Power struggles


Spain scored a qualified victory over the EU this week in negotiating a possible 7% reduction of gas usage from August to March, down from the 15% proposed by the Commission.

This is not only a rare case of Spain disagreeing with Brussels - it also highlights an aspect of Spanish foreign policy that could become more important if the EU declares a "severe" energy shortage as a result of the Russia-Ukraine conflict.

Why is Spain so uncharacteristically annoyed about the EU's attempt to control members' gas supplies? First, it says there was no consultation between the EU Commission and member states prior to the proposal's announcement, which is wonderfully ironic, considering that this is something of which Pedro Sánchez's administration has been frequently accused. Sánchez, as I've often had cause to note in this column, is much more fond of the Royal Decree than parliamentary debate.

Spain, Europe's sixth-largest energy consumer, is usually one of the bloc's most enthusiastic and obedient members. Its sudden opposition to Brussels' method of governance is not owed to a deeply-held principle, nor has it objected to the Commission dictating domestic policy in the past.

In accepting billions of euros as part of the post-Covid "Next Generation" scheme, for example, Spain has to comply with EU mandates on everything from digitalisation to "effective and sustainable public spending". In this situation, though, self-assertion costs nothing.

More importantly, Spain doesn't rely on Russia for Liquified Natural Gas (LNG): Algeria is the country's primary provider of LNG, followed by Qatar and Nigeria.

Germany, which relies on Russia for over half of its LNG, favours energy reductions even higher than the 15% proposed by Brussels and is considering gas rationing over the winter.

When it comes to EU legislation, one size clearly doesn't fit all. Indeed, Spain's second criticism of the proposed energy cuts highlights one of the bloc's biggest flaws. By ignoring crucial geopolitical differences (in this case, the source of member states' energy supplies), the European Commission's laws, supposedly beneficial to the entire Union, prove instead to be impractical and divisive.

Maintaining cordial relations with Algeria is now a top priority for Spain, despite recent appearances to the contrary. In June, Sánchez stunned half of his coalition as well as the Algerian government by announcing his endorsement of Moroccan hegemony in the disputed territory of Western Sahara.

Algeria promptly withdrew its treaty of "friendship, neighborliness and cooperation" with Spain, although assuring Sánchez that gas links between the two countries were not at risk.

In the medium-term future, though, Pedro Sánchez might need to be a little friendlier to this key north African ally, especially if he wants to preserve Spain's independence from the EU's punitive energy cuts.