Monday, 30 November 2009

Zapatero: the left’s last hope?

Spain’s rather shy, gentle prime minister Jose Luis Zapatero has never been one to seek out the limelight. But with the EU’s top jobs now all handed out, Zapatero has become the lone Socialist voice at the top level of the EU. In fact, the Spanish prime minister may be the last hope of relevance for European Democratic Socialism in the coming decade. Given his personality, this is likely a position he does not relish.

In the last week the European Council has chosen the first people to occupy the much anticipated President and Foreign Policy High Representative positions, and European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso has unveiled the faces and portfolios of the new commissioners. Looking at the line-up one thing is clear: the next five years will see an EU dominated by the centre-right.

The Commission presidency, which will likely remain the most powerful position following the council’s decision to go with a low-profile presidency pick, is still occupied by the centre-right former Portuguese prime minister Barroso. Former Belgian prime minister Herman Van Rompuy, chosen as the first Council President (or “EU president” if you like), is also a Conservative. Baroness Ashton of the British Labour party was chosen to be the first foreign minister, but though she is technically in the Socialist camp, New Labour hardly fits comfortably in that grouping and she will be significantly to the right of most Western European Socialist parties. Even if she weren’t, she has already signalled she intends to maintain a low profile.

With the commission announcement on Friday it was clear that the most important positions had all gone to people from conservative parties. Centre-right Frenchman Michel Barnier got the all-important Internal Market position, for which Nicolas Sarkozy could barely contain his glee over the weekend. Denmark’s centre-right Connie Hedegaard got the newly-created Climate Change assignment, while Centre-right German Gunther Oettinger got the very important Energy post. Conservatives took the Industry, Development, Regional Policy, Health, Budget and Agriculture posts. So what did the Socialists and Liberals get? Something called “Digital Agenda”, Enlargement, Research and Innovation and Maritime Affairs to name a few. Nothing too flashy. It seems to me the only very important DG the Socialists got is Competition. That went to Joaquin Almunia, Zapatero’s colleague in Spain.

Following the pan-European conservative victory in the June European Parliament elections, which made the centre-right the largest party in parliament, that body also has a conservative president in Jerzy Buzek of Poland. This means the presidents of all three branches of EU government – the Commission, the Council and the Parliament – are all from the centre-right.

Wanted: a Sarkozy for the left

Contrary to what had been widely reported in the English-language press (I myself was guilty of the misunderstanding as well), the new Council presidency is not replacing the rotating council presidency that is held by a country. Here’s where it gets a little confusing. The European Council is actually made up of many different councils, each focusing on a different subject area. So for instance, there is a council of finance ministers that meets periodically with the finance ministers from each member state. Likewise for environment, agriculture or trade. Those meetings will still be chaired by the country holding the rotating EU presidency. And starting January 1st, that country will be Spain.

However the European Council of national leaders, when all the prime ministers/presidents meet, will no longer be chaired by the rotating country presidency. That all-important group will be chaired by Mr. Van Rompuy. This will take much of the pomp and ceremony out of the rotating presidency, but will leave it intact with practical power. Of course the question remains, how much power will it have? That detail will largely be settled over the coming months by Messieurs Von Rompuy and Zapatero.

It will be a critically important power struggle waged by two low-key, soft-spoken men. The Lisbon Treaty theoretically gives both men significant powers. Van Rompuy can call special summits of EU leaders, draw up the agenda of the meetings, decide on whether to hold a vote and decide if people outside the EU can attend the meetings. However Zapatero will be running the day-to-day running of the council, and the power over the details could end up eclipsing the power over the big picture. In addition the monthly general affairs council, which is extremely powerful, will still be chaired by Spain.

Zapatero has made statements in the past that he does not intend to role over and allow the rotating presidency to be sidelined. There may be ever-increasing pressure from his Socialist colleagues elsewhere in Europe for Zapatero to assert himself even further, considering he and Almunia appear to be the lone continental Socialists in positions of power anywhere in Brussels.
Of course all of this reflects the will of the voters, who have consistently elected conservatives to office in national elections over the past few years with the exception of Iberia and Greece.

Following UK election in April where the Conservatives will likely win, all three of the main EU countries will be under Conservative governments. In this kind of environment, does Zapatero stand a chance of maintaining a place at the table for European socialists? He’s hardly proved himself to be much of an internationalist in the past. Speaking only Spanish, he has largely relegated himself to focusing on Spain’s domestic issues rather than pushing for a Socialist agenda on the European stage. In this way he is almost the polar opposite of his zealous conservative counterpart Nicolas Sarkozy in neighbouring France.

Perhaps Zapatero could defy all expectations and emerge from his shell to become a sort of “Sarkozy of the left”. As the saying goes, cometh the hour cometh the man. Is this the mild-mannered Spanish leader’s time to shine?

1 comment:

Eurocentric said...

Would a socialist PM who backed Barroso's reappointment make a good/strong representative of the socialists in the EU?

I suppose the Barroso-backing could just be put down to perceived national interest and that he could prove to be more socialist in practice when he's heading the rotating presidency, but I wouldn't hold my breath.