Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo

Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo.

© picture alliance / ANP | JONAS ROOSENS

Spain's fifth EU Council Presidency since joining the European Community is drawing to a close. On 1 January 1 2024, the baton will pass from the Iberian Peninsula to the heart of the EU, Belgium. How has Spain fared in terms of planned and realized initiatives? And what priorities does Belgium set just before the EU parliamentary elections?

Spain's presidency unexpectedly found itself overshadowed by the early parliamentary elections held in the country on 23 July, coinciding with the first month of the presidency. While the subsequent government formation did not lead to major changes on Madrid's agenda – only the timeline was slightly adjusted – the reconfirmed Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, in November, could only secure his stay in power with the support of the "Together for Catalonia" party (JxCat) led by separatist leader Carles Puigdemont.

The amnesty negotiated for Catalan separatists not only raised serious concerns in Brussels regarding the state of the Spanish rule of law but also triggered massive, sometimes violent protests domestically. Sánchez faced sharp criticism from the Spanish judiciary for his amnesty law, which grants impunity to organizers of the illegal Catalan independence referendum in 2017, a promise made to gain the support of Catalan separatists for his re-election. Problematic in the agreement is the potential undermining of judicial independence by placing Spanish judges under the supervision of a new committee to prevent the alleged politicization of court decisions. The opposition deems the amnesty law unconstitutional. Sánchez has instrumentalized the Spanish Council Presidency multiple times for his domestic purposes, such as attempting to establish Catalan as an official EU language. Additionally, the Spanish Prime Minister, at the expense of unity within the EU, declared his intention to unilaterally recognize the Palestinian state if the EU did not do so first. With such political maneuvers, Sánchez has eroded trust both nationally and at the European level.

Nevertheless, a positive balance can be drawn for Spain's Council Presidency, which continued the country's traditionally pro-European course and focused on four main areas: strategic autonomy, ecological transformation, social justice, and strengthening European unity.

Revitalizing Relations with Latin America and the Caribbean

In response to the lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic and global conflicts, Spain aimed to make Europe more resilient and sovereign by strategically promoting industries and technologies. Diversifying sources of supply and trade relationships played a significant role. Thanks to its historical and linguistic ties, Spain focused on expanding strategic relations with Latin America and the Caribbean, serving as a gateway to these regions.

Amid global conflicts, the Russian invasion, and China's rise, there were ample incentives for an alliance, although dealing with authoritarian regimes and human rights violations posed considerable conflict potential. The Latin American continent, due to its climatic conditions, holds great potential for exporting green hydrogen to Europe and possesses abundant resources such as natural gas, oil, and lithium. Despite utilizing European instruments of development cooperation for enhanced partnerships (Global Europe, Global Gateway, and Team Europe) and leveraging Spain's extensive experience in technical cooperation and political dialogue, the results fell short of expectations. Some progress was made with the signing of new trade agreements with Chile, New Zealand, and the Organization of African, Caribbean, and Pacific States (OACPS). In July, the EU-CELAC Summit with the heads of state and government of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) took place. However, there was a lack of political will in several areas to conclude the much-needed MERCOSUR agreement for more cooperation on an equal footing and improving environmental standards, indirectly influencing human rights compliance.

Additional achievements of the Spanish Council Presidency include numerous legislative procedures. Addressing the climate and energy transition, laws were passed to secure the supply of critical raw materials, promote green and digital technologies, introduce regulations for better waste reuse, and enact a law for nature restoration with the aim of restoring damaged ecosystems. Spain can also claim standards for the development and deployment of artificial intelligence, progress in the reform of the electricity market, advancements in consumer rights, and the introduction of the European Disability Card. New guidelines were developed to combat violence against women and human trafficking, expanding rights to other vulnerable groups.

Finally, a Solution to the Migration Dispute

Central to fostering European unity is the agreement on an EU framework for migration management, addressing issues of solidarity among member states in refugee reception and distribution, and controlling external borders. After years of dispute and numerous negotiation rounds, Spain's Council Presidency achieved a significant breakthrough: the EU adopted the Migration Pact. The European Parliament and the Council of the European Union agreed on five points in the regulation on EU asylum reform, which includes various tightening measures. Prior to this, under Spanish leadership, EU member states had negotiated a part of the pact, the new crisis regulation, which triggers a mechanism to streamline asylum procedures in the event of member states being overwhelmed. The issue of holding first arrivals from third countries at EU external borders, particularly concerning unaccompanied minors, sparked discussions about safeguarding human rights compliance.

