Zapatero, stay cool. And if necessary, be boring

Interview with José Ignacio Torreblanca on what to expect from a Spanish Presidency in times of economic crisis and institutional innovation

José Ignacio Torreblanca is one of the main Spanish experts on EU issues. On this occasion, he delineates his thoughts on what to expect from the 2010 Spanish Presidency to The Euros. Although Spain is a clearly pro-European country, and the socialists are clearly devoted to the European project, this seems no longer to be enough. President Zapatero will have to cope with the economic crisis, domestic discreditation and a complicated European arena where roles are still ill-defined. Most importantly, and on what he will be judged at the end of the day, will be how he deals with unexpected events. Will he « Europeanize » his political behaviour – even without speaking English – or will he be trapped in domestic political calculations ? Will he be able to find a balance between necessary leadership and consensus seeking at EU level ? J.I Torreblanca’s advice to Zapatero : “Stay cool. And if necessary, be boring”.


This is the 4th time Spain will hold the six-month rotating Council Presidency. If, compared to 1989, 1995 and 2002, what can we expect to be the 2010 Presidency’s main characteristics ?

J.I. Torreblanca : The three previous presidencies took place in very favourable European contexts. In 1989, the late-comer Spain surprised the other member states by an efficient and well run Presidency. In 1995, Spain had already revealed itself as a key country in pushing for more EU integration : from the Mediterranean Policy to the new Transatlantic relation or the cohesion and citizenship policies, Spain earned a good reputation. And in 2002, despite all the odds, which pitched Spain against the candidate countries of Central and Eastern Europe in the fight for the EU budget, Spain managed to close the most delicate chapters of the enlargement negotiations without trouble. Now, with an employment devastated country and with France and Germany adopting different strategies for getting out of the economic crisis, Spain will have quite a lot of trouble in getting results. So, despite the will to make the crisis the goal of the Presidency, the odds for success are quite dim.

If compared to González and Aznar, how can Zapatero’s Europeanism be defined ? Is it a typical “socialist Europeanism” based on the idea that what is good for Europe is good for Spain ?

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Signature of the Acts of accession of Spain and Portugal in the EC

Photo : European Commission

J.I. Torreblanca : Yes, still very much for a good number of Spaniards, Europe is instinctively good for Spain. Compared to González and Zapatero, Aznar was much more assertive when defending national interests. But González was ideologically more liberal and closer to the centre of European politics than Zapatero, who is more isolated in economic and ideological terms in Europe, thus making his life much more difficult.

The Spanish presidency is happening at a crucial time : the application of the Lisbon Treaty, the economic crisis, the failure of Copenhagen, etc. Is it well prepared to cope with these challenges in terms of economic resources and adequate planning ?

J.I. Torreblanca : I’d say the administrative and diplomatic machinery is well trained and used to deal with Europe, so I expect no surprises. The political level can however be more problematic due to the lack of sufficient coordination among different bodies and Ministries. The debate on whether to introduce sanctions in the renewed Lisbon Agenda has been a bad start : the announcement took place in an informal press conference and the other EU governments were caught by surprise. Zapatero first backed up and then reaffirmed his proposals.

So you wouldn’t attribute the “Mr Bean” issue in the Presidency’s official website to a lack of adequate preparation ?

José Ignacio Torreblanca

J.I. Torreblanca is a a leading Spanish expert on EU issues.

He is currently Senior Research Fellow and Head of the Madrid Office of the European Council on Foreign Relations - ECFR and he previously worked at the prestigious - and one of the very few - Spanish Think Tank Elcano Royal Institute for International Affairs.

He taught political science and EU affairs at the distance learning University in Madrid and the Juan March Institute of Studies in Madrid. He has been Fulbright scholar in the European Union-US Program, Lecturer at the George Washington University in Washington DC and a researcher at the European University Institute in Florence.

He is also a member of the editorial board of the journal Foreign Policy en español, co-editor of blogeuropa.eu and a regular columnist in daily EL PAIS.

