Sunday

29th Mar 2020

Spain ends invisible EU presidency

  • Mr Moratinos (c) and Ms Ashton (r) at work in the EU Council (Photo: consilium.eu)

Spain's EU presidency will be remembered for its "messy" foreign policy and the invisibility of Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Zapatero.

It began with a hacker putting the face of a TV character, Mr Bean, a comic bumbler who bears a passing resemblance to the Spanish leader, on the Spanish presidency website at the moment of its launch in January.

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US President Barack Obama's decision in February to skip an EU-US summit in Madrid, to have been the jewel in the crown of Spain's EU chairmanship, made the Spanish premier again look silly.

The cancellation of an EU summit with Arab and Israeli leaders in May took away another chance to shine on the international stage.

But Mr Zapatero's lack of visibility was the most striking on the big issue dominating the past six months - the eurozone debt crisis.

Spain ceded control of the EU response, the creation of a eurozone bail-out fund and new rules on joint economic governance, to EU Council chief Herman Van Rompuy, France and Germany. Its most direct contribution was making sure that stress-testing of EU banks is made public.

One reading is that Mr Zapatero took a back seat in line with the Lisbon Treaty, which installed Mr Van Rompuy and which came into force in December, giving Madrid the difficult task of handling the transition period.

"He was in the right place, in the shadows, supporting Mr Van Rompuy," a Spanish diplomat said.

Another reading is that he hid behind Mr Van Rompuy in order to deflect attention from the near-collapse of Spain's economy. "They wanted to avoid the question: what kind of action should be taken? What are you going to do given that you have your own crisis?" an EU diplomat said.

On a positive note, Spain shepherded through a number of behind-the-scenes agreements. It unblocked an EU law against trade in illegal timber. It helped defuse a row with the European Parliament on the "Swift" counter-terrorism pact and it launched a new diplomatic committee, "Cosi," on internal EU security.

"It could have been worse ... Imagine if it had been Sarkozy," another EU diplomat said, on how the hyperactive French leader might have reacted to sharing power with Mr Van Rompuy.

Mr Zapatero's right-hand man, foreign minister Miguel Angel Moratinos, developed a prickly relationship with the EU's new foreign relations chief, Catherine Ashton.

The Spanish foreign ministry made a number of unilateral moves that made the EU high representative look weak. The Spanish ambassador in Beijing said the EU should lift its arms embargo on China. Then Mr Moratinos said the EU should normalise relations with Cuba. Following the Gaza flotilla attack, he wrote a letter to media with French and Italian ministers instead of Ms Ashton.

The Cuba initiative, which failed, prompted accusations that Spain was more interested in making money in its former colony than generating EU pressure on human rights.

"It was messy," one EU diplomat said on Spain's overall foreign policy performance. "They misjudged the EU mood," another diplomatic contact said.

A Spanish diplomat defended Mr Moratinos' work, saying he helped Ms Ashton to clinch a deal on the European External Action Service with member states and parliament.

"I don't think there can be any doubt about his loyalty to Ms Ashton," the diplomat said.

On Cuba, the contact added: "Spain said the European position, which dates back to 1996, should be looked at. Unfortunately the Cubans moved very little. Unfortunately, they gave us reasons to do the opposite with their treatment of prisoners, particularly [Orlando Zapata Tamayo], who died in prison."

Warsaw looks on

Poland, the next big country to hold the EU chairmanship, has noted the shrinking role of the rotating presidency under Spain and the Lisbon Treaty.

Warsaw in May signaled lofty ambitions for its turn at the EU helm, due in late 2011, by sending 22 ministers and junior ministers to meet with the European Commission in Brussels. It wants to shape talks about the bloc's 2014 to 2020 budget, to launch enhanced co-operation on defence, and to press on with EU integration of post-Soviet countries such as Ukraine.

Piotr Kaczynski, an analyst at the Centre for European Policy Studies, a Brussels-based think-tank, said Warsaw should focus on technical issues such as Ukrainian visa-free travel and "leave the big CFSP [EU foreign policy] to Ashton."

But it will be tempting to give Prime Minister Donald Tusk a bigger role than Mr Zapatero, he added.

"They need a project to make him [Mr Tusk] look like a good husband of state, but not to undermine Van Rompuy or Ashton. Well, a little, but not too much," Mr Kaczynski said.

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