Momentum for EU Enlargement

At the beginning of the Spanish Council Presidency, in the summer, Sánchez traveled to Kyiv, symbolically expressing solidarity. Prior to the Ukraine's (and Moldova's) application for EU membership in February 2022, under the impression of the Russian invasion, any form of EU expansion was practically on hold. The number of EU members stands at 27 after seven expansion rounds. The EU's historical mission is to maintain peace and prosperity through an increasingly interconnected, united continent. With each new candidate for accession, the discussion on the EU's capacity for action, its reception capacity, and urgently needed internal reforms resurfaces. Russia's war in Ukraine has altered the context of EU expansion policy and brought geopolitics to the forefront. Although EU enlargement was not part of Spain's original Council Presidency agenda, an informal meeting of EU heads of state and government in Granada in October resulted in a declaration supporting the accession candidates. In December, the decision was made to start accession negotiations with Ukraine and Moldova – a guarantee of actual EU membership in the foreseeable future is not assured. Another downside is that, due to the resistance of Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, it was not possible to approve new financial aid for Ukraine.

The President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, praised the achievements of the Spanish Council Presidency, from competitiveness to climate and energy, from economic governance to migration and artificial intelligence.

Belgium Takes Over

On time for the new year, Belgium assumes the Council Presidency from 1 January. It will be a special presidency, as Belgium will accompany the conclusion of the five-year term of the current European Parliament and the European Commission. From 6 to 9 June, a new European Parliament will be elected, and by the end of 2024, a new Commission will take office – with a new agenda and new priorities.

Therefore, the Belgian presidency will likely be divided into two phases: a sprint until the end of February to conclude as many still-open files as possible – because despite the progress of the Spanish Presidency, some central issues have not yet been resolved – followed by preparations for the new agenda 2024-2029.

Protect, Strengthen, Prepare

"Protect, Strengthen, Prepare" – this is how Prime Minister De Croo summarizes the six priorities of the Belgians for the first half of 2024: Defending rule of law, democracy, and unity, strengthening European competitiveness, pursuing a green and just transition, strengthening Europe’s social and health agenda, protecting people and borders, and promoting a global Europe.

Defending Rule of Law, Democracy, and Unity

Belgium focuses on defending fundamental rights, the rule of law, and democracy. Key areas include cohesion, protection of individual freedoms, and the promotion of democratic values. This encompasses media freedom and digital transformation in the cultural sector. The agenda also includes enhancing citizen participation, especially among the youth, and measures to improve the European education space, lifelong learning, and support for accession candidates.

Strengthening European Competitiveness

Against the backdrop of changing geopolitical realities and technological advancements, especially artificial intelligence, Belgium places long-term competitiveness and industrial policy at the centre. Special emphasis is on fair competition conditions for businesses, creating a sustainable digital ecosystem, and strengthening the EU internal market. The presidency also highlights research, development, and innovation, public and private investments, as well as coherence between the EU's domestic and foreign policies.

Pursuing a Green and Just Transition

In the face of the climate crisis, biodiversity loss, and environmental pollution, Belgium emphasizes the urgent implementation of the European Green Deal, strengthening the circular economy, improved adaptation and readiness capacities, and sustainable water management. The need for an accelerated energy transition for affordable, reliable, and climate-neutral energy is emphasized, with the EU urged to maximize its energy efficiency potential and increase investment in renewable energy.

Reinforcing Europe’s Social and Health Agenda

With an ambitious social agenda, Belgium aims for a more inclusive and gender-equal European society. Key focuses include strengthening social dialogue, promoting fair labour mobility, mental health in the workplace, and sustainable social protection. Priorities lie in enhancing social dialogue, fair labour mobility, and sustainable social protection, as well as promoting the social economy. Additionally, Belgium seeks to promote crisis preparedness, strengthen pharmaceutical supply security, and develop strategies to support healthcare and caregiving workers, improving access to affordable medicines.

Protecting People and Borders

Following the Spanish Council Presidency's achievement in reaching an agreement on the Asylum and Migration Package, Belgium declared its commitment to continue working on the implementation and execution of the pact during its presidency. Belgium will also focus on strengthening the external dimension of migration and asylum, particularly through collaboration with African partners, while paying special attention to combating organized crime, terrorism, and European security.

Promoting a Global Europe

Amid current geopolitical tensions, further strengthening the resilience and autonomy of the EU is a priority for Belgium. A confident approach includes mobilizing economic, security, and defense capacities, along with an ambitious, sustainable trade policy within a strengthened multilateral trading system. Simultaneously, Belgium advocates for the promotion of health systems and universal access to innovative, sustainable health services in line with the 2030 Agenda.

EU Expansion in Focus

According to De Croo, the agenda for 2024-2029 should focus on the future of the EU, especially internal reforms and a potential EU expansion. Reforms are necessary to maintain a functioning Union and safeguard the interests of Europeans. De Croo suggests that the EU should contemplate what kind of Union it wants to be in 2029. Reforms are also needed to prepare the EU for a possible expansion. In December, member states decided to start accession negotiations with Ukraine and the Republic of Moldova. The Belgians have already announced an "Expansion Summit" on April 19, marking the 20th anniversary of the "Big Bang" expansion of 2004 when Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia, and Slovenia joined the EU on April 20, 2004.

Rahel Zibner, Project Manager Spain, Italy & Portugal, FNF Madrid, und Sahra Lissek, European Affairs Manager, FNF Brüssel.