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Analysis: Pedro Sánchez's election gamble risks marring Spain's big EU moment

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez has spent the last months meeting with his counterparts to lay the groundwork for this country's presidency of the EU Council.
Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez has spent the last months meeting with his counterparts to lay the groundwork for this country's presidency of the EU Council. Copyright Geert Vanden Wijngaert/Copyright 2022 The AP. All rights reserved
Copyright Geert Vanden Wijngaert/Copyright 2022 The AP. All rights reserved
By Jorge Liboreiro
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Spain is supposed to hold the rotating presidency of the EU Council between July and December.

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If anything, Pedro Sánchez knows how to gamble.

Throughout his five years at the helm of the Spanish government, the socialist prime minister has built a reputation for taking bold, ambitious decisions with little input besides his own political instinct. 

The steamrolling leadership has garnered the admiration of his followers, who see him as an unwavering champion of progressive causes, and the profound contempt of his adversaries, who have dubbed the term "Sanchismo" to describe his assertive, personality-driven way of governing.

Although surprising at first sight, Sánchez's move to call a snap general election after his party's poor performance at last week's local and regional polls fits neatly into the pattern of defiant policy-making that has long characterized his premiership. 

By doing so, the PM is directly asking his fellow citizens to choose between his left-wing coalition and a possible conservative executive supported by the far-right, a binary dilemma that he hopes will galvanise the electorate.

This time, however, his gamble risks spilling over into Brussels, with consequences for all 27 members of the European Union.

The parliamentary election, which was initially pencilled for late December, has now been moved all the way up to 23 July – merely three weeks after Spain is supposed to take over the six-month rotating presidency of the EU Council.

Holding the EU Council's presidency grants a country the prerogative to set the agenda, host ministerial meetings, steer negotiations, draft compromise texts, schedule votes on key files, and speak on behalf of all member states vis-à-vis the European Parliament and the European Commission.

These enhanced powers have traditionally represented a lucrative opportunity for the selected country to prove its diplomatic dexterity, sway the political debate and showcase its cultural richness and natural beauty to the rest of the bloc.

An avowed pro-European politician, Sánchez was keen on taking full advantage of the grand European stage to deliver a productive, deal-maker presidency that would boost his country's profile and, by extension, his credentials as an international statesman.

The Spanish PM has spent the last months travelling around Europe and meeting with his counterparts to lay the groundwork for what was – until this very Monday –  anticipated to be a busy six-month term at the top of the EU Council.

The high expectations do not stem solely from Sánchez's promotional tour but from the sheer reality on the ground: before the end of the year, the EU institutions are meant to wrap up a series of consequential pieces of legislation that have been piling up on Brussels' to-do list.

The catalogue includes, among others, a post-crisis overhaul of the electricity market, a world-first attempt to regulate artificial intelligence, an ambitious strategy to prevent the exodus of green industries, a €500-million plan to ramp up ammunition production for Ukraine, an unprecedented scheme to confiscate frozen Russian assets, and the long-awaited, hard-fought reform of the EU's fiscal rules.

Given their weight and far-reaching character, these files will require a strong, consistent impetus to move forward and achieve consensus among the 27 capitals, a hard task that rests first and foremost on the shoulders of the rotating presidency.

Political vacuum

For Spain, the timely convergence of all these crucial laws – particularly in the fields of energy and fiscal policy – offered an invaluable platform to magnify its domestic viewpoints and have a first-hand role in shaping political agreements.

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But the sudden emergence of a snap election at the very onset of the presidency threatens to severely hamper Spain's room for manoeuvre inside the Council and drain resources away from Brussels to Madrid, as an arduous campaign unfolds in the midst of the summer season.

With Russia's war in Ukraine nowhere near the finish line, the EU can ill afford six months of legislative atrophy that would further widen the backlog of legislative files and push must-have discussions down the agenda.

Making matters more urgent, the next EU Council presidency, to be held by Belgium in the first half of 2024, is set to be invariably hamstrung by the elections to the European Parliament, which will put Brussels in campaign mode and restart the policy clock. 

While this is certainly not the first time a rotating presidency coincides with a general election – last year President Emmanuel Macron maintained France's mandate as he battled for re-election –, the polarised nature of Spanish politics increases the odds of a lame-duck turn.

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The previous general election, which took place in April 2019, had to be repeated in November after the coalition talks led by Sánchez's socialist party ended up in failure. This year, attention turns to the right, with an alliance between the conservative Partido Popular (PP) and the far-right Vox party as the main alternative.

This means that, in one of the likeliest scenarios, the Spanish presidency could kick off under a socialist government, undergo the upheaval of a July campaign, slow down during the August break, and then resume activities under a brand-new right-wing executive with vastly different political priorities.

Such a rollercoaster will be "particularly problematic" for the Council at a time when key agreements need to be struck before the current legislature concludes, says Johannes Greubel, a senior analyst at the European Policy Centre.

"For the EU and particularly the Council, these elections certainly come at a more than unfortunate time, as they will fundamentally impact the functioning of the Spanish presidency, particularly on a political level," Greubel told Euronews.

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"With the impending political leadership vacuum in Spain and hence at the helm of the Council, many negotiations on these sensitive political issues are now in danger to fail out of sheer lack of time."

As doubts mount over Spain's ability to shield the EU Council's day-to-day businesses from the bruising electoral campaign, Sánchez's deputies have come forward to allay fears and dispel any rumours the presidency might fall victim to a last-minute cancellation.

"The presidency will be maintained as such, with all its activities," said Luis Planas, Spain's minister for agriculture and fisheries, in a recent visit to Brussels.

"For those who, in some way, want to see this in a negative light, we reassure them. We're going to guarantee all of our institutional and political responsibilities as the presidency of the EU Council."

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