The Spanish Presidency ends this Wednesday. It was an eventful presidency due to being the first to operate in the institutional framework of Lisbon and having to deal with the crisis that hit the euro and Spain in particular, in January. To draw conclusions from the presidency of the last six months, we asked Ana Mar Fernández, Professor of Political Science at the University of Barcelona and researcher at Sciences Po, to talk to us about European issues.
Touteleurope.fr : The Lisbon Treaty established a stable presidency of the Council, overseen by Mr. Van Rompuy that does not, however, replace the rotating presidency. It has been said many times that relations between the rotating presidency and the stable presidency would be determined through practice. What is your assessment of the cooperation seen over the last six months?
Ana Mar Fernández : This cooperation was established in an informal way. It was particularly positive due to the profiles of the people in key positions. This was the case for cooperation between the Spanish Presidency and the Council Presidency but also between the Presidency of the Council and the Presidency of the Commission. Mr. Barroso and Mr. Van Rompuy established a system of informal meetings which were held once a week to really aid cooperation.
The rotating presidency also took part in this cooperative approach. Mr. Van Rompuy and Mr. Zapatero made joint appearances and joint declarations. Although conflict was expected, in practice, the dynamic was more one of cooperation. Particularly because of the crisis that affected Europe, and the internal consequences for Spain, the debate about leadership was no longer a priority.
TLE: What was Spain’s approach to the presidency?
AMF : In carrying out the presidency, Spain always tries to engage to the fullest extent and that is what they were trying to do this time also. However, the system change brought about by the Lisbon Treaty involved reconsidering the space given to this presidency. It was less visible because it got less media attention. This is why the presidency was a little lacklustre especially when compared to the French Presidency in 2008. Spain’s initial engagement was the same as the other times but visibility was lacking.
Furthermore, the economic situation acted as a constraint on Spain. Internal circumstances monopolised part of its attention.
TLE : Belgium announced that it will take a back seat role in exercising its presidency. Are we moving towards individualised presidencies?
AMF : The institutional constraints mean that the leadership of the presidencies amount to less but they can always put their own stamp on it. The style of presidencies will continue to depend on each country. Normally in this respect, Benelux presidencies are nothing like presidencies á la française!
TLE : Is the rotating presidency still useful?
AMF : That’s an interesting question! It is of course necessary that someone chairs meetings and looks after the administrative tasks involved. It is not a question of usefulness as such because, in this respect, I do not see how we could get rid of the presidency.
But is a presidency efficient? Initially, the reform aimed to improve the coherence of the Council and efficiency in decision making. To what extent does the fact of having a strengthened presidency that works in parallel render decision making more efficient? I can’t say. The previous presidency lacked continuity. But can this not be corrected by establishing a stable Council Presidency at all levels – COREPER, Council of Ministers, European Council? In fact, despite the triumvirate, the trio of presidencies and the joint programme which improves stability, it is still three different national administrations with three different administrative cultures. A supranational general secretary with a European culture could strengthen the capacity of the system.
TLE : With regard to the trio and the joint programme, could they help Belgium to carry out its Presidency smoothly despite its internal political difficulties?
AMF : Or the opposite could be the case! Spain in the past has restored its image in public opinion through holding the presidency. That might not be quite the case for Belgium, given its long tradition of holding the presidency, and this might reduce the impact.
TLE : How was the presidency perceived in Spain? Did the economic crisis eclipse it?
AMF : I have the feeling that it passed almost unnoticed. This was not through a lack of investing in publicity but the media did not really run with this presidency.
In Spain, the presidency has always been a big event. We invest heavily in it and do not skimp on the costs yet, with the help of the economic crisis, this was not at all the case this time. The message, perhaps exaggerated, that was carried by the media was that the economic adjustments which had to be introduced in Spain were imposed by the European Union. It is frustrating for a country that is holding the presidency to have to conform to what Europe commands.
TLE : Were the priorities of the Spanish Presidency fulfilled? The adoption of the 2020 Strategy, financial regulation, the fight against violence against women etc. What was the most important measure taken during this presidency?
AMF : I think that the main result is institutional rather than political. The Spanish Presidency succeeded in putting the Lisbon Treaty into operation – in relations with other institutions and in its external affairs work for example. This was the primary goal and, as such, it has been reached.
However, in terms of public policy results, I do not have the impression that there was really any flagship measure. In any case, that is not what will be remembered. The economic situation was the priority and Spain’s domestic situation prevented it from really advancing things.
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