One image sums up the new balances of power in Europe. The meeting in Germany between Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Spanish President Pedro Sánchezat the end of August, symbolized the harmony between the heads of government of the two countries, both socialists, but also allowed us to glimpse the formation of a new axis between the first and the fourth power of the EU.
The war in ukraine and the ensuing energy crisis have caused a shift in the power game of the European Union. Spain, with its high capacity to regasify liquefied natural gas -close to a third of that of the entire continent- and its connections with the Maghreb, has become a key energy player to wean off Russian fuels. And according to the experts consulted, the Government has known how to use this asset to increase Spanish influence in the upper echelons of Europe.
“What is attributed to Spain is usually a fairly low profile in the EU, a lack of ambition to set an agenda. But with the issue of energy, he is getting his act together and is exercising quite an important leadership,” Camino Mortera, head of the Brussels office of the thinktank Center for European Reform (CER).
““What is usually blamed on Spain is a fairly low profile in the EU, a lack of ambition to set an agenda”“
In recent months, Spain has scored achievements such as the Iberian exception -the cap on the price of gas to lower the price of the electricity bill, which also affects Portugal-, a mechanism that the Twenty-seven debate, divided, whether or not to extend to the entire Union. In addition, her proposal to reform the electricity market and avoid skyrocketing energy prices has been endorsed by the president of the Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, who announced at the end of August a “urgent intervention” to reform this market.
Guillermo Íñiguez, an expert in European politics and a researcher at the University of Oxford, recalls that the Spanish proposal, presented a year ago, before the war in Ukraine, generated “a bit of laughter” in Brussels. “We always have the feeling that Spain can do more in Europe, but both with the recovery fund and now, has emerged as the country that saw what Europe should have done coming,” underlines.
A Sánchez with “good press in Brussels” and new balances
Behind this renewed prominence there are several reasons. One is in one’s own Sánchez, “with good press in Brussels and a very good relationship with European leaders”, according to Mortera, especially with Von der Leyen, despite the fact that she is part of the European People’s Party, but also with Scholz and Macron. “Sánchez moves very well on the international scene, we already saw it in the NATO summit in Madrid“, Iñiguez agrees.
Moncloa sources insist on this idea. They see Sánchez as a “very clear leader, recognized by all” and whom “he is heard on the summits”compared to other times in which “Spain was listened to less”, they point out to this medium.
But behind it there is also a change in the balance of European power. Since Angela Merkel left the helm of Germany last yearbut also of the Union, much has changed on the continent. “Everyone knew that we were going to miss Merkel very much.but I think no one thought it would be like this, since it is also blamed for many problems that Germany now has,” says the CER expert.
After Merkel’s departure, and especially since the war in Ukraine, it has been “a power vacuum” by his successor, Scholz, who “has had enough surviving in recent months and has not been seen wanting to play a very important role at a European level.” At the national level, he has been branded a “coward” for a tepid response against Russia at the beginning of the war, and that has caused him to lose “a lot of political capital.”
Philip Lausberg, an analyst at the thinktank European Policy Center, for whom Scholz is still in a “trial period”, and has not been able to convince public opinion in his country. “He has not been decisive at European level either, and that gives France more power.which has snatched the leading role from Berlin”, he explains from Germany.
A Spanish-German axis against France?
In the face of German weakness -and the departure of the United Kingdom from the EU after Brexit- Macron has established himself as a European leaderto the point that “Brussels in these last crucial months has been a Show of France”, continues Mortera, which has helped that the country held the presidency of the EU during the first semester.
““Brussels in these last crucial months has been a French show”“
The recent meeting between Scholz and Sánchez has been seen precisely as a way to counter the rise of Paris by strengthening an unusual Spanish-German axis. From the Meseberg palace on the outskirts of Berlin, the two leaders pressured Macron to allow the construction of the Midcatthe Pyrenees gas pipeline project that is of great interest to Germany but little to France – in fact, Macron ruled out the idea again-.
