Conte and Sánchez, the new kids on the EU bloc

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez chat with European Council president Donald Tusk and France President Emmanuel Macron during the June European Council. [European Commission]

Pedro Sánchez and Giuseppe Conte, the freshly appointed leaders from southern Europe, are two new kids on the bloc. But they could hardly be more different: Sánchez is a breath of fresh air in Spanish and European politics while Conte is a new headache for Brussels. Both made their first appearance at the European Council on Thursday (28 June).

When Italy – and Malta- refused to let the Aquarius, a search and rescue boat, to dock in their harbours, the Spanish government stepped in. Prime Minister Sánchez announced Spain was ready to welcome the 630 people on board. Brussels sighed with relief.

The decision was symbolic but was meant to be a statement. Sánchez wanted to lead the way in the reform of the migration policy in the EU but did not want to do it alone.

On his first trip abroad as prime minister, the socialist joined Emmanuel Macron in Paris last week to discuss common challenges. Migration and the reform of the eurozone were on the agenda, just like in Brussels a few days later.

Macron and Sánchez proved their harmony when they tabled a joint proposal to address the migration crisis at a working meeting with other member states in Brussels on Sunday (24 June).

But the other proposal was tabled by Italy.

Law professor Giuseppe Conte, the prime minister from Italy’s far-right/anti-establishment ruling coalition, said after the meeting on Sunday he was happy about the debate and confident about a possible deal at the Summit.

Conte and Macron compare notes on migration at mini-summit

Sixteen EU heads of state and government held an emergency summit in Brussels on Sunday (24 June) to discuss migration – a crisis with a destructive potential for the EU. No results were announced, but sources said the discussions had largely revolved around a proposal by Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte.

Today, however, Conte vetoed the conclusions until the provision on migration is agreed, and is fully in line with Italy’s own position.

A failure of the European Council to achieve a deal on migration might lead to a collapse of Angela Merkel’s government in Germany,  as she needs an agreement on migration before 1 July.

Sánchez defended a constructive approach, proposed to share ideas, experiences, and asked for support for Spain. Italy, on the contrary, keeps tightening the screw on its Mediterranean colleagues, in public and in the meeting room.

Their economic file is not different either.

Sánchez appointed former European Commission Director General for Budget, Nadia Calviño, as a minister in his cabinet, in a move that was warmly welcomed in Brussels. Conte appointed anti-euro economist Paolo Savona as the EU affairs minister.

While Italy seems highly unlikely to engage in the discussion to reform the eurozone, Spain has aligned with Merkel and Macron and fully supports their Meseberg declaration.

For years, with Mariano Rajoy as prime minister, Spain plaid a timorous role in European politics. Sánchez seems committed to change that and Brussels has welcomed his initiative.

On the other hand, Matteo Renzi’s legacy in Europe is likely to be torn apart by the new Italian government, with all the consequences this might have for a European project in crisis.

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