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Europe

'Too passive' – reflecting on the Spanish EU presidency

As the rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union transfers from Spain to Belgium, Deutsche Welle looks at the impact Spain had over the past six months.

Spanish premier Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero with the Spanish EU presidency logo

Spain's presidency fell during a difficult six months for Europe

On July 1, Spain will hand over the rotating presidency of the EU to Belgium, as the chairmanship of the Council of the European Union moves every six months. Spanish premier Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero said their presidency was "satisfactory," albeit in "difficult circumstances."

However the leader of the Spanish opposition conservative Popular Party (PP), Mariano Rajoy has criticised Spain's presidency of not leading Europe through the financial crisis but being caught up in the storm.

Foreign policy

Only a month before their presidency began, the Lisbon Treaty was ratified – completely changing the roles within Europe. The European Council now had its own president, Herman Van Rompuy. Positions that previously might have been tackled by the rotating presidency were usurped.

With the introduction of the EU's own foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, the Spanish foreign minister Miguel Angel Moratinos recognised his role would now be rather more humble: "The Spanish foreign minister Mrs Catherine Ashton is fully available," he retorted to journalists.

(From L-R) Zapatero, Herman van Rompuy, Jose Manuel Barroso at a summit.

Europe's multiple leaders confused Washington

Yet this displacement did not stop the Spanish ministry from being highly ambitious with their term in power. Moratinos' aim to "have by 2010 a Palestinian state living in peace and security alongside Israel" seemed as unrealistic then as it does six months later.

However, the Spaniards did not score diplomatic success in the Middle East or in other areas. US president Barack Obama snubbed the annual EU-US summit after confusion over who he should be meeting with. Should it be Van Rompuy or the Spanish president Jose Luis Zapatero? Is the meeting in Brussels or Madrid? Even if the Lisbon Treaty now said the duty fell to Van Rompuy, Zapatero was certainly not ready to give up his seat at the summit.

Zapatero tried to forget the incident by hosting his own summit with Latin American countries and reaffirmed a commitment to "opening a new economic and trade area with Latin America."

Economic crises

However most of Europe was not particularly interested in this meeting. As Europe has only been interested in one topic over the past months: The economic crisis in Greece and the knock-on effect on the euro.

Euro coin and note

Concerns over the euro monopolized the presidency

Here, Spain once again took the back seat, instead leaving eurozone big-hitters France and Germany to lead the way, along with the European Commission and the European Central Bank.

There was a reason, however, for Spanish restraint. After the rescue of Greece, the attention of the speculators turned to Spain. In late April, the Luxembourg Christian Democrat Frank Engel pointed out to the European Parliament that Spain could be next.

"If it happens to Spain it happens to all of Europe, because all of Europe does not have the means to come to the rescue of Spain," Engel warned.

Rumors of a Spanish bankruptcy and a potential EU bailout went into overdrive, forcing Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the eurogroup and EU Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso to issue a denial.

Looking forward

Due to the economic crises, the six month presidency will be seen as a dramatic one. But not for any Spanish initiatives, as Spain was too passive. The Lisbon treaty remains in place and the Spanish experience serves as a warning to future rotating presidencies.

Yet Belgium, which takes over the reigns on July 1, may well be thankful that the Lisbon treaty has relieved them of some of the duties of the rotating presidency. Currently struggling with a government crisis following recent elections, they may actually be glad that the treaty has taken some of the responsibility off their hands.

Author: Christoph Hasselbach (cb)
Editor: Rob Turner

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