Spain's EU Presidency Greeted With Skepticism

By Soeren Kern

Spain's six-month rotating presidency of the European Union, which began on Jan. 1, 2010, is off to a bumpy start. With the Lisbon Treaty now in effect, the traditional role of the EU rotating presidency has been downgraded. Responsibility for many issues which were once the domain of the rotating presidency now falls to the newly named permanent EU president, Herman Van Rompuy, and EU foreign minister, Catherine Ashton -- who together are supposed to comprise the new "public face" of the EU.

Nevertheless, Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero has announced a series of ambitious initiatives involving EU economic and foreign policy, many of which have been met with skepticism, if not ridicule, by Spain's EU partners. In short, during a six-month period that will test how well the EU's new institutional architecture works in practice, Spain's role at the helm of the union is unclear and its leadership has been seriously questioned.

Zapatero announced several priorities for Spain's EU presidency, the most ambitious of which involves drawing up a new 10-year plan, called the 2020 Economic Strategy, to boost growth and competiveness within the EU. The initiative, which the Spanish government plans to launch at an EU summit in Brussels on Feb. 11, is meant to be a follow-up to the failed Lisbon Agenda, a 10-year economic plan drafted in 2000 that attempted to make the EU "the most competitive economy in the world and achieving full employment by 2010."

The most controversial aspect of Zapatero's 2020 strategy is the proposal to establish binding economic objectives for each of the 27 EU members, with sanctions and/or financial penalties levied on countries that refuse to cooperate.

Speaking ahead of the formal inauguration of Spain's EU presidency, Zapatero said, "Our main aim is to introduce a qualitative leap in our economic union by means of new common policies. It is absolutely necessary for the 2020 Economic Strategy . . . to take on a new nature, a binding nature."

Zapatero-y-SarkozyZapatero's comments have raised alarm in Britain and other EU countries with more liberal economies, which are worried about the further loss of sovereignty on economic issues. But Zapatero's supporters say his ideas are largely based on recent calls by French President Nicolas Sarkozy for the creation of an "economic government" for the Eurozone countries that share the common currency.

In any case, Zapatero's calls for aggressive economic action have provoked widespread skepticism at home and abroad, not least because the Spanish economy is still in contraction and Spanish unemployment is expected to reach 20 percent in 2010 (or double the EU average). Across Spain, even newspapers normally friendly to the Zapatero government have asked how a country facing its worst economic crisis in 60 years can be trusted to manage the economic recovery of the 27-member EU.

In London, the Economist magazine published a scathing column that declared, "Spain now leads the European Union, but not by example. . . . If you want your advice to be heeded, you need something credible to say."

Also in London, the Financial Times ran a story titled, "A Stumbling Spain Must Guide Europe," which described a cyberattack by computer hackers against the Web site of Spain's EU presidency. "On its first day, Web-surfers navigating to the special presidency Web site found themselves staring at photos of Mr. Bean, the hapless British comedy character who (some claim) bears a resemblance to José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, the Spanish prime minister. Mr. Bean is famous for his stumbles and mishaps -- and Spain is also looking accident-prone at the moment."

Elsewhere in Europe, editorials in France, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands have likewise mocked the idea of Zapatero advising Europe on economic recovery.

moratinosOther Spanish priorities may also to run into resistance from various EU member states. For example, Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Ángel Moratinos has said Spain will work toward the establishment of a Palestinian state by 2010. "My idea, and my dream, and my engagement, is to work for having in 2010, finally, a Palestinian state that could live in peace and security with Israel," Moratinos said. EU leaders recently watered down an initiative by Sweden that called on the EU to declare East Jerusalem the capital of a future Palestinian state.

Moratinos also hopes to modify the EU's 1996 common position on Cuba, which calls for conditioning normal relations with the EU on respect for human rights and progress towards democracy. But previous efforts by the Zapatero government to de-link political dialogue with Cuba from the issue of human rights on the island have failed, due to resistance from other EU members -- notably former communist countries like Poland and the Czech Republic, which insist that the EU should not fully normalize its ties with Cuba until civil and political freedoms are granted to all citizens. For his part, EU President Herman Van Rompuy says he has had "little time to think about Cuba" since taking office on Jan. 4.

Overall, however, Spain's biggest challenge will be to navigate the EU's new post-Lisbon institutional structure, which now bestows the EU with four titular presidents -- Zapatero, Van Rompuy, José Manuel Barroso (the president of the European Commission), and Jerzy Buzek (the president of the European Parliament) -- as well as two foreign ministers, Moratinos and Ashton.

Zapatero says that if anyone wants to "call Europe" they should call Van Rompuy. But Van Rompuy says that in the EU "there is not one man or one woman who decides. We each have a role." The Lisbon Treaty was sold on the promise that it would streamline decision-making within the EU, and thus give Europe a bigger voice on the world stage. Spain's EU presidency will be an early indication of whether it ends up doing exactly the opposite.
Editors Note: Soeren Kern is Senior Fellow for Transatlantic Relations at the Madrid-based Grupo de Estudios Estratégicos / Strategic Studies Group.