J.I. Torreblanca : Sincerely, I do not know enough about Internet security to tell the difference between a website which a 12 year old can hack and a professional assault. This is the key question and so far I have not seen any credible answer to it.

Would you consider that Spanish priorities for the Presidency are well defined and that they can be considered feasible objectives ?

J.I. Torreblanca : The goals dealing with the Lisbon Treaty, the economic crisis and Europe in the world are clear and feasible. I am more how skeptic about the innovation and citizens’ dimension, which reflect more domestic political priorities than well thought through policies and goals at the European level.

Regarding the institutional context where they will have to be implemented : If Europe was difficult to understand for average citizens, the “multiplication of Presidents” as foreseen by the Lisbon Treaty doesn’t make it easier. How will Spain manage these changes and what role is it willing to take ?

J.I. Torreblanca : I am not quite sure. On the one hand, Zapatero European instincts have led him to naturally accept Van Rompuy’s leadership. Zapatero does not want to appear as a problem and the obstacle to the Lisbon Treaty which Spain so badly has fought for. On the other hand, it is hard to ask Zapatero, badly damaged at home because of the economic crisis, not to have any protagonism and to renounce to cash in the political visibility and benefits associated with the Presidency.

So, can we still expect Zapatero, as he has promised, to let the new President Van Rompuy and the High Representative Ashton take the lead ? Would this be in contradiction with Spain’s extensive agenda and the many Council meetings it has scheduled ?

J.I. Torreblanca : Due to the uncertainty associated with the Lisbon Treaty, Spain had to plan for a standard Presidency. The amount of meetings seems standard, including the international summits. The problem now is who is going to chair some of these meetings and who the content is to be coordinated between Spain’s foreign Minister, in charge of the GAC and COREPER, and Ashton, dealing with the new Foreign Policy Council and the COPS.

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Who will take the lead ?

In a context where competences are still ill-defined, Zapatero will have to closely coordinate with Van Rompuy and Barroso.

Photo : European Commission

Certainly, the new institutional set-up demands a lot of “consensus” or “institutional balance”. Can this imperative harm the European aim to have a decisive international role ? Could it make it appear even less democratic in the eyes of the average citizen ?

J.I. Torreblanca : Consensus and institutional balance is the way the EU works. The costs are evident, but the alternative is not clear to me. In the context of the EU, “democratic” can only mean that there is consensus, balance, but, overall, transparency. This is often the problem : that citizens do not know who decided what, when and how.

Concerning Spain’s priorities for Europe in the world : will these six months be a good occasion to re-launch the relationship with Latin America and the Mediterranean ?

J.I. Torreblanca : I doubt it. These two regions lack internal cohesion, and the EU has already exhausted all its instruments. Some countries in these regions are persuaded by the EU and have moved quite fast ; others are quite skeptical. Probably the EU can offer more to the already –convinced. But is it willing to ? And no matter what the EU offers, it can hardly change the reluctants’ view.

On internal priorities : as you pointed out, some aspects of the Spanish agenda for the Presidency are very much related to domestic politics issues (reduction of unemployment, terrorism, gender violence, etc). How can Zapatero capitalise on these 6 months for domestic purposes ?

J.I. Torreblanca : Spain will not see light at the end of the economic crisis until late this year : even then, it might get positive growth levels but employment will very slowly rise, and only in association to external demand (i.e. Franco-German economic recovery). Zapatero’s approval rate has suffered heavily because of the crisis, and his 2011 budget may well lead to severe expenditure cuts to contain soaring deficits and public expenditures. In this adverse context, any political capital is welcomed, and both the Spanish Presidency and the Obama factor are to play a role. A successful Presidency will help the government buy time and get much needed political credit.

If you could give an advice to the Spanish Presidency for these six months, what would it be ?

J.I. Torreblanca : Stay cool ! And if necessary, be boring. It may be a sign of efficiency.


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