The six-month rotating presidency of the European Union passed on 1 January 2010 from Sweden to Spain. At the formal ceremony of transition in Madrid on 8 January, the Spanish prime minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero outlined a bold agenda: he reaffirmed that his country’s tenure would be one of action and initiative in which financial recovery and the boosting of the EU’s place in the world would be his foremost priorities.
It sounds like the expression of confident leadership that a Europe buffeted by the economic crisis, the failure of the Copenhagen summit and its shrinking global role badly needs. But what are the prospects of Zapatero fulfilling his lofty aims? The centre-left leader approaches the sixth anniversary of his first election in March 2004 (he won a narrow second victory in 2008) amid mounting domestic problems and with a mixed record in economic and foreign policy.
Moreover, an air of experiment surrounds the EU presidency. The (Lisbon) constitutional treaty - finally operative in December 2009 - has established a new president of the European council (a role filled by the former Belgian prime minister Herman van Rompuy), and the way this figure will coordinate with the EU’s “national” leadership is not yet entirely clear. There are many sceptics of various stripes ready to pounce if José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero fails his self-appointed tests.
A time of test
A glance at Spain’s economy, and the prime minister’s handling of it, is sobering. The unemployment rate hovers around 19%, there is a huge budget deficit, and the property sector is still reeling from its sudden collapse. The Eurostat research service estimates that Spain will be one of the last European countries to emerge from recession and that its economy will fail to grow throughout much of 2010.
Zapatero has mostly enjoyed strong approval ratings since coming to power in 2004 in the immediate aftermath of the Madrid train bombs, even if his progressive social agenda has angered many on the right. But the last two years have seen his credibility plummet, as he stubbornly refused to acknowledge that the gathering economic clouds during 2008 were a sign of troubles to come (and even attacked those who spoke of an imminent crisis as “unpatriotic”), and then saw Spain enter its worst slump since the civil war of 1936-39.
The government’s response to the recession has been to pour money into the problem in the hope of jump-starting a recovery. However, Zapatero has resisted private-sector calls for a major reform of Spain’s rigid labour market, insisting that workers’ rights must not be eroded.
The fact that Zapatero is the only socialist leader among the EU’s most influential nations (discounting Gordon Brown’s Labour from such a category) means he may find it hard to replicate such an economic policy across the EU. Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy, for example, are unlikely to support a politician who told the New York Times: “When an economy enters a deep recession, the only way we can come out of it is from a big push from the public sector … (Some people) want to deregulate workers’ rights, deregulate social rights. That is exactly the same tune as people who say we have to deregulate the financial markets, and I do not dance to that tune.”
Foreign policy presents an equally stiff challenge. The monolingual Zapatero has few political kindred-spirits among his counterparts, generally cuts a timid figure at international summits, and has failed to punch his country’s weight in Europe. Among the few bright spots are the warming of ties with Morocco - a vital relationship for Spain - and his “alliance of civilisations” initiative, an admittedly somewhat vague project created with Turkey’s prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan that seeks to improve east-west relations.
Indeed, accelerating Turkey’s stuttering integration into the EU is another of Zapatero’s stated aims during Spain’s six-month presidency. This will be another severe test, since a trio of presidents - Merkel, Sarkozy and van Rompuy - is firmly opposed to this outcome. Kosovo too will be an acutely uncomfortable issue, since Madrid - wary of the aspirations to statehood of Basque and Catalan nationalists - has refused to acknowledge the new Balkan state even as the EU as a whole has officially recognised it.
A new stage
Yet other areas of foreign policy could offer Zapatero the chance of real success during Spain’s presidency. His foreign minister Miguel Angel Moratinos has said Spain will push for a new bilateral agreement on European Union-Cuba ties. Spain’s close historical links with the island, Moratinos’s own relatively good relationship with the Castro regime, and Washington’s fresh recent approach to the issue together point to progress here.
Zapatero’s period in office has put Spain at the forefront of efforts to improve the EU’s relations with Havana. Spain’s presidency will seek to replace the EU’s unilateral “common position” on Cuba (adopted in 1996, this demands progress on human rights and democracy as a condition for resuming normal relations) with a bilateral accord whereby Havana would agree to make commitments, including on human rights.
This approach would seem to chime with Barack Obama’s more open policy towards Cuba, reflecting the belief that the nearly five-decades-old embargo is simply not effective in fostering human rights on the island. An element of personal chemistry here may work in favour of change. Zapatero’s relationship with George W Bush was non-existent after he fulfilled a 2004 election promise by withdrawing Spain’s troops from Iraq and calling on other countries to do the same; Bush managed over the next five years to avoid a single one-on-one meeting with his Spanish counterpart. The 48-year-old Obama has already welcomed the 49-year-old Zapatero to the White House, to find the two men share both a birthday and a love of basketball.
Much will still depend on how Zapatero performs in the core European Union arena. He will, as the ceremony on 8 January made plain, be only one of another trio of presidents – for the arrival of the low-key Herman van Rompuy in the new institutional post leaves the head of the European commission, José Manuel Barroso, still in place. The rotating format, however, survives; and as the first post-Lisbon president Zapatero may find that much of the power (as opposed to the pomp and symbolism) will remain in his hands. The danger is that with three unassuming figures at the helm, the image of the union as a bland and rudderless vessel of bureaucracy will be reinforced.
But Zapatero’s controversial withdrawal of troops from Iraq and his (albeit doomed) attempt to broker peace with the Basque terrorist group ETA shows his capacity to take bold action. Now he has the unique opportunity to help define a new era in the European Union’s constitutional and political life – and make a rare mark on the world stage. If he can also deliver some much-needed improvement to Spain’s beleaguered economy it would amount to an achievement worth celebrating.