memories will surely include Spain’s magnificent victory in the Euro 2012. No adjective can adequately describe the way they played...

Coming back to your question about which of my functions have been the most rewarding, I think they all have in their own way. Being useful to the Prime Minister of Spain is gratifying, but so is solving a consular emergency for a compatriot abroad, or negotiating environmental protection for the world’s oceans at the UN. The most difficult moment? Without doubt the burglary followed by the murder of a Spaniard in my consular jurisdiction. Dreadful.

At one stage in your career, you worked in the UN in the field of international negotiation. What did you learn from that?

I learnt a great deal. For example, the satisfaction I got from working in a team - a team made up of no fewer than 27 colleagues representing the EU member countries. I had the good fortune to undertake two presidencies of the EU, that of Spain and that of Hungary, at Hungary’s request, given that it had no Law of the Sea specialist of its own. Speaking on behalf of the EU on a global forum like the UN gives one an awareness of what it means to be a European and just how privileged we are.

The controversy over Gibraltar, does it justify a diplomatic crisis between Spain and the UK?

Spain and the UK currently enjoy close relations in many fields in their capacity as two solid democracies and European partners. In the vast majority of cases these relations are very positive, but it’s true that Gibraltar is a controversial point. My personal opinion is that we have to adopt a very firm stance in defending our position while not letting it affect the other areas that work so well. I am convinced that it is perfectly possible to stand firm in said defense without harming other aspects of this bilateral relation. In other words, we have to be firm and use all possible political and legal means to counteract the current moves the British are making to extend their sovereignty to the adjacent sea. I see no reason why the firm stance Spain is required to take in order to resolve this controversy should cause a diplomatic crisis between our country and the UK.

What advice would you give to a young person who wants to pursue a career in the diplomatic corps / international relations?

He or she should work on their language skills, either through courses in Spain or abroad, if possible, or by watching television programs and films from other countries (a privilege that was simply not possible when I was young). They should also read the international sections of the Spanish press, and magazines with a special focus on international politics, law or economy. In short, they need to be interested in what is happening in the world. Today, the classic state borders are increasingly blurred, and many of the events taking place on the other side of the world could have an immediate impact on our daily lives… To be prepared for international events is to be prepared for the future that lies immediately ahead.

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