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Three scenarios
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Three scenarios

Spain's PM Pedro Sánchez is convinced that an early general election gamble will pay off and that his Socialist-led coalition will ascend to the EU throne as planned

Mark Nayler

Tuesday, 6 June 2023, 11:22

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With Spain poised to take up the six-month rotating presidency of the EU Council at the beginning of July, the Spanish left’s defeat in regional elections last weekend comes at an inconvenient moment. Yet Pedro Sánchez is convinced that an early general election gamble will pay off and that his Socialist-led coalition will ascend to the EU throne as planned. Is this wishful thinking, or further proof of what his supporters say is an infallible political instinct?

Spain last held the presidency of the EU Council in the first half of 2010. Then led by Socialist prime minister José Luis Zapatero, its most controversial move was to lift Brussels’ two-decades arms embargo on China, imposed after the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989. Sino-Spanish relations - which have been economically beneficial to Spain, especially during the last financial crisis - are also a priority for Sánchez, who is urging the Asian country to mediate in the Russia-Ukraine conflict. The international stage required to perform such complex diplomacy, though, might only belong to Spain for a very short act.

The best possible result for Sánchez and Brussels - let’s call it Scenario A - is that the Socialist leader is returned to office on July 23rd with a strengthened mandate, as happened to his Portuguese counterpart, Antonio Costa, last year. But there are crucial differences between the situations in Spain now and in Portugal at the beginning of 2022. Sánchez faces a stronger opposition than Costa did, one riding high on emphatic victories across the country. Of the smaller leftist parties from which Sánchez requires backing, fledgling Sumar is an unknown quantity and Podemos is in decline: it now has no presence in six of the twelve regions that voted on May 28th.

The other possibility, which seems more likely than Scenario A, is that Spain starts its six-month term at the helm of the EU under a Socialist government and switches, after about four or five weeks, to a Conservative leadership propped up by or in formal partnership with Vox. Quite apart from the upheaval this would cause in a period requiring stability and outward (rather than domestic) focus, both the Popular Party (PP) and Brussels would likely have problems with Eurosceptic Vox - although the latter party’s pro-Ukraine stance is in complete agreement with that of the current Spanish government.

A third possibility, Scenario C, seems more likely than both A and B, especially when you look at the last few general elections in Spain. This is that, following July 23rd, the country will drift without a properly functioning government for months, as either the PSOE and Podemos attempt to repair a coalition weakened by internal disagreements, or the PP and Vox try to replicate delicate regional arrangements at the national level. Brussels will be hoping for Scenario A at the same time as suspecting, with good reason, that either B or C will materialise.

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