Analyst: Spanish EU Presidency agenda ‘rather unfocused’

The agenda of the Spanish EU Presidency has set itself far too many objectives in too many areas, appearing ambitious but also ‘rather unfocused’, Carlos Buhigas Schubert, an independent analyst and consultant on European affairs, told EURACTIV Germany.

EU affairs analyst Carlos Buhigas Schubert is a member of the Spanish Team Europe of the European Commission. 

He was speaking to Michael Kaczmarek of EURACTIV Germany.

To read a shortened version of this interview, please click here

The Lisbon Treaty has come into force. Do the Europeans have a reason to party? 

It has been a relief. A major one though. Bear in mind that the whole process has taken eight years, since the Laeken summit in 2001. If rejected (again) – the situation would have been very difficult to digest. So first, the treaty is in place, but needs to be put into practice. That will require changes in many areas, often challenging national institutions. An example of this is the never-ending debate on how to build a stronger and more coherent European foreign policy. In the following years we will witness how that takes place. 

Secondly, it is important to stress that there are many challenges for Europe that go beyond the scope of the treaty and the competences of the EU to resolve them. Essential ones are those related to the reform of the different welfare systems, which in practice means pretty much everything that affects the closest concerns and prospects of Europeans in their daily lives: their jobs, the quality of the education or health institutions, the viability of the different pension systems, etc. This does not mean that there is not a European strategy or debate regarding those matters, but the ultimate responsibility to provide results is a national one. 

One of the main challenges is the financial and economic crisis. Does the EU have the appropriate strategy to deal with this problem? 

I think that it is important to distinguish here between the crisis and any strategy to improve the health of the European economy. The crisis has fostered a new sense of insecurity and probably also distrust that was not there before. In that sense, the real recovery goes beyond economic indicators and therefore only time will tell if the measures taken can be considered as the appropriate strategy. Steps have been taken at global, EU and national levels and I really hope that they amount to a good strategy, because out of so much uncertainty there are two things that I do know: the cost of the crisis and who is paying the bill. And I am not particularly happy about any of those. In fact, I am rather amazed about how quickly we may be going back to a type of ‘business as usual’ that I consider profoundly inefficient and unjust. 

In addition, the crisis has shadowed the European strategy for structural reform, called the Lisbon Strategy. We will see the final evaluation of the Lisbon Strategy in March 2010 but we already know that it has not matched the goals. Most indicators show that the problems that fostered its creation in the year 2000 are still there. For that reason, a post-Lisbon strategy that can be taken seriously is essential. In fact, it is one of the most urgent debates for Europeans and it is worrying that national leaders seem to avoid it. 

Which priorities does the post-Lisbon strategy have to establish? 

The thematic priorities will probably not be very different from the previous one since, as I mentioned earlier, many crucial factors like raising productivity or improving the climate for more innovation and entrepreneurship are still far from being achieved. At the same time, both social cohesion and social policies demand, in many parts of Europe, a conceptual review to translate them into more effective indicators, policies and financial mechanisms. Also these days we are witnessing vigorous debates on how to reduce emissions and create an environmentally friendly economy. 

However, for all this to take place we need a radical change in many of the way we do things. It would be completely unfair to blame Brussels for the failure of the Lisbon strategy as real implementation of the reforms was a matter for national authorities and most of them have clearly not lived up to the expectations. In that sense, the real priority for a post-Lisbon agenda is to create the institutional mechanisms to make sure that it delivers results. It needs to inject the importance of those reforms in many more audiences and many more actors should become active players. 

Just to mention two, in my view the post-Lisbon agenda needs to involve much more a territorial dimension, where regions and cities play a much more energetic role and become responsible for actions and targets. At the same time, I believe that the role of the public sector in many parts of Europe needs to change substantially and become a partner in this, not a disinterested actor unaffected by the debate. A post-Lisbon agenda has to be discussed in the coming months and I expect the coming Spanish Presidency to encourage the debate. 

The Spanish EU Presidency starts in January 2010 and lasts for six months. What will be there main priorities – apart from the post-Lisbon strategy? 

The Spanish Presidency comes at a very particular time and includes two overall factors that have affected its preparation. The Lisbon Treaty now has come into force and the Spanish Presidency will focus – as one of its main objectives – on its implementation. Secondly, we will see the first ‘trio presidency’ – the Spanish and the following Belgian and Hungarian Presidencies, which have to work closely on common objectives. This obviously adds a certain degree of complexity in terms of how the presidency is planned, co-ordinated and executed. 

In addition to the implementation of the treaty, the two overall broad objectives will be to continue tackling the financial and economic crisis and strengthening the role of the EU as a global player. Beyond that, and probably much more interesting in practical terms, there will be five areas that will unite the work of the three presidencies, which include: a post-Copenhagen climate change package, to implement the Energy Action Plan (2010-2012), to advance in the execution of the Stockholm programme in the area of justice and home affairs, to encourage a renewed collective effort for the Lisbon agenda and to promote a new social agenda for the EU. 

Nevertheless, each rotating presidency tries to put specific national interests on the EU agenda. With which priorities will the Spanish colour their presidency? 

As it frequently happens with presidencies, the agenda of the Spanish Presidency looks to me too ambitious and, as a result, rather unfocused. In my view it has set itself far too many objectives in too many areas, which will be difficult to achieve. 

However, a number of areas that will show a bit of colour will be the transatlantic agenda, EU relations with Latin America and a renewed debate on social policy, including issues that have been actively promoted by the current Spanish government like gender equality and the fight against domestic violence. 

The Lisbon Treaty has established the permanent presidency of the Council in addition to the rotating presidency and the trio presidency. So who has the lead in agenda-setting in the Council? 

This is a very tricky question. One month ago, in a meeting to present the image of the new trio presidency, a new term was coined: ‘institutional balance’. In essence, this means that the EU presidency would not be happy with a president of the Council that becomes too much of a leading voice in the show. 

In fact, the Hungarian prime minister actually said that more time would be needed to determine the role and relation between both presidents. In principle, the president of the Council should move forward the political agenda of the EU through the meetings of EU leaders and also become a visible and recognisable face for the EU. The rotating presidency is in charge of managing daily policymaking including chairing monthly ministerial meetings. 

How this will work in practice we will see very soon. There are naturally concerns and potential conflicts between hierarchies and institutions as well as an enormous confusion from the point of view of the public opinion. 

I have been frequently asked in the last days why we need an EU presidency if now we have a president of the Council. And I can only empathise with that question. We have now a president of the Council, a president of the Commission, a president of the European Parliament, a president of the EU presidency, which actually is a trio presidency now, and 27 presidents or prime ministers. On the top of that, the Commission has 25 commissioners (26 with the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and vice-president of the Commission), which to me looks completely ludicrous. I believe that this institutional chaos; the inability to make something clear and understandable in the construction of a political Europe, portrays well the citizens’ fatigue with the European project. 

Do foreign statesmen now have a common EU telephone number? 

Foreign affairs ministers will do: Catherine Ashton’s number. Foreign national leaders will have to keep in their agendas the colourful variety of national, regional and local prefixes to talk to EU leaders. 

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