On 16 January, Spain’s Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez Pérez-Castejón, will address the European Parliament to debate the Future of Europe. He will be followed by Finnish Prime Minister Juha Sipilä later in January and Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte in February, ahead of the European elections in May. These debates began in 2018 at President Tajani’s initiative, seeking that Heads of State or Government set out their vision for Europe’s future in a dialogue with the members of the European Parliament and the President or Vice-President of the European Commission. So far, at the invitation of its President, the European Parliament has hosted 14 leaders of Member States. The 30 minute statements of the Heads of State or Government have been followed by a short intervention of the Commission and a series of questions from members of the European Parliament, lasting about one hour (their speaking times are proportional to the size of the political group) and a final statement where the speakers answer the questions or remarks. Migration, Security, Climate, the Economic and Monetary Union Europe, the Multiannual Financial Framework and the Internal Market have been the most recurring topics to this date. However, Brexit, the rule of law, disinformation or the asylum system are growing in attention and interest. Not surprisingly, each of the speakers has been inquired on controversial topics regarding their countries: Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki experienced a tense debate on the rule of law procedure and the alleged lack of independence of Poland’s judges, Alexis Tsipras was reminded of Greece’s long financial crisis which brought the country to the point of bankruptcy, and Angela Merkel was confronted with Germany’s policies on immigration.
Sánchez’s appearance will take place six months after his appointment and at a crucial time for both Europe and for Spain, where the balance of powers is changing and will predictably continue to change given the elections on the horizon. The Spanish Parliament elected him Prime Minister last June, after a motion of censure against former Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, of center-right Popular Party. With a minority government of only 84 MPs out of a total of 350, his government is in a weak position. Since he took office the Prime Minister has had a very active international agenda and has stressed his government’s pro-European stance appointing relevant actors in the EU scene for key Ministries.
What is Sánchez likely to talk about? He put himself at the forefront of the immigration debate in June, accepting refugees when other countries refused them, stressing that he wants Spain to play a strong role on the European stage. The debate on asylum policies is very controversial and divides Southern and Western Europe. Certainly, Sánchez will address this issue on his speech and insist on the key role a Mediterranean country as Spain can and must play to ensure coordinated asylum policies and the rescue and accommodation of people fleeing very hard living conditions. Nevertheless, this topic might become a double-edged sword since, at the last migrant rescue boat impasse (people were rescued off the Libyan coast in December and EU countries did not want to let them dock), Spain was not one of the receiving countries of the EU deal to relocate people.
Brexit, which is in theory scheduled for March, will most probably come up in his speech. It will be an occasion to stress the need to relaunch the EU and make it more democratic and relevant for its people. Sánchez has already spoken out against Brexit and has said he would be in favour of a second referendum. He claims that Brexit is a “historic error” that will “diminish the influence and prosperity of the British people”. However, the other side of the coin is that 27 of the 73 seats now occupied by British members of the European Parliament will be redistributed among the remaining 27 EU countries and Spain is one of the countries that will gain the most seats (5), increasing its representation from 54 to 59 seats. The balance of power is shifting and certainly, Sanchez will take advantage to try to move the focus to the South.
Tensions with Catalonia have been a major headache for the Spanish and Catalan governments. Sánchez will probably not tackle this issue directly, but certainly, call upon the people of Europe to strengthen cohabitation and dialogue.
Last but not least, in Spain local and regional elections for 13 out of 17 autonomous communities will take place on the same day as the European elections (26th May). There is some speculation as to whether, in what has been named an electoral “Super Sunday”, general elections could be called on for the same day although the government is insisting it will rule until the end of the legislature. Recent elections in Andalusia have resulted in the Socialists’ loss of a region after 36 consecutive years of ruling. Moreover, for the first time in Spain, an extreme right party, Vox, has won seats in one of the country’s regional parliaments with a strong rhetoric against immigration, women’s rights or LGTBIQ rights. Until now an exception, Spain has joined the long list of EU countries with extreme-right parties having parliamentary representation.
All things considered, these topics are likely at least to be brought up by the MEPs of the other groups. It is worth noting that the PPE (the Spanish Popular Party, the main opposition party in Spain is a member of this group) will have 18 minutes to address him. Moreover, Catalan parties such as ERC and ICV are members of the Greens /EFA and PdeCat in ALDE: these groups will have 6 and 7 minutes at their disposal respectively to attempt to make Sánchez blush.
Wednesday’s appearance is a chance for Sánchez to present himself as a strong leader, able to be one of the drivers of the necessary relaunch of the European Union, and as a headman of a pro-European progressive government who can consolidate economic growth in Spain with a special focus on social policies.