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Change of presidency in the EU: from Sweden to Spain

03-07-2023

A new era is dawning in the Presidency of the Council of the European Union, with Sweden wrapping up its term and passing the baton to Spain on July 1st. As the last “full” presidency before the parliamentary elections slated for June 2024, Spain’s focus will mainly be on concluding numerous pressing legislative proposals. The political landscape is challenging, considering Spain’s recent regional elections that led to early national elections set for July 23rd. Amidst this climate of change and uncertainty, questions arise concerning Spain’s ability to effectively preside, especially in the event of an extended coalition formation or a shift in the existing coalition. Despite these hurdles, Spanish Prime Minister Sánchez, a social democrat, is resolved to tackle several significant crises by the end of the year. These include the European migration pact, debt rules for member states, sanction packages for Russia, and the EU’s dependence on third countries. This blog by our colleagues Judith and Valérie delves into the key priorities and challenges the Spanish presidency may face, particularly in the Energy, Tech, and Healthcare sectors.

A fresh trio of presidencies: Spain, Belgium, and Hungary

Spain, Belgium, and Hungary form the new trio at the helm of the EU Council. Each of these nations brings its unique challenges and priorities. Spain deals with the fallout of recent internal elections, Belgium prepares for the European parliamentary elections, and Hungary grapples with contentious political issues and escalating tensions with the EU.

In this dynamic and occasionally unstable climate, the role of the EU Council Presidency is paramount in ensuring stability, continuity, and progress. This trio is tasked with the responsibility of navigating their respective countries’ complex political landscapes while concurrently championing the wider interests and priorities of the EU.

Presidency priorities: open strategic autonomy

Prime Minister Sánchez underscored the importance of open strategic autonomy during the Spanish program presentation. This term, prevalent in European discussions since Macron’s appointment two years ago, posits that while the EU’s open international stance has many benefits, it has also led to dependency on third countries. Sánchez asserted that this open attitude can only be efficacious if strategic autonomy is reinforced.

Under Spain’s stewardship, this reinforcement takes the form of four key priorities: further industrialization of Europe, fostering Europe’s ecological transition, strengthening the social pillar for greater social and economic justice, and enhancing European unity. These priorities will guide the Spaniards’ efforts and also impact the dossiers discussed below.

Energy

Spain, during its EU presidency this year, will grapple with two critical energy concerns. First, the Decarbonized Gas Package, targeted transitioning from fossil fuels to more sustainable alternatives. The package sets ambitious goals, such as the increase in the production and import of green fuels to consume 20 million tons of hydrogen by 2030. To meet the climate targets for 2030 and 2050, it is crucial to expedite the establishment of a coherent EU legal framework. This will stimulate investments in a European hydrogen infrastructure network and encourage the use of green hydrogen. The strategic importance of this package is underscored by the American Net Zero Industry Act, which invests billions in green energy.

Spain will also focus on restructuring the electricity market, a response to the recent energy crisis that severely impacted Europe. In March, the Commission proposed a targeted revision of the wholesale electricity market design, a landmark move for countries favoring interventionism, including Spain. However, the proposals for “decoupling” electricity and gas prices faced stiff opposition from liberal EU economies such as Germany, Denmark, and the Netherlands. As Spain prepares for a tense election period during its EU Presidency, it remains to be seen how it will navigate this intricate context. Diplomats are split on whether Spain can maintain neutrality regarding the Union’s Electricity Market Design, given its historical emphasis on market reforms.

The situation is further complicated by the upcoming early elections in July. These elections could cause distractions and potentially pave the way for the conservative opposition party, Partido Popular (PP), to ascend to power. If the PP takes office, it may adopt a less interventionist policy approach. Despite these hurdles, Spain is committed to successfully concluding the regulation it initially championed.

Both issues, the gas package and the reform of the electricity market, stand a high chance of progressing under the Spanish presidency. There is wide consensus on the necessity to lessen dependency on fossil fuels and bolster the resilience and stability of the European energy market.

Tech

In the twilight of its presidency, Sweden swiftly concluded the trilogues on the Data Act and the digital ID legislation (eIDAS). In the next six months, Spain will primarily concentrate on two heavily debated laws. First, the Artificial Intelligence Act, for which trilogue discussions are expected to start post-summer. Belgium recently expressed their expectation that Spain will complete these negotiations before the end of 2023. Considering the rapid advancements in the AI field, many European politicians deem this act vital, even though numerous topics remain to be negotiated. The second challenging law pertains to the Regulation to Combat and Prevent Child Sexual Abuse Material. This proposal outlines how online platforms can detect and report online child pornography material. The debates in Parliament and the Council revolve around striking a balance between the importance of internet users’ privacy and the creation of the safest possible online environment. Spain’s mission is to achieve a “general orientation” on this matter.

The same debate is also ongoing in the stalled trilogue negotiations on the ePrivacy Regulation. The EU has been trying to revise this regulation for several years. While Sweden did not tackle this dossier, it is uncertain whether Spain will rise to the challenge or pass it on to the next Commission as a “failed” dossier.

Healthcare

Spain’s main focus in the healthcare sector will be the recently presented revision of European pharmaceutical regulations. Negotiations on this matter have just begun, and considering the dossier’s complexity and political sensitivity, it will demand significant attention from the presidency. The translations of the documents into the official EU languages are expected by September, after which the European Parliament can begin deliberations. Additionally, the Spanish government will concentrate on other healthcare issues of growing importance due to their societal urgency, such as improving the approach to rare diseases.

Conclusion

The Spanish Presidency of the Council of the European Union arrives at a pivotal moment for both Spain and the EU. As the final presidency with a full term before the parliamentary elections, Spain aims to conclude several dossiers. The extent to which Spain’s national elections could lead to a change in the country’s political trajectory remains uncertain. Although the presidency is expected to remain neutral, this could certainly influence the prioritization of dossiers. Furthermore, a final term provides opportunities to advance dossiers nearing completion and identify prospects for the next mandate regarding dossiers that may not reach the finish line.

"The Spanish Presidency of the Council of the European Union comes at a critical moment, both for Spain and the EU as a whole."

Valérie Mendes de León

Consultant

+31 (0)70 304 6499

Judith ter Kuile

Senior Account Executive

+31 (0)70 304 6499

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