Although Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero outlined his country's priorities as early as February 2009, some uncertainty still reigns as to what the main issues on the agenda will be.
On 8 December 2009, Spanish Secretary of State for EU Affairs Diego López Garrido said his country's presidency will focus on four main areas:
- The economy, with the recovery from the economic crisis and job creation on top of the agenda;
- Implementing the Lisbon Treaty;
- Citizenship, paying particular attention to gender equality, and;
- Foreign affairs, helping the EU to become a genuine global player.
On top of this, four additional priorities were submitted to the Spanish parliament by the ruling Socialist Party (PSOE), the main centre-right opposition People's Party (PP), and regional parties from Catalonia (Convergència I Unió) and the Basque Country (EAJ-PNV). These are:
- Strengthening the European area of freedom, security and justice, giving special attention to fighting terrorism and reviewing EU immigration and asylum policies;
- Strengthening EU policies towards its so-called 'ultra-peripheral' regions: Guadeloupe, French Guyana, Martinique, Reunion, the Azores, the Canarie Islands and Madeira (as defined by Article 349 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union; TFEU);
- Promoting a new, low-carbon energy model to address climate change, and;
- Defining the terms of the EU's next long-term budgetary planning period for 2014-2020 (the so-called 'Financial Perspectives').
Re-launching the economy and creating jobs take centre stage among Spain's stated objectives. This is a crucial task given that the effects of the financial crisis are now being felt in labour markets across Europe.
According to Eurostat, the unemployment rate across the EU-27 increased from 7.5% in November 2008 to 9.3% in October 2009 and is expected to break the 10% threshold in 2010 (EURACTIV 25/11/09). The problem is particularly acute in Spain, which has the highest unemployment rate in the euro zone. The average level of unemployment in the single currency area stood at 9.8% in October 2009, while it reached 19.3% in Spain. According to the Labour Ministry the number of people registered as jobless hit 3.9 million in December, up 54,657 from the month before (EURACTIV 5/01/2010) Indeed, Latvia is the only EU country to record a worse rate than the incoming presidency holder, with 20.9%.
In November, the European Commission launched a consultation on the future 'EU 2020' strategy to make Europe a "smarter, greener social market" within the next decade (EURACTIV 25/11/09).
The results of the consultation, which closes on 15 January, will be presented to EU leaders at their summit in March 2010. Spain will therefore have a prominent role in brokering an agreement between EU leaders during the meeting. It will also have to fend off attacks from NGOs, which would like to see publication of the consultation's conclusions postponed until December 2010, when Belgium will be at the EU's helm (EURACTIV 24/11/09).
Speaking before Spanish ambassadors to EU countries, Zapatero also stressed how the EU must move towards greater economic cooperation. "This is the great goal, the main goal of the European Union: the reinforcement of the common monetary policy, and strengthening the euro and the economic policy of the 27 EU members in a more coordinated way, through cooperation," he said.
Zapatero is also aiming to rebalance existing asymmetry in Economic and Monetary Union (EMU), which saw the EU establish a centralised monetary institution, the European Central Bank (ECB), but did not give Brussels equal powers to coordinate national economic policies.
"If the European Union really wants to be a political union, which works for its citizens, it has to have a much more solid economic government [...] with tools," Zapatero told a joint press conference with French President Nicolas Sarkozy in April. "I can't see a single market, a single currency, then not see an economic government with powers, with tools," he said (EURACTIV 29/04/09).
Diego López Garrido, Spain's secretary of state for EU affairs, echoed Zapatero when he said developing a new system to supervise the international financial system is an important goal of the Spanish Presidency. Part of this strategy includes a push for the implementation of the European Systemic Risk Board (ESRB) for macro-prudential supervision as a matter of priority (EURACTIV 7/01/2010)
The Spanish government is also expected to help facilitate the work of former Commissioner Mario Monti, who has been charged by European Commission President José Manuel Barroso with producing a report on the status of the single market and strategies for moving it forward. According to the Italian, the key test for market economies, perhaps even for democracies, will be whether they can master growing inequalities triggered by ungoverned globalisation and aggravated by the crisis (EURACTIV 04/12/09).
'Reflection group' on the EU's future
The Spanish Presidency will also coincide with the release in June 2010 of a report by a Reflection Group on the future of Europe established by the European Council on 17 December 2007.