“There is a lot of potential for closer cooperation. Spain is the terminal for liquefied natural gas in Europe, it has a very important position strategically, and that is of interest to Germany, which now needs cheap energy for an industry in difficulties. Relations between the two countries are at a good moment,” says Lausberg, although he points to some points where the two countries collide, such as the gas cap.
For Iñiguez, in the renewed friendship between Madrid and Berlin has a lot to do with the fact that both share a political color. “The victory of the socialists in Germany has created this axis that did not exist until now,” he points out. In general, the Social Democrats have gained weight in the European Council compared to ten years ago, during the euro crisis, and that has allowed Sánchez to play the “variable geometry” that he also uses in Congress.
The CER analyst believes, however, that the internal weakness of the German Chancellor initially prevented him from “forging alliances” like the one who is now beginning to weave with Spain: “It’s a shame, an opportunity lost in recent months”.
“Spain does not have to aspire to be Italy, it has to aspire to be Spain”
Beyond Germany and France, Italy had managed to position itself as a counterweight to the great powers during the brief tenure of Mario Draghi, a “Brussels hero”, as Mortera defines it. Macron sealed an alliance with the former ECB president that allowed him to counteract the weight of Germany in the Unionbut the fall of the Italian after the umpteenth political crisis in the country it once again left the continent’s third-largest economic power out of the great power game -already “Macron somewhat out of place”, adds Íñiguez-.
“Italy is a fundamental actor in the history of Europe, but it has always paid a little for political instability in which he lives, and I think that Spain has to take advantage of this to act as the pivotal country in the Franco-German axis”, asserts the analyst.
Precisely because of this political instability, Mortera warns of the risk of taking the transalpine country as a reference. “I don’t think that Spain has to aspire to be Italy, it has to aspire to be Spain. You have to stop having complexes and fear and play the role that corresponds to youthat of a great European country, with a lot of resources and a lot of importance”.
The failure of Calviño and a European interest “for streaks”
These complexes, according to the analyst, date back to Rajoy’s time as president, in the midst of the euro crisis. His secondary role in European politics was due to the “need to ingratiate with the most austere wing” of the Union, since it claimed to be the “example to follow” when applying austerity measures among the southern countries, while its role in Brussels was also conditioned by the response to the Catalan independence process.
Now, despite its renewed leadership in the energy area, Spain still does not have a defined position on other major issues, as in the change of treaties or in the enlargement of the Union, Mortera points out. Íñiguez also believes that “The interest in Europe goes a bit in guststhe Government has had very good moments, but also moments in which it has shown a lack of ambition or strategic ability”.
He cites, for example, the non-election of the first vice-president Nadia Calviño as president of the Eurogroup“a relatively easy election a priori”, or the distribution of portfolios in 2019, where Sánchez did not get “everything he wanted” and the Social Democrats were left without the most important positions, such as the presidency of the Commission, of the European Council or of Parliament.
Another question is whether Spain will maintain its current leadership once the worst of the energy crisis has passed. For Lausberg, this will depend on whether Germany and the countries of central Europe manage to diversify their energy sources or if the Midcat finally goes ahead (which would give Spain even more weight). If you also take into account the “enormous potential of renewables” that our country has, the German expert is convinced that “its influence can be lasting”. Sánchez will also seek to take advantage of the pull of the Spanish Presidency of the European Council in the second half of next year, and has already prepared an extensive schedule of appointments, with meetings in 25 cities across the country.
However, good work in Brussels does not always translate into votes at home. Or as an adviser told Aznar before the 2000 elections, “less Syria and more Soria“. “It does not seem that European politics is transformed into votes in almost any country,” says Íñiguez, something that, however, may have changed now with a EU more involved in day-to-day matterssuch as electricity prices.
““It does not seem that European politics is transformed into votes in almost any country”“
“In the end, if Europe sets a maximum price for gas and the government can sell that this has happened in part thanks to it, that can convey a feeling that ‘it is doing something good for us’, but he has to know how to sell it, which is one of the great problems of the Executive in this legislature”finish.