Madrid’s moment

Britain is quitting. Italy is flailing. Bad news for the European Union — but for Spain it’s also an opening.

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez and his Socialist Party have made no secret of their ambition for the country to take a central role on the EU stage, replacing the U.K. and Italy as the swing vote between Germany and France.

“Spain is ready to take a step forward,” Sánchez told business leaders at a recent event in the city of Sitges. “We won’t be passive actors in the European debate. We will be at the vanguard.”

At a glance, Sánchez seems positioned to do just that — if he can avoid tripping and slipping into a sinkhole of domestic politics. It’s not clear
that he can.

Madrid’s assets are evident. The Spanish economy has stabilized. Politically, Spain is the largest country with a pro-EU government, after Germany and France. Sánchez also controls the largest delegation in the Socialist group in the European Parliament, and he is one of six leaders charged with negotiating how to fill the EU’s top positions.

Then there’s the prime minister himself: a 47-year-old economist and self-declared “militant pro-European” with movie-star good looks, who has lived in Brussels and New York, speaks English and relishes the international spotlight at a time when some in the EU are calling for generational change. Already, he has emerged as the most prominent and powerful voice of the center left on the Continent.

Spain’s gain is most directly tied to Italy’s loss. Rome has lost sway in Brussels because of its populist, Euroskeptic government and its ongoing fiscal and economic troubles. Italy will soon relinquish three of the EU’s most senior posts: Antonio Tajani as parliament president; Federica Mogherini as high representative for foreign affairs; and Mario Draghi as president of the European Central Bank.

“We are trying to be the third country after Germany and France,” said Marco Aguiriano, Spain’s secretary of state for the European Union. “Italy had Tajani, Mogherini, Draghi,” Aguiriano said. “It’s someone else’s turn now.”

The first obstacles to Sánchez’s ambitions have already become apparent.

In Brussels, some of the biggest Spain-focused headlines following the recent European election were not about how Spaniards could well end up as leaders of the European Parliament’s two biggest political groups — the center-left Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats and the European People’s Party — but rather about how two recently elected Catalan secessionists, including the region’s leader-in-exile Carles Puigdemont, were blocked initially from entering the Parliament building and denied temporary credentials.

Then there’s Sánchez’s struggle to form a governing coalition in Madrid, where the liberal Ciudadanos party has vowed not to work with him and favors partnership with the conservative Popular Party. That fight has cast a shadow on Sánchez’s EU-level discussions with French President Emmanuel Macron, who counts Ciudadanos as a crucial member of his new liberal-progressive group, Renew Europe.

“Never before has a prime minister been so much on the tightrope — and at the same time had such broad room for maneuver,” said José Manuel García-Margallo, a Popular Party MEP and former foreign minister.

Already, conservative opponents like García-Margallo are seeking to turn Sánchez’s new prominence in the EU against him at home, accusing him of aligning too closely with Macron and potentially alienating German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who remains Europe’s most powerful leader.

Madrid rising

Spain’s muscle in Brussels comes from its strength across the three main, pro-EU political groups — the Socialists, Liberals and conservatives — that are expected to form the core of a majority coalition in the European Parliament.

Spain has the largest socialist delegation, Germany the biggest conservative bloc and France the largest liberal representation. Spain also has more conservatives than France and more liberals than Germany, making it a force in those groups as well.

Iratxe García, a Spanish MEP from the Basque region, is a front-runner to succeed Germany’s Udo Bullmann as leader of the Socialist group. And Esteban González Pons, a Spanish conservative, is a vice president of the EPP group and a strong contender to succeed German MEP Manfred Weber, who is the conservatives’ nominee for Commission president and likely to move on to a top job.

Under Sánchez’s predecessor as prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, who oversaw the country’s slow climb out of the financial crisis while showing little interest in an international role, Spain’s profile in Brussels seemed to shrink. Now the winds of political fortune all seem to be blowing in Madrid’s direction.

“Spain is lucky in the sense that it’s Brexit time, and Italy is not so reliable as an ally for a country like France,” said Grégory Claeys, a research fellow at Bruegel, a think tank in Brussels. “Even though they belong to different parties … there is some alignment on European issues between Macron and Sánchez.”

“The stars are aligned in that sense, and Spain, in a way by luck, is in a position to grab more power and make its position more heard on the European stage,” he added.

A senior EU diplomat said Sánchez is maneuvering carefully not just to grab Italy’s position of prominence but also to avoid errors made by Matteo Renzi during the negotiations over top EU jobs five years ago, when the then Italian prime minister secured the post of high representative of foreign affairs for Federica Mogherini.

It was a high-profile achievement for Rome, but left the Social Democrats without the influence that would come from a job that carried more power in the EU’s own affairs, such as installing former Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt as president of the European Council.

“Sánchez wants to avoid the mistake made by Renzi,” the senior diplomat said. “Renzi didn’t support Thorning-Schmidt. He focused only on having an Italian in a top job … Sánchez is different, he has it very clear in his mind that first of all the Socialists need to get a top job, then, secondly, Spain also needs some important positions.”

