The EU journalist’s guide to the Spanish presidency


imageThe first six months of 2010 will show whether the affable and modern 49-year-old Spanish socialist and non-nationalist President José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero can hold his own in a wresting match with the serene and very religious 63-year-old Belgian conservative and nationalist Herman Van Rompuy within a new European architecture in which the chain of command seems quite obscure.

Although the presence of a fulltime president of the European Council will diminish the stature of the rotating Council of the European Union presidency, the Spanish EU’s chairmanship will certainly set precedents when it comes to the Lisbon Treaty implementation.

The priorities for the Spanish EU chairmanship, rather than trying to set up too many undefined goals, should initially focus on the specific task of bringing into operation the new EU political architecture and fostering a new political system. The kickoff of the Lisbon Treaty will be a challenging objective in light of the period of institutional instability the EU has just left behind. If the Spanish presidency manages to do that, it will have already taken a big step forward.

Peers, not rivals

A main uncertainty about the Lisbon Treaty is how the six-month rotating presidencies, in this case the Spanish one, will work alongside the permanent president of the European Council.

The EU has an undefined hierarchy, which will only lead to domain confrontations. Therefore the Spanish transition presidency will have to face the challenge of setting up the terms for how successive countries manage the relationship between national leaders and the permanent EU president.

Some skeptical voices suggest plenty of hustle will be needed to determine the role and relation between Zapatero and the Belgian Van Rompuy. Could they be wrong?

The new EU president, Herman Van Rompuy, is not the celebrity politician many would have wanted. In fact, his nomination has been seen as a reflection of limited EU ambitions. Prime Minister of Belgium by coincidence, Van Rompuy, aimage master used to making consensus, will not have a personal or a political interest in having President Zapatero as a rival. The Spanish president himself is known for his open-mindedness, fairness and tolerance.  President Zapatero is aware political ideology does not play a crucial role at a European level, (he was one of the first European leaders to support Barroso´s candidacy to chair the European Commission). Hence Zapatero’s belief in European integration will prevail over his political manner of thinking, as a Spanish correspondent in Brussels has commented. For all these reasons, these political figures should fit together well.

Economic challenges: national and EU interest to clash?

Another challenge for the Spanish presidency will be to fight the financial and economic crisis. Recovering from the crisis and the creation of jobs remains at the top of the Spanish agenda.

Recently published figures reveal the cost of the Spanish EU presidency will be around 55m euro, a third of what was spent on the French chairmanship. Certainly good news for the Spanish public.
Spain had one of the fastest-growing economies of the past few years, which made the impact of the economic crisis much more significant than in any other country in the EU. The latest official figures reveal that Spain’s unemployment rate has reached 19.3 percent, which translates into 3.9 million people in between work. This is second only to Latvia, where unemployment stands at 20.9 percent. However, taking into consideration Latvia’s population of about 2.3 million inhabitants, Spain is by far the European country with the highest amount of unemployed people. These figures represent more than double the 9.2 percent rate for the EU as a whole.

Bearing that in mind, Zapatero will have to be able to act on an EU and a national level at the same time — without causing any distortion in the European sphere. In times of economic turmoil, European integration has been threatened by protectionism and nationalism. The principle of free movement of goods and workers was challenged a few months ago by British workers striking against Italian staff hired at the Lindey refinery. In Spain itself, the minister for industry, Miguel Sebastian, urged people last January to buy Spanish products to avoid the loss of some 120,000 jobs.

In addition, during the Spanish presidency the European Council will have to make a decision on the successor of the so-called Lisbon Strategy. Launched in 2000, it aimed at making the EU the most competitive economy in the world and achieving full employment by 2010. It can be now stated without any fear the Lisbon Strategy has not fulfilled its goals. For that reason the Spanish presidency’s efforts to foster and encourage a post-Lisbon agenda are essential.

President Zapatero will have to work toward the new EU 2020 deal expected to be adopted in March, 2010. This new strategy should trigger a full EU recovery from the current economic crisis and boost a smarter and greener economy based on innovation. The new agreement would probably be in tune with the new Spanish Sustainable Economy Law, one mainly pointed to the promotion of renewable energy, quality education, reform of the financial system, investment in research and development in both the public and private sectors.

Empowering the European citizenship, right to decide

EU institutions are still deemed very faraway entities.

Europeans citizens feel somehow alienated from the EU institutions. In addition, the EU has not had the ability to make itself appear clear and concise, which reinforces the lack of interest.

Among its benefits for citizens, the newly ratified Lisbon Treaty includes the application of the European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI). It will enable 1 million Europeans to come up with a legislative proposal to the Commission in any of the EU areas of responsibility. At the moment it is not possible to present the ECI on a legal basis, but the mechanism to make it function is already on its way. Within its efforts to bridge the gap between Europe and its citizenship, Spain should try its best for to implement this transnational tool of democracy to be passed on during its presidency.

It is about time EU institutions were under pressure toward a more motivated citizenry.

Trying to speak with a single voice

Development of a real external European policy is among the top priorities of the Spanish EU presidency. The Spanish agenda will have to give the Council president and the High Representative maximum visibility so that the EU can speak as one in the international scene. Europe’s credibility and efficiency will only come after it implements a strong and solid foreign affairs policy.

Having a president of the Council, representing the EU abroad; the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security, who stands for the EU as a real foreign minister; and the European External Action Service (EEAA), is likely to cause confusion not only in the public opinion but with international counterparts.

Focused on relations with Latin American countries and the first ever held EU-Morocco summit, the EU foreign policy lead by Spain will reflect its geographical location and its colonial past. Spain will not necessarily seek the interests of most European countries, which may lead into harsh critics from its compeers.

A chance to shine in Spain?

True, Zapatero might be elbowed out of the political scenario by the president of the Council. Nevertheless: has anyone wondered if he would mind? Spain has made clear it will not get in Van Rompuy’s way. What opinion would the public perceive if the first rotatory presidency under the Lisbon Treaty was to twist it?

On the other hand, Spanish public opinion should not be affected if Zapatero does not shine at a European level. According to a Spanish journalist, the Spanish government has already foreseen that its EU presidency wont necessarily benefit Zapatero in terms of neither winning nor losing popularity in the national domain. Spaniards are very pro European, per se.

Spanish colour after all

Spanish priorities have been described as ambitious, but also as unfocused. For those who know president Zapatero, that should not be surprising.

Zapateroimage, just like other Western leaders (Barack Obama in the US) has been able to master a discourse lavished with beautiful-sounding words that capture many of his listeners. But in the final analysis, he does not say as many things as he means, thanks to to his imprecise rhetoric. Let’s take as an example the so-called “alliance of civilizations” proposed by the Spanish president in 2004 to inspire international, intercultural and inter-religious cooperation between the Western and the Islamic world. Five years after its creation, this initiative, except for delivering a kind and harmonious speech about peace, it has not intervened to avoid the proliferation of nuclear weapons in Iran.

Having said that, there are a number of matters that will bring along a bit of color to the Spanish agenda. Although the Lisbon Treaty obliges Spain to chair its EU’s presidency, it will still have a bit of its national colour mainly because of the specific Spanish reality and its geographical priorities. With a new debate on social policy, including gender equality and the fight against domestic violence, and EU relations with Latin America and south of the Mediterranean Sea as some of its top priorities, the Spanish chairmanship should make an outstanding and different performance from the ones made by previous EU’s presidencies.

Despite the fact the Lisbon Treaty attempts to avoid blunt changes in the priorities, which has in the past resulted ina discontinuous political performance, the incoming Spanish EU presidency suggests the next six-month European agenda will follow the trend of bringing a national taste to the European arena.

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