Spain's Presidency will Push Post-Lisbon Changes amid Economic Crisis     Print

Holding the EU’s rotating presidency for the first six months this year, Spain has laid out an agenda that highlights two themes: implementing the Lisbon agenda and helping Europe emerge from the economic crisis.

Spanish ambitions in the EU realm, however, are likely to be strongly colored and perhaps even skewed by the national challenges of reassuring its partners in the euro zone and world markets that Madrid can regain control of its worsening budget gap.

Spain's Prime Minister, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, has indicated that his country’s presidency will focus on four main concerns: 1) helping Europe emerge from the economic crisis by promoting balanced and sustainable growth, 2) promoting rapid and complete application of the Lisbon Treaty, 3) encouraging participation of citizens in the EU, and 4) developing a "global, responsible, and supportive" foreign policy, which aims to strengthen the transatlantic relationship.

The Spanish presidency comes at a defining moment for the EU—with the historic Lisbon Treaty coming into force, and the new permanent President and High Representative taking office. As the first presidency to operate under the Lisbon Treaty, the relationship Spain develops with the new EU leaders could set a precedent for future EU presidencies. Spain also plans to act in close coordination with the next two presidency holders, Belgium and Hungary, to provide a model for increasing consistency in EU leadership.

Spain has already suffered embarrassment when President Barack Obama abruptly announced that he will not attend a planned U.S.-EU summit meeting that had been scheduled for Madrid in May. The EU quickly cancelled the Madrid meeting and moved the venue to Brussels, and people around Herman Van Rompuy, the new EU president, say that after Spain’s EU presidency all such summits will be held in Brussels.

Obama’s rebuff is a symbolic blow since this first bilateral summit after the implementation of the Lisbon Treaty was supposed to help the EU establish its credentials as a serious player on the world stage.

Unapologetically, U.S. officials said, not for attribution, that the White House had become impatient about the choice of low profile individuals -- Van Rompuy and Catherine Ashton -- for the posts of EU president and foreign affairs chief, choices that indicate a gradual approach to stronger EU foreign policy. Already, U.S. officials had become disappointed over the lack of concrete results from previous presidential contacts with EU leaders. In addition, Obama is facing suddenly-escalating domestic political opposition ahead of Congressional elections next November, so he has reasons to curtail his travel plans and signal that he is devoting his attentions to the home front. The Wall Street Journal quotes various U.S. officials as saying that the U.S. had never intended to come to the summit; the decision was due to the EU’s own dilemma over where the summit should be; Obama’s domestic political troubles meant he would not be taking the time or laying the blame on his heavy travel schedule. Last year, the U.S. president travelled to Europe six times.

Regardless of the special circumstances, the U.S. decision seems to reflect a White House mood of disappointment about the lack of tangible results in U. S. relations with Europe over Obama’s first year in office.

The European Parliament has approved the new European Commission –“Barroso II” behind re-appointed Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso with his 26-member college. The vote ended an eight- month hiatus in governance from the commission at the height of the economic crisis – another mark against the EU’s credibility in the eyes of many in Washington.

This Commission has vowed to work actively towards a “people’s Europe’ – in contrast to the current situation in which many EU citizens feel that the union is too much run by a remote, faceless bureaucracy in Brussels, according to Isabelle Benoliel, director at the Directorate General for Competition in the European Commission. She spoke at an event organized by the European Institute in Washington on February 5, 2010.

Alongside that, the Commission's main goals of its five-year mandate will be to help EU countries work their out of the crisis and seek to regain a global lead on climate change. Making Europe more energy efficient would represent progress toward both these goals.

Referring to the dire straits of the European Union's economy, Barroso has also stressed that economic co-ordination should be reinforced, saying “we should have a real economic union."

He promised that Olli Rehn, the commissioner in charge of economic and monetary affairs, would use the powers in the new Lisbon Treaty - allowing the commission to issue warnings and policy recommendations to member states falling back on economic targets - to "develop this line."

The European Parliament has also emerged in the new post-Lisbon Treaty era with a stronger foothold in EU law-making – including a role in international agreements. Already, the Parliament is opening a liaison office in Washington and other capitals to help with this new aspect of its work.