The so-called 'group of wise men' is headed by Spain's former Socialist Prime Minister Felipe González. The group is responsible for outlining a vision for Europe between 2020 and 2030. It is expected to consult intensively with the Spanish Presidency given the tight time-frame and the shared political and geographical culture of those concerned.
The importance that Zapatero attributes to the insights of these ‘wise men’ has been testified by the fact that one of his first acts as President of the Council was to invite them for an informal discussion at the Moncloa, the official residence of the President of the Government (EURACTIV 6/01/2010). Zapatero exchanged views with the head of the group Felipe González who was accompanied also by former Commission President Jacques Delors and former Spanish Commissioner Pedro Solbes. The men parted with an agreement to meet again but no concrete dates were set at this stage, government sources said.
The main issue discussed in the meeting was the strengthening of economic governance both in the light of increased international competition by emerging international players such as BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India and China) and the internal difficulties in Europe to maintain fiscal discipline for which the Greek case stands as a vivid reminder.
Conservative daily ABC writes that the Moncloa meeting produced no more than uninspired and lacklustre statements. The article states with irony that after having assumed the EU presidency, Zapatero has invited González to take advice from him, something he had not done once in the past six years of his mandate.
Lisbon Treaty implementation
The EU's long-awaited Treaty of Lisbon entered into force on 1 December 2009, but the impact it will have on the rotating presidencies and the EU's institutional structure in general is yet to be clarified.
Herman Van Rompuy, the newly-appointed permanent president of the European Council, did not in fact chair the December 2009 summit of EU leaders. He will therefore intervene for the first time in his new capacity during an extraordinary summit on the economic situation in Europe in February 2010.
Zapatero and Van Rompuy have tried to silence the criticisms of those who consider the positions of president of the Council of the EU and that of president of the European Council as antagonistic. They did so by drafting jointly a letter to major European newspaper in which they highlighted their intention to make Europe stronger and better prepared for the coming decades focusing on economic governance, foreign policy and the environment.
Moreover, both the president of the European Council and the Spanish Presidency will make use of the General Affairs Council (GAC) created by splitting the General Affairs and External Relations Council (GAERC) into a General Affairs Council (GAC) and a Foreign Affairs Council (FAC). However, it is not yet clear who will have the ultimate say on the GAC's activities – probably the rotating presidency.
Delays are also to be expected on the part of High Representative for Foreign Affairs Catherine Ashton, who will also be European commissioner for external relations. Although she has already made public appearances, she will only obtain full commissioner status once she has been voted in by the European Parliament, along with the rest of the Barroso II college of commissioners. The expected date for this to happen is 1 February 2010.
In the meantime, efforts to put in place the European External Action Service (EASS) are underway, with the goal of taking all major decisions by April 2010. According to some sources, EU leaders would like to put in place EASS as early as possible before the UK elections, expected in late spring.
During these defining moments, Spain will therefore be in a key position to determine how the various institutions relate to each other under the new treaty, especially for matters related to the EU's external representation and deciding the items on the Council agenda.
Nevertheless, Spain has been adamant in underlining that its role in the institutional structure is one of support and not of competition. Miguel Angel Moratinos, the Spanish foreign minister, spelled out this point: "I would like to state it very clearly: the engagement of the prime minister of Spain and of the entire Spanish government is that we have new European representatives who will lead, give momentum and steer [the Union] through the first semester of 2010.” (EURACTIV 19/12/09)
Diego López Garrido referred to the fact that novelties introduced under the Lisbon Treaty, such as the so-called 'citizens' initiative' aimed at triggering a legislative process based on a million signatures, so far exist only in theory. Spain aims to set precedents by developing those tools, he explained.
Spain will also be the first country to take the EU's helm under the incoming trio of presidencies, completed by Belgium and Hungary. The new trio follows on from the previous French, Czech and Swedish one. The extent and intensity of the cooperation with the Belgian and Hungarian Presidencies is likely to define the format of future trios. In November 2009, two Spanish diplomats were transferred to the respective Belgian and Hungarian ministries with the aim of liaising better over the trio component.
