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14th Apr 2024

Spain's PM Sánchez travels to Kyiv to begin EU presidency

  • The last time Spain held the EU Council presidency was in 2010 — at the height of the eurozone crisis (Photo: European Union)
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Spain will take over the six-month EU Council rotating presidency from Sweden on Saturday (1 July), amid uncertainty over the impact of the country's upcoming domestic elections on its priorities.

Spain's prime minister Pedro Sánchez will kick off its presidency by immediately travelling to Kyiv this Saturday. This will be his third time in Ukraine since the start of the war.

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After the two-day summit in Brussels, Sánchez said "Russia must take responsibility for all the damage it has caused in Ukraine" and that the EU is looking for a formula to use Russian frozen assets for Ukraine's reconstruction in line with international law.

During Ukraine president Volodymyr Zelensky's address to EU leaders on Friday, he said that the visit of Sánchez this weekend says "a lot about the importance of the next six months for Europe and Ukraine's EU membership bid," an EU official said.

The EU Commission is expected to present a detailed assessment of Ukraine's reforms in the face of its EU membership bid, as part of its annual enlargement package. This will also be discussed by EU leaders at the Political Community Summit in October in the southern Spanish city of Granada.

One of the priorities highlighted by the Spanish presidency is about boosting "Europe's unity" — although making progress on the long-delayed pact on migration and asylum has been proven difficult during the last summit in Brussels where EU leaders failed to adopt conclusions on migration.

While inter-institutional negotiations over the pact have already started between EU countries and the EU Parliament, the issue is "highly sensitive" for many countries, said Sánchez.

He pointed out there is a key difference between a country which is a point of entry for migrants like Spain or Italy or Greece, and others that do not have that geographical dilemma.

The Spanish presidency will continue working to finalise the text in a "constructive" manner while defending its own interests to achieve "a balance of responsibility and solidarity," the socialist leader said.

Latin America connection

For Spain, the diplomatic, economic, and cultural relationship with South America has always been key, given their shared history and common language.

This partly explains that one of the key priorities of the Spanish presidency will be to revive relationships between Europe and Latin American and Central American countries, after years of estrangement.

The last EU-CELAC [Community of Latin American and Caribbean States] summit took place in 2015.

But Europe is now expected to set up a structured dialogue and regular meetings.

The upcoming EU-CELAC summit is seen as a geopolitical opportunity to send a political message to these countries, but also as momentum for trade agreements with Mercosur countries, Chile and Mexico.

After the war in Ukraine, Europe has to create alliances with other parts of the world, Sánchez said, adding that this is not only a commercial association but also a "strategic" one.

"It is difficult to find a space of greater convergence than the one we have in Latin America and Europe, not only from a linguistic point of view, but also from a cultural point of view, of the order we want for the world, of how we conceive our political organisation," said Ramón Jáuregui, head of the Euroamérica Foundation.

Advancing green files, fiscal policies and social initiatives will also be among the priorities of the Spanish presidency.

EU Parliament president Roberta Metsola said on Friday that she expects Madrid to close as many draft laws as possible since there are currently 177 legislative files open and on the table. These include the EU's flagship rulebook for Artificial Intelligence (AI Act), the European Critical Raw Materials Act, and the Net-Zero Industry Act, which is one of the EU's proposals to respond to the US Inflation Reduction Act (IRA).

Spain will have the penultimate presidency of the council before the 2024 European elections, and advances in the last batch of legislation under the Green Deal are seen as crucial for its success — amid fears over potential regulatory fatigue on green issues.

"Spain must ensure files like the REACH Revision [on chemicals], the Nature Restoration Law and the Sustainable Use of Pesticides Regulation sit firmly on the agenda," said Patrick ten Brink, a campaigner from the European Environmental Bureau.

People's Party plus Vox fears

While concerns have been raised over a potential change in the Spanish government after July's elections, experts argue that the role of the presidency should also be seen in the wider context of EU policymaking.

"There shouldn't be any strong impacts even if we are in the scenario of a change of government … the EU has two other important institutions: the European Parliament and the European Commission. So we have a balance of powers," Ana Barreira, a lawyer from the International Institute for Law and Environment, said.

While the shape that will take the outcome of the national elections remains to be seen, many fear a U-turn in social and labour policies if the centre-right People's Party wins the general election on 23 July and forms a coalition government with the far-right Vox.

Meanwhile, the European People's Party (EPP) leader Manfred Weber has already welcomed Spain's conservative leader Alberto Núñez Feijóo, pointing out that his party will provide "strong and stable leadership" in Spain and give "much-needed direction" during the Spanish Presidency.

For her part, Spanish socialist leader MEP Iratxe García has warned about the attitude of conservative forces regarding green files while supporting her fellow Spanish socialist leader.

"At this historic turning point, the government led by Pedro Sánchez can bring the progressive and pro-European impulse that the Union needs," she said.

The last time Spain held the EU Council presidency was in 2010 amid the eurozone crisis.

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