The Spanish Presidency of the European Council: a critical view

Less enthusiasm, more rhetoric and modest outcomes: a young member grows old.

, by Fernando Remiro Elía

The Spanish Presidency of the European Council: a critical view

Amid the economic turmoil, the constitutional changes brought by the Lisbon Treaty and a general feeling of scepticism and weariness, the end of the Spanish presidency gives us the chance to draw an overview of the state of Euro-politics. Two years ago, when Spain began the preparation of its fourth presidency, some may have expected a happy closing party, with the celebration in June of the 25th anniversary of the Spanish formal accession to the EU. But prose has beaten poetry (and it is becoming trendy) and reality has swept every possibility of self-indulgence. Despite some remarkable achievements, the main outcome of these six months is the acceptance of the well-known and increasing rhetoric-capability gap of the rotating Presidency of the Council.

This year the EU had for the first time a permanent (sort of) and elected (idem) President of the Council, and the Spanish crew, with senior diplomat Nicolás Martínez-Fresno at the wheel, had to deal with an unforeseeable situation. The year started with a joint article signed by Spanish Premier, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, and Herman Van Rompuy, in which they declared that one of the main purposes of the Presidency was the development of the Lisbon Treaty, especially in its political aspect. We could therefore think, in a bitterly paradoxical way, that the low public profile of the Spanish Presidency is indeed its greatest success, because it has given Mr. Van Rompuy and Mrs. Ashton the chance to build their room in the crowded first line of European politics. Maybe we are just in the beginning of the end of the rotating presidencies, or at least the end of the political and symbolic meaning which it used to have, as we will conclude afterwards.

So, with a humble budget of €55 millions (quite poor compared with the more than €100m of the hyperactive 2008 French Presidency or even with the €44m of the last Spanish Presidency eight years ago) and a well-prepared staff of 40 diplomats and experts, the Spanish Presidency has consequently accepted the modest role of hosting the 340 summits and working meetings of the busy calendar and, with quite low expectations, setting a part of the European agenda.

Economy. A substantial part of this agenda has been occupied by the anti-crisis measures, in the context of a deep debate about European economic governance, triggered by the Greek crisis and the worries over the sovereign debt and public deficits of Spain, Portugal, Ireland and Italy. The Spanish Presidency however, has not taken part in this process as much as the media tend to think. Reluctantly in the spotlight due to its own economic crisis, Spain has by no means been able to shape a coherent agenda on this subject, as it was incapable of doing it at home. As some commentators have stated, Spain, pressed by the UK, has even delayed the debate in the Council about an independent financial regulatory system. On the other hand, in the last weeks of its presidency, the Spanish Government achieved a surprising goal, when Mr. Zapatero announced the publication of the stress-tests over Spanish banks in order to dissipate the rumours about their situation, forcing the other European governments to do so.

Foreign Affairs. In this major subject also, the Spanish Presidency has lost part of the initiative. The creation of the External Action Service, the hot topic in foreign affairs, has been mainly a matter of the High Representative, as well as the definition of the common objectives (where Van Rompuy’s performance was far from being astonishing). The other important field, the organisation of International Summits, was damaged by the cancellation of the glamorous and expected USA-EU summit in Madrid and the important EuroMed summit (due to the last crisis with Israel), which was intended to strengthen the Union for the Mediterranean. Despite these frustrations, Spain has in fact succeeded in directing EU interests towards its own foreign policy horizons, especially with the Morocco-EU meeting, and the most important event of the Presidency, the Latin America-Caribbean-EU summit, in which Spain had invested a fifth of the budget. With this effort, Spain has stressed the strategic importance of the region for the EU, often neglected by some European countries. In a working paper of the Real Instituto Elcano, an important Spanish foreign affairs think tank, Carlos Malamud highlighted the outcomes of the summit (a Treaty of Association with Central America, the agreements with Peru and Colombia, the following of negotiations with MERCOSUR and the design of an Action Plan 2010-2010), in spite of the deep commercial disagreements and the impossibility of launching a Strategic Alliance with the region as a whole, quite a disappointment as one of the main objectives of the EU is the promotion of regionalism in other parts of the World.