The Spanish Presidency aims to ensure consistency with the Swedish Presidency and its flagship Stockholm Programme (EURACTIV 26/11/09) for freedom, security and justice, which was launched at the December 2009 European summit (EURACTIV 14/12/09).
López Garrido said his country will be pushing for the adoption of a non-discrimination directive, to fight against what he described as the worst sin in our societies – violence against women. "We want to address gender violence not only from a national, but from a European perspective," he said.
Zapatero has been at the forefront of attempts to address the issue of gender balance, and has done so through eye-catching measures such as forming a government in which women outnumber men nine to eight (EURACTIV 14/04/08). Spain is also planning to launch a European Observatory of Domestic Violence.
Europe in foreign affairs
The introduction of the Lisbon Treaty opens up a host of possibilities for increasing the international stature of the European Union, and according to preliminary statements, Spain will throw its weight behind achieving this goal. Spain will help High Representative Ashton to shape the structure of the new European External Action Service (EEAS), the future European diplomatic corps. But disagreements have already emerged regarding the timing and formation of this new service.
Moreover, the rotating presidency has now been formally stripped of its international role, since the treaties assign to both Van Rompuy and Ashton the task of representing the Union on the world stage. Spanish Secretary of State López Garrido said the Spanish government will contribute to strengthening rather than overshadowing the standing of the two new EU leaders.
This apparent discretion is at odds with the Spanish Presidency's stated intention to "enter the Guinness Book of Records with nine or 10 summits," according to López Garrido. The Spanish government has on its agenda EU summits with the US, Russia, Canada, and Mediterranean and Latin American countries.
Spain has been a proactive force in creating an EU Mediterranean dimension through the Barcelona Process (Euro-Mediterranean partnership) in 1995 and its successor, the Union for the Mediterranean, launched under the French Presidency in July 2008. Setting up the secretariat in Barcelona and selecting the first projects will be the Spanish Presidency's main objective, Zapatero said. In January 2010, the Committee of the Regions, a consultative body, will create a Euro-Mediterranean Regional and Local Assembly and a closer partnership is likely to emerge with Morocco during a special summit.
One of the first acts in this respect was the gathering of the foreign ministers of France, Spain, Egypt, Tunis and Jordan on 5 January 2010 to find a compromise candidate for the post of leader of the secretariat of the Union of the Mediterranean. Jordanian Ahmed Masade seems to have gathered sufficient consensus to secure the post (EURACTIV 7/01/2010). The finalisation of this selection process should take place on the 12th of January.
Spain is also keen to strengthen relations between the EU and Latin America, with López Garrido claiming that Spain will organise a summit between the EU and all Latin American countries. This can be considered as a strategic priority considering Spain's economic interests in the region.
Cuba will also be on the agenda of the Spanish Presidency. Foreign Minister Miguel Ángel Moratinos embarked in a two-day visit on 18-20 October 2009. The socialist government aims to challenge the common position which was agreed in 1996 on an initiative by then Prime Minister José Maria Aznar. This stance is likely to prove more divisive than initially expected due to the lack of improvement in civil liberties since Fidel Castro stepped down as Cuban leader in favour of his brother Raul.
A considerable blow to these appeasing intentions has been inflicted by Cuba itself. Cuban airport authorities refused entry to the country to Spanish Socialist MEP Luis Yáñez on 3 January 2010. The MEP, chairman of the parliament delegation for relations with Mercosur, supported dialogue with democratic dissidents in Cuba. Moratinos defined the act as a mistake, but claimed that this would not hinder the proposed review of the relations between the EU and the Caribbean dictatorship: “Isolation, confrontation, the embargo and the blockade [against Cuba]... has produced no result in 50 years.”
Relations with the United States and the renewal of a strategic agreement with Russia are next on the Spanish Presidency's list of foreign priorities, Zapatero said.
The EU's enlargement to more countries will also remain high on the agenda, and the Council of Ministers will have to respond to Iceland's membership bid (EURACTIV 09/12/09). It will also attempt to soothe relations between Macedonia and Greece (EURACTIV 08/12/09) and most crucially between the Republic of Cyprus and its Northern part within a tight time-frame (EURACTIV 24/11/09).
Moreover, Spain might also be questioned regarding its controversial stance on Kosovo, which its shares only with Cyprus, Greece, Romania and Slovakia (EURACTIV 01/12/09).