What do Spain’s snap elections mean for the EU Council Presidency?

By Javier Garrido, Senior Public Affairs Consultant

Spain will take over the six-month rotating presidency of the EU Council on 1 July. And three weeks later, Spain will hold general elections originally slated for December. This is not exceptional, as France, for example, held both rounds of its presidential elections last year during its EU presidency, or Croatia in 2020. But it is unusual.

The political earthquake caused by the victory of the conservative Partido Popular (PP) and the poor performance of the parties in the left-wing coalition government, led by PSOE, in last Sunday’s municipal and regional elections is likely to reverberate in the general elections. This could lead to a change of government in Madrid at the beginning of the “golden presidency”, so called because it is the last presidency under which the EU institutions will be able to work at full capacity and close big legislative files before the end of the term.

The Belgian presidency will start next January. It will be marked by the dissolution of the European Parliament and the elections campaign. And there is controversy around Hungary’s turn at the helm in the second half of 2024.

The catalogue of issues for the coming months is long:  the overhaul of Europe’s electricity market, the world-leading attempt to regulate artificial intelligence, climate change goals, the strategy to promote green industries and prevent their exodus to the US, the conclusion and ratification of trade agreements (particularly the Mercosur deal) and the EU’s new fiscal rules, to mention a few. However, the hopes of the Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez to deliver a successful presidency closing many of the big issues at the end of the legislative cycle may now be dashed.

On a practical level, a change of government will not have a major impact on the Spanish presidency. With the preparations already made, the machinery will run almost automatically with the support of the European Council and the Commission, regardless of who is in government. However, the elections could pose a problem for Spain’s positions and interests rather than for the presidency itself and for the other EU partners. Although the PP and PSOE have divergent positions on some issues that will be debated during the Spanish presidency, such as the Nature Restoration Law that has been rejected by the conservatives in the European Parliament, a change in the Spanish executive is unlikely to change the presidency agenda. The PSOE and the PP agree on the key issues, so the approach to the presidency would be similar. A new government would probably have its hands tied as the agenda for the semester is closed – and the key post of Spain’s Ambassador to the EU is unlikely to change before the end of the year.

Nevertheless, while the role as honest broker of a rotating presidency will not change, the political impetus required to move forward and achieve consensus on big EU files could be affected, as half of Spain’s term could be in the hands of an acting or campaigning government, with a focus on the national agenda. The snap elections also mean that Spain’s EU presidency may focus on technical rather than political issues.

A political leadership vacuum in Spain would also come at an inconvenient time for Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen, as she finalises some of her flagship initiatives, which could boost her chances of a second mandate if she decides to run.

Given the current uncertainty, the Spanish government is trying to guarantee that all the institutional and political responsibilities of the EU presidency are held. Only the elections and a swift formation of a new government will provide the necessary certainty.

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