OPN_ future of EU
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When explorers of the New World returned across the Atlantic to Europe, the snow-capped mountains that shape much of the landscape of northern Spain was often the first glimpse of land for the seafarers. They christened these “los Picos de Europa” — the peaks of Europe.

For centuries, those mountains were mostly impenetrable to foreign invaders. The Romans gave up, so too the Moors, and that mostly explains why the area retains its historical charms.

As this correspondent toured the area last week, there was little if any sign too that come July 23, the voters here and all across Spain will be heading to the polls in a general election to form a new government in Madrid. A single sign in a second-floor window in the town of Potes urged voters to vote for the PSOE candidate to send a social voice back to Madrid.

As things stand now the PSOE, led by Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez are narrowly trailing the conservative People’s Party (PP). Polls show the PP would have enough support to fill about 140 seats in the 350-member national parliament, slightly down on the 141 seats estimated in the previous round of opinion polling. Sanchez’ PSOE would get 102.

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What is certain is that a period of horse trading and coalition talks would follow the election while the parties seek enough support to form a government.

Following municipal elections in May — the results were poor for Podemos, the junior coalition partner of PSOE in government, hence Sanchez’ decision to call a snap general election — the PP allied with the far-right Vox party to take control of the regional parliaments in the provinces of Valencia and Extremadura. Now, opinions polls show a PP-Vox coalition at 175 seats, one short of an overall majority in the new parliament.

Podemos and smaller parties on the left have since united under a single banner, Sumar, and they, with the PSOE, would expect to get 35 seats. The prospect then is that pressure will be on representatives from the Basque region and Catalonian separatists to join with PSOE in a grand coalition to keep Vox out of office.

The right-wing party does include the phrase “Make Spain Great Again” in some of its advertising, is staunchly anti-immigrant and wants stronger powers for the Madrid government. Its followers closely associate with the regime of long-time Spanish autocrat General Francisco Franco.

If there is any relief for Sanchez, it’s that opinion polls seem to suggest support for a PP-Vox coalition is softening as voters ponder the prospect of the nation of 48 million taking a hard right turn.

Setting the political agenda

That’s a prospect too that is unsettling for much of the rest of Europe — ever more so given that on July 1, Spain assumed the rotating presidency of the European Council made up by the prime ministers and leaders of all 27 EU member-states.

For Eurocrats, the situation is rather unique, with no one quite sure whether Sanchez will be setting the political agenda for the bloc until the end of the year, or whether things will suddenly change if a PP-Vox coalition assumes power in Madrid.

For his part, Sanchez has been playing down the prospect of a sudden change in leadership and agenda for Europe. “Democracy is never a problem,” he said in June. “It’s not the first time in Europe that elections have taken place during a presidency.”

While Sanchez is technically correct — President Emmanuel of France were re-elected in May 2022 while chairing the Council of Europe, and the Czech government fell in 2009 while it held the rotating presidency — it does mark the first time there might be a change of government and leader right at the start of the six-month term.

Sanchez has postponed his appearance in the European Parliament while he campaigns for re-election. That has been postponed until September — and the invite is open to the Prime Minister of Spain, whomever that might be.

Spanish Eurocrats in Brussels insist that the work of the presidency will continue smoothly as planned, elections or not, stressing that the topics for Spain’s rotating presidency have been prepared months in advance.

Sanchez and his foreign minister, Jose Manuel Albares Bueno are keen to promote fast-tracking the expansion of the EU, with the memberships of Ukraine and Moldovia high on their agenda.

Economic and inflationary bumps

Indeed, the economic and inflationary bumps caused by the conflict in Ukraine have pressed Spanish officials to push for a wide-ranging reform of the electricity marker in the bloc under its presidency. Madrid also wants a reform of the strict deficit rules for the 19 EU nations that use the euro as their common currency.

Sanchez is pressing too for the EU to be more protectionist of its industries, making it more robust in seeing off investment bids from China.

More than anything, Sanchez was hoping that the trappings of being the president of the EU would allow the government to project a more positive and diplomatic charm offensive.

Sweden, which held the presidency for the first six months of 2023, kept a low profile, with meetings of ministers relegated to an airport exhibition centre.

Sanchez has plans for a far more elaborate presidency, with EU meetings set for 22 different locations across Spain, including the resort islands of Mallorca and Gran Canaria.

Until voters have their say on July 23, no one is quite sure who will be doing the formal meeting and greeting — or indeed what they will want to push onto Brussels’ agenda.