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The Brief – Spain’s EU leadership on thin ice

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Holding the EU Council presidency has given Spain the perfect opportunity to shine and demonstrate its leadership – at least, that’s what Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez said. But today, that ambition looks grim.

Internal politics – including the ongoing amnesty extravaganza and the EU official languages bid – have somewhat dimmed Spain’s spotlight. 

Sánchez said in September that Spain is ready to leave the EU’s “periphery” and exercise a central leadership role in the bloc’s policymaking, implying his ambition to join the adults’ table with France and Germany.

A high-ranking Spanish official reiterated shortly after that EU countries welcome Spain’s leadership ambitions, with them “explicitly letting us know that they were very, very happy with Spain having this role”.

Truth is, Spain is doing a decent job at finding compromises – and that’s its task as the presidency holder. But, will the country be able to hold this influence when the Belgians take over in January? 

This is not quite clear.

According to Jean Monet Chair at the University of Barcelona, Ana Mar Fernandez Ballarin, while Spain is not able to “influence the agenda in relevant dossiers”, it can influence the outcome by acting as an “architect of compromise”. 

The Czechs, who had worked closely with the Spaniards during the presidency trio (Czechia, Sweden, Spain), seem to agree.

“Spain is undoubtedly one of the EU’s key players (…) it is an important player in achieving EU consensus,” Czechia’s Foreign Affairs Ministry told Euractiv. 

On the other hand, Spain’s internal political turmoil has not gone unnoticed among EU leaders. 

“I think that Spain is going through their own specific problems right now, after the elections that came earlier with the trials to set up their own government and so on. So it’s probably not the easiest time to have the presidency of the EU,” Belgian Deputy PM Petra De Sutter told Euractiv. 

But others in Brussels think it’s a systemic issue. In reality, EU diplomats are sceptical about Spain’s ability to be a powerful broker due to the country’s natural talent for bringing internal issues to the EU’s table. 

“I don’t really see it [Spain’s leadership], so far it hasn’t led to much applause from other member states (…) and I think the whole episode at the GAC [General Affairs Council] with the issue of recognition of Basque, Catalan and Galician illustrates that well”, an EU diplomat told Euractiv on condition of anonymity.

Spain imposed on the EU Council a last-minute vote to make Catalan, Basque, and Galician official languages of the bloc as part of the socialists’ efforts to gather support to form a government, a difficult pill to swallow that undermined Spain’s supposed ‘honest broker’ role as EU Council presidency holder, four diplomats told Euractiv. 

“You are abusing the role you have as president to arrange a domestic policy issue, a partisan domestic policy issue, and everybody here sees it for what it is and I don’t think that helps”, the first diplomat said. 

Most recently, following Sánchez’s negotiations with Catalan separatists on forming a government, the leading opposition party, the centre-right PP (EPP), demanded via MEP Dolors Montserrat that the Commission intervene to protect the rule of law in Spain. 

In the context of regional elections in May, Sánchez’s PSOE pushed the Commission to step in, to prevent a regional irrigation law from being approved.

And so on, and on, and on. ‘Europe will solve our problems’, seems to be the mantra among Spanish lawmakers.

On top of bringing up national issues, Spain’s EU leadership is also at risk due to the potential change in government. 

Even if Sánchez gets to become prime minister again, the Catalans won’t take long to come back knocking at the socialists’ door, asking for a self-determination referendum in exchange for continued support – something that PSOE cannot politically afford.

In short: the centre-right PP will get to power sooner or later, with Sánchez’s departure undermining Spain’s EU ambitions. 

“Traditionally Spain hasn’t been looking at Brussels (…). Since Sánchez took office, Spain has been raising its profile at the EU level” Berta López, a junior policy analyst at the European Policy Centre, told Euractiv. 

On top of that, centre-right leader Alberto Núñez Feijóo’s inability to speak English raises questions about his capability to negotiate with European counterparts.

There is still hope, though, as Spain has increased its profile with a proven track record of advancing the EU’s fiscal reforms, Green Deal, and the bloc’s ties to Latin-American countries. 

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The Roundup

Germany wants to boost the development of AI at a national and European levels, according to a new AI action plan presented by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research on Tuesday, which aims to push the EU to match the already dominant US and China.

The European Space Agency (ESA) launched a call this week for European companies to develop a re-entry cargo spaceship at a time Europe is unable to send satellites into orbit due to delays with European launchers.

Ukraine will be “an asset and not a burden” once it becomes a full member of the European Union, Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba told Euractiv ahead of an expected positive European Commission recommendation to open accession talks with Kyiv.

In a boost for the bloc’s floundering enlargement process, the European Commission recommended on Wednesday opening accession talks with Ukraine and Moldova – as well as potentially Bosnia, at a much later stage – once they finalise implementing key outstanding reforms.

The European Parliament is set to implement rules to improve physical and digital accessibility to its premises around the EU for people with disabilities, according to an internal document seen by Euractiv.

The European Commission wants to make the bloc “circular” on nutrients and curb nitrogen losses in agriculture, but a long-awaited strategy on the matter appears to hang in the balance as EU elections approach.

Skyrocketing fertiliser prices and the ongoing struggle to reduce dependence on Russia for these products have revived interest in the so-far neglected topic of how to increase the efficiency of fertiliser use.

As representatives of the European Parliament and EU countries negotiate the details of the Corporate Sustainability Due Diligence Directive (CSDDD) in Brussels, visiting Guatemalan human rights activist Bernardo Caal Xol has urged them to implement the directive, which would force European companies to behave more responsibly.

Google and the largest EU telecommunications operators called on the European Commission to designate Apple’s iMessage under the Digital Markets Act (DMA), which would oblige it to grant interoperability with other messaging services, in a letter seen by Euractiv.

EU policymakers should have the “courage and fair-mindedness” to pursue a sovereign cloud and regulate American cloud providers under the EU antitrust law on digital markets, Michel Paulin, CEO of the leading French provider OVHcloud, told Euractiv in an interview.

The European Commission’s strategy on AI initially had two strands: regulation and investment. However, according to Stefano da Empoli, president of the Institute for Competitiveness, the EU has been neglecting the industrial policy part due to a “lack of courage” from the member states.

While the AI Act has taken centre stage in the EU’s discussions around Artificial Intelligence, advanced generative AI models are transforming the sector, and the revolutionary technology has acquired a strategic dimension for the world’s superpowers.

Don’t miss this week’s Health Brief: The double discrimination faced by women with disabilities.

Look out for…

Commission President Ursula von der Leyen participates in the international humanitarian conference for Gaza’s civilian population in Paris Thursday.
Parliament President Roberta Metsola delivers the “State of Europe 2023” speech in Berlin Thursday.
Economic and Financial Affairs Council holds budget meeting in Brussels Friday.

Views are the author’s

[Edited by Alice Taylor/Zoran Radosavljevic]



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