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The curse of the EU presidency

Halfway through its six-month presidency of the European Union, Spain is struggling to score many positive marks at the helm of the 27-nation bloc. But given the tough political and economic circumstances, few observers should be surprised at the lacklustre performance.


In retrospect, Spain might be seen as one of the unluckiest ever holders of the EU rotating presidency. A host of unfortunate developments – most not of his own making – have conspired to make the first half of José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero’s six-month term, which began on January 1, difficult and at times hapless.

With Spain among the bloc’s most economically troubled members, it was always going to be hard for Zapatero to lead the EU out of recession from the front. Moreover, major institutional changes were implemented just as the term presidency was starting, with a degree of mystery surrounding the new system and its roles, including that of European Council president. As if that were not enough, US President Barack Obama delivered a devastating snub to Europe and, by proxy, Zapatero.

Questionable credentials

There was already plenty of cynicism at home and abroad about Spain’s economic credentials when its tenure began. And when Zapatero attended the Davos World Economic Forum in late January, Spain was among the high-deficit countries the market was starting to singe, along with Portugal and the more drastic case of Greece. With unemployment just under 20 percent and a soaring public deficit, experts were divided on whether Spain would be the next to burn, but those figures were hardly the ideal calling card for a country aiming to show the way towards recovery.

“The crisis can be a window of opportunity for the EU presidency,” says Ignacio Molina, an expert in EU Politics and Institutions at the Real Instituto Elcano think-tank in Madrid.

He points to France’s acclaimed organization of the G-20 Washington summit when the 2008 crisis first broke, but sees obvious difficulties for the current presidency holder.

“Spain has economic problems which put it somewhat closer to the Greek case, so it can’t act as an honest broker between the likes of France and Germany on the one hand, and Greece,” Molina adds.

As expected, Zapatero has struggled to make much headway on the economic front, despite trying to introduce some relatively controversial tax and pension reforms at home. A mooted reform of hedge funds and private equity, for example, was dropped from the agenda of the finance ministers’ meeting in Brussels in March, following pressure from Britain’s Gordon Brown.

Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero: still smiling...just. Photo by Ainhoa Goma.

It’s difficult to see more than minor economic changes being introduced during this presidency, rather than more sweeping reforms such as changes to sanctions or governance areas. Zapatero might not be the right man to introduce those kinds of reforms, but his impotence is not entirely his own fault.

The late implementation of the Lisbon Treaty – on December 1 – meant that Spain was preparing for its term presidency without knowing until the last minute what the new EU would look like in institutional terms nor what its new faces would look like. As it turned out, those faces included the rather underwhelming Herman Van Rompuy and Catherine Ashton – European Council president and high representative for foreign affairs, respectively. With the new EU machinery still churning into gear throughout January and early February, it’s not surprising that the term president has struggled to make an impact.

In addition, the Socialist Zapatero, never the most gregarious or forceful presence on the international scene, has found himself surrounded by conservatives in the European Council and Commission and with precious few ideological allies.

These six months are a period of transition as the exact roles of and relationships between the top jobs are defined. Much of the high-profile work seems to have fallen to Van Rompuy so far, although Zapatero appears to have hung on to the duty of summit organiser. The EU-Morocco summit in Granada on March 6-7, for example, was generally seen as a success (despite King Mohammed VI’s absence).

This period of flux, however, has inevitably not been good for Europe’s image. If anything, it is now, more than ever, seen as a bureaucratic vessel led by charisma-deficient politicos, with little coherent foreign policy.

“The international standing of the EU is actually shrinking right now,” says Ramón Pacheco-Pardo, a lecturer in European Studies and Spanish Contemporary Politics at King’s College, London. He cites Obama’s decision not to attend the EU-US summit in Madrid in May, effectively scuppering the event and deeply embarrassing European leaders. Zapatero was the most red-faced of all of them, partly as the summit host, but also because he seemed to have built up a genuine rapport with Obama after the chill of the Bush years.

The US leader clearly had his reasons for the rebuff. At home the healthcare issue was in full swing and abroad Asia and the Middle East are simply bigger priorities. Had the term presidency holder been a Sarkozy, a Brown or a Merkel, Obama might have thought twice about pulling out, but Spain – and Zapatero – are still not seen as front-line European movers and shakers.

Cuban tragedy, Spanish misfortune

Further bad luck came Zapatero’s way when Orlando Zapata, a jailed Cuban dissident, died in February after 86 days of a hunger strike to protest the plight of the island’s political prisoners. Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Ángel Moratinos had been hoping to relax the EU’s official relationship with Havana and make Europe’s position less punitive. Zapata’s death and the very serious condition at the time of writing of another hunger-striking dissident, Guillermo Fariñas, have, if anything, hardened the EU’s attitude to the Castro brothers.

This all makes for quite bleak reading. However, Spain has not been entirely a hapless victim of circumstance and its own lack of credibility. Its performance in terms of organisation and stability – admittedly, not the most eye-catching areas – has been laudable and Zapatero and Van Rompuy have done a reasonable job of avoiding stepping on each other’s toes.

“Spain is now perceived as pro-European, especially when compared to the previous government, which was seen as pro-US,” says Pacheco-Pardo, who believes the country has bolstered its standing as an enthusiastic and dependable bloc partner.

Three months ago, the question was whether the EU term presidency would be a boost or a hindrance for Zapatero. The answer so far seems to be the latter, in the same way that it was a hindrance for Socialist Prime Minister Felipe González in 1995, when Spain was also in economic difficulties. Having enjoyed so much good luck as leader of Spain, Zapatero is finding Europe an altogether less blessed place.

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Published: Mar 30 2010
Category: Politics
Republication: Creative Commons, non-commercial
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