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Spain's Sanchez relishes European role but reality bites

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Spain's Sanchez relishes European role but reality bites
FILE PHOTO: Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez speaks at a news conference after a European Union summit in Brussels, Belgium, June 21, 2019. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir/File Photo   -   Copyright  Francois Lenoir(Reuters)
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By Belén Carreño and Ingrid Melander

MADRID (Reuters) – Spanish leader Pedro Sanchez shot to prominence on the EU political scene after his victories in national and European elections, but now he faces a reality check that combines troubles at home with the complexity of EU talks.

Still scrambling to gather enough support to be confirmed as prime minister by a fragmented parliament two months after the election, Sanchez is also learning the ropes for another set of tricky power-sharing talks – that of deciding on EU top jobs.

Criticised by Spain’s other main parties ahead of a vote in parliament on whether he can stay in the job, the Socialist leader, while praised for his pro-European stance, is also facing some critical voices in Brussels.

“There’s a gap between how Sanchez’s role in EU talks is described in Madrid and how it is actually seen in Brussels,” a Brussels-based source said. “Spain is still far from having the same weight as Germany or France.”

Thanks to his party becoming the biggest national contingent in the European Parliament’s Socialist group in May, Sanchez is one of the coordinators in the talks that will decide who will become European Commission or European Central Bank chief.

That means he will join other EU leaders at the margins of a G20 summit in Japan this weekend and at Sunday’s EU summit, where the bloc wants to agree on names. He discussed this with EU Council chief Donald Tusk on Friday morning and will have further talks with others, his office said.

As he travels from one summit to another, sitting at the top negotiating table with France’s and Germany’s leaders, Sanchez visibly enjoys his new role, widely dispensing his smile and readily responding in English to foreign media.

“The prime minister enjoys being part of the European negotiations. He feels at ease, he speaks English and he has experience,” one of his closest advisers said.

Yet, after an EU summit last week failed to reach any deal on the bloc’s top jobs, a diplomat from one of the EU’s biggest countries said Sanchez’s relative lack of experience in such talks was partly to blame.

Sanchez first became prime minister in June last year when the conservatives lost a confidence vote over a corruption scandal, but only gained more prominence in Brussels with this Spring’s elections.

“Sanchez was very self-confident during the negotiations. But he did not understand in the beginning that ‘killing’ (the German conservative candidate for the European Commission Manfred) Weber meant that he ‘killed’ his candidate too”, the diplomat said, referring to Dutch Socialist candidate Frans Timmermans, backed by Sanchez.

Leaders headed by French President Emmanuel Macron and Sanchez blocked Weber’s candidacy, meaning the other main candidates such as Timmermans were also out. Spanish diplomatic sources rejected the criticism, saying they were well aware of the consequences.


Separately, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte criticised Sanchez’s push for a euro zone budget. “It’s not in your interest, why would you do that?” he said in an interview with Euractiv.

Sanchez and Macron have been pushing, unsuccessfully, for a joint budget for euro zone countries, worth several percentage points of euro zone output, to promote deeper integration and help stabilise the economy.

Without commenting on these particular points, Sanchez has readily admitted that he does not have the same experience of high-level EU talks as some of the bloc’s veteran leaders.

“Prime ministers and presidents more experienced than me tell me that this is just the beginning,” he said at the end of last week’s summit, smiling and referring to the EU jobs discussions.

Sunday’s EU summit, and ensuing talks on European Commissioner jobs, will be key to test the scope of Spain’s new influence, after years where it suffered from a financial crisis and an almost exclusive focus by its leaders on domestic issues.

“He negotiates for Spain and for the whole Socialist family,” José Manuel Albares, Sanchez’s top international adviser, told Reuters.

“That is why it’s very important that he defends the euro zone’s budget, labour rights and the fight against climate change on its (the Socialist’s group) behalf.”

Looming over all this is the fact that Sanchez is only acting prime minister, and still needs to muster enough votes to be officially sworn into the job.

Talks have proven even more complicated than expected, with potential allies opposing each other and all sides digging in their heels.

The leader of the Socialists’ biggest potential ally, the anti-austerity Podemos, said on Wednesday the negotiations may take another two months. If that fails, a new election will take place.

Sanchez is however far from being the only European leader with a troubled political scene at home, meaning the Spanish problems pale in comparison.

“Spain benefits from a unique environment that includes the United Kingdom’s exit from the EU and Italy’s weakening influence,” said Pablo Simon, a political science professor at Madrid’s Carlos III university.

(Reporting by Belen Carreno and Ingrid Melander, additional reporting Andreas Rinke from Berlin; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

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