Sánchez has made clear he expects more Spaniards in leading jobs in Brussels, potentially including a prominent post for Foreign Minister Josep Borrell, a former president of the European Parliament who ran in the European election as the top candidate on the Socialists’ list. And there are other contenders: Nadia Calviño, the Spanish economy minister, is a former director general of the budget department for the Commission, making her an obvious candidate for budget commissioner.

Spanish diplomats have even signaled that Borrell should be in consideration for Commission president if the European Council does not support Frans Timmermans, the Socialists’ nominee for the EU’s top job.

But Sánchez has focused as much energy on the EU’s policy agenda as on its top jobs.

Ahead of an EU leaders’ summit in Romania in May, Madrid distributed a “non-paper” where it laid out in detail an ambitious agenda for the bloc for the next five years. The document called for the creation of a common unemployment insurance, a European deposit insurance scheme, a “true” budget for the euro area and a European Treasury with the capacity to issue common debt, as well as the introduction of measures aimed at devising a common European policy on immigration.

Claeys and other experts say Sánchez would best position himself to push through those priorities if he can install a Spaniard as commissioner for economic and financial affairs.

Sánchez has also pushed for some particularly Spanish priorities like closer cooperation with North Africa and Latin America and used his European platform to present himself as the Continent’s leading Socialist voice. He has insisted, for instance, that the EU should not “imitate the U.S. or China,” but lead with its own values, among which he mentioned individual freedoms, the welfare state, innovation, gender equality, the fight against climate change, multilateralism, science and research, industry, security and “the orderly management of migrant flows.”

Many of these priorities are also defended by Spain’s conservatives and liberals, creating the theoretical possibility, at least, of maintaining a tradition whereby Spanish parties join forces in Brussels even as they battle each other at home.

Trouble at home

There are already signs that Spain’s domestic fights could undermine Sánchez’s EU-wide ambitions, and trap him into playing a political small-ball.

Chief among these is Catalan separatism — a nagging wound for Spain. Puigdemont, his former deputy Oriol Junqueras and Toni Comín, a former regional health minister, were elected as MEPs after being cleared to run by the Spanish courts.

But Puigdemont and Comín were initially barred from entering the European Parliament building, and they may be unable to take their seats without obtaining their official accreditation in Madrid, where they face arrest. Junqueras is already jailed in Spain.

Supporters of Catalan independence are intent on using the treatment of the three to highlight their cause, and to allege anti-democratic actions by Spain and the EU. Verdicts in a trial against 12 Catalan separatist leaders are expected to be delivered in the fall, and some observers expect Catalonia’s separatist parties to seek to capitalize on potential prison sentences to rally supporters in a snap regional election either toward the end of this year or next year.

Sánchez has the advantage of being able to blame Rajoy for the worst of the Catalan crisis. But even if he escapes the Catalan trap, there is the alliance between Ciudadanos and the Popular Party. The two parties have so far stuck to their commitment not to work with the Socialists, leaving Sánchez struggling to form a governing coalition with the left-wing Podemos party.

Spanish Socialists, under pressure from all sides, have now threatened to call a snap national election in hopes of breaking the deadlock.

So far, Ciudadanos has shown no willingness to make it easier for Sánchez to govern at home. And the PP has made clear it will use its own prominent platform in Brussels to hammer Sánchez as hard as possible.

“We’re living a very tense arm-wrestling between Macron and Angela Merkel for control of European institutions, and by placing himself so openly as a henchman, as a manservant of Macron, he has placed Spain in a very junior position to France,” González Pons said in a radio interview this week.

“I believe that attempting to put up an anti-German axis with Macron is a mistake of historical magnitude,” said MEP Margallo.

Sánchez, meanwhile, remains at the center of the negotiations over filling the EU’s top jobs, and indeed is arguably the most powerful among the six negotiators who include prime ministers from much smaller countries: the Netherlands, Belgium, Croatia, Latvia and Portugal.

The group met for dinner in Brussels on Friday, and in a sign of Spain’s crucial role, European Council President Donald Tusk traveled to Madrid on Thursday to meet with Sánchez before the meeting.

In another sign of Spain’s influence, the EPP gathered this week in San Sebastián for its first big post-election party conference. Dolors Montserrat, who led the PP’s candidate list in the European election, said Spanish conservatives would continue to be heavyweights in the Parliament.

“The Spanish PP is going to have an important place in the committees,” Montserrat said in an interview at the party conference.

One challenge for Sánchez will be to unify all of Spain’s forces in Brussels, including those of his domestic rivals.

Joaquín Almunia, a former leader of the Spanish Socialists and a former vice-president of the European Commission, said Spain should focus not just on increasing its own prominence in Brussels but on substantively shaping policy more broadly across the Continent.

“Spain should aspire to influence European politics,” Almunia said, “not just to have Spaniards where European politics is decided.”

Jacopo Barigazzi contributed reporting.