EU presidency no help to image of Spanish Prime Minister


Recent weeks could be deemed as the most difficult for the Spanish Prime Minister since he began his second term nearly two years ago. With internal public support waning as the economic recession deepens and the Spanish EU presidency withering, the socialist premier is in an unprecedented time of crisis.
On 20 January, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero appeared confident and at ease at his debut presentation at the European Parliament. With a broad social pact to boost the economic growth and an enthusiastic call for the electric car, his speech was well-received by his European peers. Further, Commission president José Manuel Barroso strongly endorsed his policy guidelines.

Back in Spain, the knives seemed to remain sheathed. The ruling opposition party, PP, following the agreement on the Spanish EU rotating presidency signed with the governing party PSOE, did not criticise the main points of the Spanish premier´s six-month agenda.

But Davos became a turning point for what Spanish and international deemed as unprecedented crisis for Zapatero.

“The World Economic Forum (WEF) has come to show that when it comes to institutional communication, the Spanish EU´s rotating presidency is still very green,” a Spanish journalist based in Brussels said.

In these kinds of summits, special guests, among them the Spanish prime minister at the helm of the EU, are typically treated in an extremely distinguished manner. So, picture this if you will: Zapatero seated during a panel discussion between the Latvian President and the Greek Prime Minister, (the weakest European players at the moment) and the Central Bank President, Jean-Claude Trichet. image

Some Spanish voices, like the centre-right newspaper El Mundo, seized the opportunity to portray Zapatero as one of three failing students called upon to explain himself to the headmaster. The Spanish EU presidency should have presented Zapatero in a more attractive way.

Troubled time at home

At his return from the Swiss resort, Zapatero announced an increase in the retirement age from 65 to 67. This new measure prompted strong opposition among the public, counterparts in Zapatero’s own socialist party and the Spanish trade unions. The latter group planned demonstrations for the last week of February against this proposal.

So far the Spanish government has avoided clashes with trade unionists, so reforms of the rigid Spanish labour market have not taken place. Despite recent polls situating Zapatero for the first time beneath Mariano Rajoy, the leader of PP, it is time for the Spanish Prime Minister to present a reshape of pensions and labour law. It may not be an instantly popular move, but well explained, it would be understood in the long term.

Mistrust in Europe

After a week of downward trends in the Spanish stock market and remarks made by Spain’s outgoing commissioner for economic affairs, Joaquín Almunia, who compared Spain to Greece, a great consternation has spread around Europe.

Therefore the Spanish government has begun a crusade in London to clean Spain’s image and rekindle investments in Spain.

Confronted with this scenario there is no wonder that several European voices were raised arguing Zapatero might not be in the best position to set binding economic goals and call for corrective measures in those countries not compelling them. But let’s not be too unfair.

By the same token, would the United Kingdom’s premier be more entitled than Zapatero to talk about financial services when practically the whole of its banking system has been nationalised? Not to mention the fact that the Spanish entity Santander is fast to become the leading bank in the UK.

Since the ideological and methodological fundamentals of European policy are designed by the European Commission, let Zapatero be judged on his role at the helm of the EU and not just on his performance as the prime minister of a country in economic disarray.

Bad time to hold a rotatory presidency

The implementation of the Lisbon Treaty, the decision of President Barack Obama not to travel to Spain for a summit with EU heads of state pencilled for May has created a juncture where “one positive economic figure is followed by two or three negatives ones,” according to a high-profile member of the European Commission. Everything seems to have come together in an unfortunate way for Zapatero, as if to test the success of the six-month rotating presidency.

Another deciding factor in Zapatero´s role in the European arena are the UK general elections next spring. The British Conservative Party leader, David Cameron, will not make it any easier for the Spanish premier if, as it is likely to be, he becomes the next British Prime Minister. Zapatero is aware that some of the policies toward an integrated Europe, such as the European External Action Service (EEAS), the European citizen´s initiative or the reform of the financial supervision, should be in place before Cameron takes office.

At the end of the day….is it really worth it?

The so far non-outstanding EU rotating presidency with only but a few minutes of glory for Spanish Prime Minister Zapatero may no longer compensate the risk of a crash, both at an internal and at an European level.

The Spanish government is conscious that its EU presidency won’t bring any benefits to Zapatero’s popularity on the national sphere. The semester has just begun and the Spanish public seems only to receive an echo of criticism from the international and home media.

According to a poll published by the Spanish left-wing daily El País , 77 percent of Spaniards call themselves sceptical about the benefits of Spain’s EU presidency.

If this lack of sparkle repeats itself and future EU rotating presidencies go unnoticed, it may not take too long for European members to dispel them.