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Prime minister Pedro Sánchez. EFE
Centre stage

Centre stage

Mark Nayler

Friday, 30 June 2023, 15:17

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Spain takes centre stage on Saturday, when it assumes the rotating, six-month presidency of the EU Council. It does so at a time of domestic instability: Socialist prime minister Pedro Sánchez leads a caretaker government which is likely to be defeated by the Conservative Popular Party (PP) in a general election in just three weeks' time. In this respect, there are illuminating similarities between the situation in Spain and the uncertainty that prevailed in Sweden at the beginning of this year, when the northern European country began its stint at the helm of the EU Council.

Unveiling his priorities for the presidency at La Moncloa this week, Sánchez praised the EU and Spain for overcoming opposition from the "many anti-European parties that have gained political weight and even a presence in our institutions".

This was in part a reference to Vox, the only party in a generally pro-EU country to push a Eurosceptic line, especially on immigration. Sánchez thinks that EU members' immigration problems are best solved with a single, overarching policy for the bloc as a whole (which perhaps explains why he's made no real attempts to deal with the situations in the Canary Islands, Ceuta or Melilla); but Vox, which might join the PP as a junior partner in the next Spanish government, wants tighter controls on illegal immigration and less, not more, cohesion with the EU in general.

This mirrors the situation in Sweden at the end of 2022, when three centre-right parties formed a coalition after the general election of 11th September. To govern, they entered into a supply-and-confidence arrangement with the Sweden Democrats, a right wing group founded in the 1980s that opposes increased integration with the EU (although it favours stronger ties with other Nordic countries).

When Sweden took control of the EU Council at the beginning of 2023, there were fears, both at home and in Brussels, that such a staunchly anti-EU party might complicate the country's occupancy of the presidency - but those concerns have proved largely unfounded. This highlights the fact that the leader of the Council is still beholden to other member states in its actions, which places a considerable restraint on any anti-EU forces operating in a predominantly pro-EU environment.

Sánchez's priorities are broadly the same as Sweden's: a focus on green energy and environmental issues, a call for greater integration (especially on immigration and fiscal policies), solidarity with Ukraine and the reduction of reliance on third parties. Sweden's six months at the head of the EU suggests that none of this would change much if a centre-right coalition takes control of Spain next month: even if the PP's pro-EU stance is tempered by Eurosceptic rhetoric from Vox, the practical implications for the bloc would likely be minimal.

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