Other topics. Finally, the Spanish Presidency has set an original part of the agenda in this chapter, taking the first steps for a European Law against gender-based violence, one of the distinctive traits of Mr. Zapatero’s Government. In addition to many other sectorial measures, it has also led the European Parliament debate on the European Citizens’ Initiative, where Spanish MEPs have been especially active, despite the general lack of ambition of the political establishment.

If this silent work has been in general efficient and realistic (working together with the Trio), the Spanish Government has failed in fitting its rhetoric to its capability. Sticking to the traditional but misleading belief in the miraculous internal effects of the rotating Presidency, Mr. Zapatero and his Socialist Party inflated the public discourse, as every government has done during the other three presidencies (1989, 1995, 2002), and wasted another chance of making the EU more comprehensible for its citizens. A rhetorical effort which has not been able to compensate the dramatic absence of real political debate in the shaping of the agenda for the Presidency, neglected by the main political parties and misunderstood by the public opinion, as shown in the second-order debate held in the Spanish Parliament two weeks ago on the outcomes of the Presidency (for the alleged democratic deficit of the EU is firstly a national democratic deficit of its members).

With these dull prospects and the constitutional mess after the Lisbon Treaty, what is the future of the rotating presidencies of the Council? In a meeting hold by the CEHRI (Spanish Commission of History of International Relations) in the Universidad Complutense, a group of Spanish scholars debated the co-existence of the permanent and the rotating presidency. Even if they accepted the traditional low profile of the latter, they agreed that it is an element of socialisation of the EU in the country that holds it. Everyone may imagine the importance of the impending Hungarian presidency (2011), when a new Eastern member will be able to shape the EU agenda and break the feeling of a too much West-leaning EU. It is in fact a complementary (but just so) way of narrowing the gap between European citizens and the EU, because during those six months a piece of the governance system of the EU becomes more accountable for some of its citizens (if national democracies work).

The economic crisis, the weariness after the long constitutional process, the frustration about its outcomes and the vertigo of the Enlargement have reshaped this light but enthusiastic Spanish Europeanism.

In this process of socialisation, the example of Spain, where the three past presidencies reinforced the traditional (albeit epidemic) Europeanism of the people, is eloquent. If in these 25 years of membership this feeling has worked, the Presidency that ends now has broken the trend, at least in a symbolic way. The economic crisis, the weariness after the long constitutional process, the frustration about its outcomes and the vertigo of the Enlargement have reshaped this light but enthusiastic Spanish Europeanism. Maybe it is just a transitional effect of a tired government and a battered economy, but this Presidency has given some worrying clues which must be scrutinised in the future.

Image: Flags of Spain and Europe. Flags of Spain (red and yellow) and Europe (blue with 12 stars) in the Plaza de la Villa (Town Square) de Madrid (Spain), to commemorate the Spanish presidency of the European Union in the first half of 2010. Source: Flickr

Your comments

  • On 14 July 2010 at 11:36, by Convicted European Replying to: The Spanish Presidency of the European Council: a critical view

    Gracias por este articulo;-)

    You have brought up many interesting points but the most relevant to me is the question of using the rotating presidency to connect the citizens of the member states holding it better to the EU and not just do a socialisation for the political classes of the country (which will be important especially for thos member states playing this role for the first time) but for the broader public. However, this element is rarely achieved as both politicians and the media tend to look at things from their national perspective: what did we get out of it, how does it affect us etc and rarely manage a global view or at least a true European perspective of things and explain to the citizens that some things might not be good for one or the other individual member state but is important and beneficial to the EU as a whole.

  • On 15 July 2010 at 16:43, by Eurogoblin Replying to: The Spanish Presidency of the European Council: a critical view

    After the cancellation of the EU-US summit, the Spanish presidency managed to maintain a low profile. This was probably a good thing, because the power-struggle between Barroso, Van Rompuy, Ashton and the Council did not need an extra player.

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