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Spain’s EU Presidency: The Agenda to Bring “Europe, Closer”

Maša Ocvirk Wilson Center Headshot

On July 1, Spain took over the rotating presidency of the Council of the EU from Sweden. With the last fully operational presidency before the European Parliament election in June 2024, and with a Spanish general election on July 23, the article identifies the key priorities of the Spanish Presidency to make the EU more capable of addressing today's challenges.

The President of the Government of Spain, Pedro Sanchez, and the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen attend a joint press conference on the occasion of the College of European Commissioners visit to Madrid, July 3, 2023.
The President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen and Spanish Prime Minister, Pedro Sanchez attend a joint press conference on the occasion of the College of European Commissioners visit to Madrid, July 3, 2023.

On July 1, Spain took over the rotating presidency of the Council of the EU from Sweden. This is an opportunity for a member state to highlight its political vision for the EU. For the next six months Spain will steer the work of the EU: organizing key meetings, summits and trialogues to advance the EU’s agenda. It will also work together with the upcoming Belgian and Hungarian presidencies under the Trio Program to ensure the continuity of projects and negotiations over the next 18-months. The challenges facing the EU — internally and externally— are immense, and the pressure to deliver is high. Even more so, because this is the last fully operational presidency before the European Parliament election in June 2024 and on July 23, Spain will hold snap national elections, potentially leading to a new government running the Spanish EU presidency.  

Under the motto “Europe, closer”, Spain has set out four priorities that focus on areas and reforms to make the EU a stronger union, capable of rising to major global challenges. Spain will seek to reindustrialize and boost the EU’s competitiveness on the global market, continue its ambitious climate and digital agenda, promote greater social and economic cohesion, and build stronger unity among member states. To achieve this, there are several key EU policies and legislative files that the Spanish presidency will have to get over the finish line. 

Under an economy-heavy agenda, the Green Deal Industrial Plan—created partially as a response to the United States’ Inflation Reduction Act—will take center stage. In the UN Climate Change’s race to zero campaign there has been mounting pressure for the EU to keep up with the competition by boosting its manufacturing capacity and building resilient supply chains to produce clean technologies. In order to meet this goal, the Spanish presidency will have to achieve progress on two pieces of legislation, the  Critical Raw Material Act and the Net-Zero Industry Act. It is also expected to reach agreement among EU member states on the European Commission’s negotiating directives for the EU-US Critical Minerals Agreement—a transatlantic effort to avoid a green-subsidy race.  

Spain will also use this opportunity to reform the EU’s economic governance framework. Despite a general agreement on the need to adapt the fiscal rules under the Stability and Growth Pact, two blocks have formed around Germany and France on how to go about this. As one of the initiators of the push for a reform to establish more flexible rules on the path and pace of national debt reductions, it will be interesting to see how Spain navigates its role as an honest broker to reach a deal before the old rules snap back into effect in 2024.  

Along the same lines, the Spanish presidency will also need to broker an agreement on a revised Multiannual Financial Framework. The 7-year budget was adopted in 2020, but the unprecedented financial support for Ukraine has made it difficult for the EU to continue delivering on its objectives without additional resources. This will be another major challenge, as the EU budget is one of the most contentious files and reaching consensus among 27 member states is a formidable challenge. One area where money will not be an issue is support for Ukraine. Under the new Facility for Ukraine instrument, 50 billion Euros of loans and grants are proposed to provide stable funding for Ukraine’s recovery and reconstruction from 2024 to 2027.  

Spain will seek to reindustrialize and boost the EU’s competitiveness on the global market, continue its ambitious climate and digital agenda, promote greater social and economic cohesion, and build stronger unity among member states

To make progress in the green transition the Spanish presidency will need to complete the adoption of the Fit for 55 Agenda. When first introduced this overarching package of climate legislation was heralded as the most ambitious plan to reach climate neutrality. Progress, however, has been slow. During the Swedish presidency, Germany formed coalitions to push back on the European Commission’s proposal to ban combustion engine cars by 2035. More recently, strong opposition in the European Parliament nearly succeeded in rejecting an already watered-down Nature Restoration Law. In its current role, Spain will therefore have to successfully navigate the apparent reluctance from EU member states to go from words to action.  

