Six months to put the shine back on the Socialists is the big challenge facing Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero this year. Taking over the rotating EU presidency, the spotlight will give the premier a unique opportunity to boost his popularity on the domestic front.
All eyes will also be on Spain as the first country to steer the bloc under the Lisbon Treaty – an accord which will actually give Madrid less power as head of the EU. But that may not matter for most Spaniards with their country still mired in recession. About four million people are out of work, the once-dominant construction industry has been practically demolished and Zapatero’s been taking the flak.
Re-elected in 2008, his handling of the crisis has been fiercely attacked and his Socialist party is spiralling down in the polls. There is little to suggest an imminent improvement despite Zapatero’s promises to put job creation and economic stimulus measures atop the Spanish presidency’s agenda.
According to latest surveys, almost 2/3rds of Spaniards are not even interested in EU business, so Zapatero faces an uphill task to convince them otherwise. What’s more, because of the Lisbon Treaty, he will now have to work with powerful new figures – Belgium’s Herman van Rompuy will preside over EU summits as the first permanent head of the European Council. Zapatero will be there as well, but only as Spain’s prime minister. He will also have to share the stage with Britain’s Catherine Ashton, the new EU foreign affairs chief.
But it is not all lost before it really starts for Zapatero. He will represent the bloc during the EU summit with America in May and is already promising to look at improving ties with Cuba.