Spanish presidency of the Council
Spain will assume the Presidency of the Council of the European Union on 1 July 2023. This is the fifth time, the last in 2010.
The arrival of the new semester marks the change of the presidency of the Council, a role that, in turn, all member states are called upon to hold. The member states holding the presidency work closely together in groups of three, called ‘trios’; Spain will be joined by Belgium and Hungary. Taking the Council presidency means setting the agenda for ministerial discussions, facilitating negotiations, drafting compromise texts and scheduling key votes. Traditionally, these powers represent an opportunity for the incumbent country to influence the political debate.
There are, however, many uncertainties and difficulties facing Spain, both on the European and, most importantly, domestic fronts.
There is a complex national context and a high level of political tension. Regional and local elections were held on May 28. These elections saw the Partido Popular (PP), led by Alberto Núñez Feijóo, in first place throughout Spain, and on the other side the Socialist Party suffered heavy losses. Since 2019 there has been a government in Spain composed of two left-wing political forces: Sànchez’s Socialist Party (PSOE) and the left-wing Partido Popular (PODEMOS). Sànchez’s reaction after the defeat was to announce his resignation. He considered it necessary to clarify the Spanish people’s will on national politics. Declaring that the most democratic way to resolve these doubts is through voting: he, therefore, announced early elections for 23 July 2023.
The premier’s decision could be a political tactic to corner the Spaniards and regain support and a majority of votes in July. Many are frightened by a possible coalition between the Popular Party and Vox (Spanish right-wing party). This is a possible scenario given that the Popular Party, which the polls give as the winner, is unlikely to obtain an absolute majority.
This discourse is also valid for the opposite side. Indeed, even if Sanchez were to obtain a substantial amount of votes, he would have to ally with another party, the current coalition between PSOE and PODEMOS being deeply divided and in conflict. This instability was one of the causes that led to disappointing local election results for the left and strengthened the right.
Another possibility is a new alliance between PODEMOS and SUMAR. The latter is a very recently founded party led by Yolanda Dìaz, a woman very well-liked by Spanish citizens and now Minister of Labour in the Sànchez government. SUMAR would have to open a dialogue with PODEMOS to obtain sufficient votes, which the two parties have pledged to do.
If a government could not be formed quickly, there would be an immobilising political stalemate for the European presidency. Political activity in Brussels could be overshadowed by political turmoil in Madrid. Early elections, with all the internal issues of majorities and difficult coalitions, threaten to hamper Spain’s room for manoeuvre in the Council, and the expected mid-summer election campaign will not help the Brussels settlement. Madrid has declared that it will continue with the Council presidency as planned, without swapping shifts with Belgium, the country in charge of succeeding Spain. However, Sanchez asked to postpone the presidency’s commencement speech, in which he was supposed to present the priorities of the Spanish agenda and scheduled for 13 July, to September.
On a practical level, the government change will not affect the Spanish presidency. All preparatory work is complete and the agenda for the semester drawn up by a special committee is confirmed and closed; however, the elections could pose a problem for Spain’s positions and interests. PP and PSOE have, in fact, divergent positions on many issues. However, on other key issues, they agree that the presidency approach could be similar.
On the supranational front, Europe is facing important decisions, such as green and digital transactions. It is, in fact, a crucial semester for several dossiers under discussion, such as AI and data laws. These dossiers will have a huge impact on the digital decade.
The timing is also peculiar as we are close to the new European Parliament elections scheduled for 6-9 June 2024. This is followed by the consequent appointment of the new Commission. Spain will thus have the opportunity to shape the European Union architecture for years to come, influencing the agenda of the next Parliament and, more generally, impacting the next European cycle.
Already since mid-February, the Spanish government president has started his customary trips to European capitals to meet with his counterparts and explain Madrid’s priorities given the July Council presidency. Sanchez had been interested in understanding European heads of government’s positions on key issues. The official agenda, which will be published in July, is not yet known. However, the central points of the future presidency have been discussed numerous times by the Spanish government head and his ministers.
Among the key issues Sanchez spoke about, and which are a priority on the Spanish presidency agenda, is the pact on migration and asylum. The EU is deeply divided on the migration debate. Spain, Italy and Malta are cohesive, calling for the response to the phenomenon to focus on the external dimension. During his trip to Rome, Sanchez asked Prime Minister Meloni to join forces to strengthen the principle of solidarity for first-entry countries and reach a final agreement at the European level. A path already started on 9 June, when EU ministers reached an agreement on migration and asylum procedures by voting for a package of reforms to guarantee the principle of solidarity. Spain and Italy both voted in favour, but some countries abstained or opposed.
Another priority of the Spanish Presidency will be to create more trade relations between Europe and Latin America and the Caribbean. This will be done specifically with Mexico, Chile and Mercosur. Portuguese Prime Minister António Costa spoke of the importance of the Spanish presidency to promote relations with overseas partners and boost Atlantic trade. An EU-Latin America and Caribbean summit is scheduled to take place in Brussels on 17 and 18 July.
Spain’s objectives include the promotion of strategic industrial autonomy. According to the Iberian country, it is essential to progress towards increased European strategic autonomy and, consequently, to have more decision-making powers in key areas of economic, health, technology, defence and industrial development. The ultimate goal is to achieve solid European sovereignty, placing the Union in a prominent position among world powers for leadership in key technologies for the green and digital transition.
At the heart of the new presidency is energy. For the Spanish government, stabilising prices at a lower cost would be a way to develop European industry’s competitiveness and, at the same time, reduce energy dependence on Russia. The reform of the European electricity market will be one of the main priorities of Madrid’s six-month agenda and will also include the development of renewable energies and green companies.
The challenges that lie ahead for the next six months are urgent, so Spain is working on a presidency that will strengthen the Union to tackle major economic, energy and military crises and continue to promote institutional and legislative development.
Spain, with this presidency, has the opportunity to assert itself and prove its value and uniqueness at the European level, characteristics that it has already demonstrated to the nation with its good management of the pandemic and the implementation of excellent social policies. All that is needed is to commit to setting up a government quickly. It is also needed to take immediate action to make the most of the opportunity to preside over the Council in such a crucial six-month period, protecting the Council’s day-to-day activities from the electoral campaign and the change of government.