More success is expected on the digital front. The EU has tried to remain a trailblazer on digital regulation, proposing the Artificial Intelligence Act in 2021. With the recent rise of generative AI, the stakes to put in place “legislative implementation guides for the development and roll-out of AI with an ethical approach” have risen. Spain has made this their top priority. In the trialogues, it will have to reach a compromise on the different views between the member states and the European Parliament. But, with Spain’s efforts including a newly appointed minister for AI, the expectations to reach results by the end of the year are high.  

Despite the lack of a direct foreign policy angle in the priorities, Spain will have a packed agenda, including organizing the third Summit of the European Political Community (EPC) in Granada. First and foremost, it will continue prioritizing dialogue with and support to Ukraine against Russian aggression. On the day of assuming the Presidency, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez travelled to Ukraine—a highly symbolic show of enduring support. In addition to adopting the new Facility for Ukraine. Spain will need to keep unity among member states on all other fronts, from sanctions enforcement to delivering military equipment; in its first week the Spanish presidency already finalized the negotiations on the Act in Support of Ammunition Production (ASAP).  

The President of the Government of Spain, Pedro Sanchez meeting the President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyy on the day Spain took over the presidency of the Council of the EU, July 1, 2023.
Spanish Prime Minister, Pedro Sanchez meeting the President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelenskyy on the day Spain took over the presidency of the Council of the EU, July 1, 2023.

Spain’s major priority is also to advance EU cooperation and partnership with Latin America and the Caribbean. This follows the EU’s recent efforts to reinvigorate relations with these regions after years of neglect and to address the increased presence of China and Iran in the global south. The EU Summit with the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) on July 17 and 18 in Brussels was conceived with the goal of establishing a permanent structure for multi-level cooperation.  

However, as negotiations over the joint statement show, there are still major discrepancies between both sides, especially on condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the highly anticipated trade agreement with the Mercosur bloc. There has been increased pressure to achieve progress on the trade agreement to diversify the EU’s supply chains away from China. However, negotiations have been at a standstill since 2019, after the EU introduced additional environmental commitments. Recently, new issues have arisen on both sides. France and Austria expressed concerns about the effects greater cooperation might have on its farmers and Brazil’s President Lula criticized the additional conditions as a “threat” to Brazil.  

What is missing in the Spanish Program is a focus on China. Ever since President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen’s MERICS speech, there have been high expectations of a redefined EU strategy on China. It comes therefore as a surprise that relations with China are only mentioned once in Spain’s program. Certain member states are clarifying their bilateral positions on China—Germany being the latest in announcing a new China strategy last week—while the struggle for coordinated action on the EU level continues. Despite several  legislative proposals indirectly addressing the strategic rivalry with China, the lack of direct attention shows the ongoing ambivalent approach by the EU towards China, in turn causing tensions in the transatlantic partnership.   

Spain’s ambitious presidency program also faces challenges from the home front, as the country prepares for snap domestic elections on July 23. This is not the first time a country experiences elections while holding the presidency—in 2022 France had both presidential and parliamentary elections. The current Spanish government has reassured partners that the elections will not interfere with the work of the presidency. However, while a potential change of government will likely not influence the core priorities of the Spanish presidency, the formation of a new government could leave at least a two-month political leadership vacuum, curtailing Spain’s abilities to successfully bring legislative files across the finish line by the end of the year.  

It is too early to say what the achievements of the Spanish presidency will be, but their priorities resonate with the ongoing debate on the challenges that lie ahead for the EU as a single market, a political union, and a global actor. Let’s hope, however, that “Europe, closer” does not turn into “Europe, closed.”  

About the Author

Maša Ocvirk Wilson Center Headshot

Masa Ocvirk

Program Coordinator, Global Europe Program
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Global Europe Program

The Global Europe Program addresses vital issues affecting the European continent, US-European relations, and Europe’s ties with the rest of the world. We investigate European approaches to critical global issues: digital transformation, climate, migration, global governance. We also examine Europe’s relations with Russia and Eurasia, China and the Indo-Pacific, the Middle East and Africa. Our program activities cover a wide range of topics, from the role of NATO, the European Union and the OSCE to European energy security, trade disputes, challenges to democracy, and counter-terrorism. The Global Europe Program’s staff, scholars-in-residence, and Global Fellows participate in seminars, policy study groups, and international conferences to provide analytical recommendations to policy makers and the media.  Read more