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Spain to lead the EU — but who is to lead Spain?

July 1, 2023

Spain has taken over the presidency of the European Council. It will also hold a national election at the end of the month — and the government may change, from left to right. What would be the consequences for Brussels?

Ursula von der Leyen and Pedro Sanchez
European Commission President von der Leyen and Pedro Sanchez: Will Sanchez remain PM after Spain's elections?Image: Ricardo Rubio/EUROPA PRESS/picture alliance/dpa

Spain is set to hold early elections, just three weeks after it takes over the EU Council presidency on July 1 — and it's by no means clear that the Socialist prime minister, Pedro Sanchez, will win and stay on as head of government.

Polls are showing the conservative People's Party in the lead, which means it could form a coalition with right-wing populists. This would probably secure more seats in parliament than a left-wing alliance under Sanchez, who has called this snap election in the middle of the country's vacation season.

Sanchez has been downplaying the impact the elections might have on Spain's leadership of the EU. "Democracy is never a problem," he said in Madrid at the beginning of June. "It's not the first time in Europe that elections have taken place during a presidency. There have been changes of government, too."

Unusual start

This is essentially correct, but requires qualification. In 2022, for example, Emmanuel Macron presided over the EU Council while also running for reelection as president of France. And in 2009 the Czech government fell while it was supposed to be leading the EU.

However, an election and a possible change of government right at the start of a six-month Council presidency are a total exception. Pedro Sanchez has even postponed his appearance in the European Parliament while he campaigns for reelection. He was supposed to present and discuss his program for the Council presidency in Strasbourg before the election took place. The presentation will not now be made until September, after the summer break — by whoever is then the Spanish head of government.

Spanish EU diplomats in Brussels insist that the work of the presidency will continue smoothly as planned, elections or no. They emphasize that the topics for this presidency have been prepared for months, if not years, in advance, and were closely coordinated with partner countries Belgium and Hungary, which will take turns to preside next year.

View of a water featuer and building in the Alhambra
The Alhambra in Granada is to be the venue for an EU summit in October Image: picture-alliance/blickwinkel/K. Thomas

Analysts and journalists in Spain also say that a possible change of government in Madrid to a conservative-right-wing-populist camp would not really affect Spain's traditionally EU-friendly course.

"Over the next six months, the Spanish government will have to meet the immediate challenges Europe is facing, and they are many. [...] Spain has carried out its presidencies satisfactorily in the past, and is expected to do so again," Barcelona's La Vanguardia newspaper wrote at the start of what is Spain's fifth presidency since it joined the EU in 1986.

Most important task: Ukraine and enlargement

At a meeting of think tanks in Madrid in preparation for the presidency, the Spanish political expert Carme Colomina commented that support for Ukraine and defense against Russia as the aggressor were still the most important tasks. "Ukraine is present in every discussion and every decision the EU makes," she said.

Pedro Sanchez standing in Irpin amid others, a damaged building in the background
Sanchez visited Ukraine's Irpin in February, and Ukraine will remain high on Spain's agendaImage: Adri Salido/AA/picture alliance

The EU must decide whether Ukraine, and Moldova in its wake, can begin accession negotiations with Brussels before the end of this year. Carme Colomina thinks there is also movement with regard to the other six applicant states in the western Balkans.

"There is strong momentum for enlargement. We just don't know yet how we can use that to make progress. It depends not only on the candidate countries, but also on us," the political expert said. This is an allusion to the urgent need to reform the EU so it can retain its capacity for action if it has even more members.

The Spanish foreign minister, Jose Manuel Albares Bueno, promises that Spain is keen to drive the discussion about the EU's capacity to take in new members. "We need to think about reforms that will lead to the next stage of integration," he said in Madrid. "One example would be more majority voting in foreign or fiscal policy. At the same time, we must not disregard the European perspectives of the accession countries."

Fans in Spain
Spain wants to stress its color and diversity during its time in the presidency — even using some stereotypical symbolsImage: Arto/Zoonar/picture alliance

Deficit rules and the electricity market

The Spanish government wants a whole raft of important EU draft legislation to be passed by the end of this year. It includes a reform of deficit rules for the eurozone.

Other important issues are the streamlining of asylum procedures at the EU's external borders, to be negotiated with the European Parliament, and agreeing a reform of the electricity market. At a press conference, Pedro Sanchez declared that the EU needed to become more independent of China, and to locate more key industries in Europe, or at least keep existing ones there.

In terms of foreign policy, Sanchez is focused on reviving relations with countries in Latin America and the Caribbean. He wants to sign trade agreements with the Mercosur bloc, as well as with Chile and Mexico. To this end, an EU-Latin America summit will be held in Brussels on July 17 and 18, before the Spanish election.

 Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva (L) and Spain's Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez
Sanchez, seen here with Brazil's President Lula in April, wants closer relations with Latin AmericaImage: THOMAS COEX/AFP

Presidential pomp

Unlike frugal Sweden, the current holder of the presidency, the Spanish government plans to take advantage of the opportunity to present its country to a European public.

The usual informal EU Council meetings, as well as a special summit, will be held in 22 different locations across Spain, including the resort islands of Mallorca and Gran Canaria.

By contrast, Sweden contented itself with holding the majority of its meetings, with only a few exceptions, in an inhospitable exhibition hall near Stockholm airport.

 This article was adapted from German.

Bernd Riegert
Bernd Riegert Senior European correspondent in Brussels with a focus on people and politics in the European Union