(This article is also available in BlogActiv)
Rajoy’s announcement of his cabinet of ministers earlier this month received a lukewarm welcome from the opposition as the new ministers were considered to lack in dialogue and negotiation abilities; according to critics, they will merely continue with the reforms the Popular Party (PP) had put in place in the previous legislature. But there seems to be unanimity as to the strong message the Prime Minister has sent regarding the importance of EU issues: they are top priority.
Some of the more prominent members of his cabinet have strong ties to Brussels: re-appointed Economy minister Luis de Guindos has been key in the economic reforms the country has undergone and has ben dealing with the Eurogroup and the institutions since 2011 and his appointment has been hailed by members of the EU institutions. The new government’s spokesperson and minister for Education, Culture and Sports Iñigo Méndez de Vigo was a MEP for 19 years and an expert in constitutional affairs. And the new Foreign Affairs Ministers, Alfonso Dastis, is a diplomat and was until now chief of Spain’s Permanent Representation to the EU. Barely one week into their mandate, the three of them flew to Brussels to meet with MEPs, several Commissioners and members of the Eurogroup to send a message of unity and total commitment of the government to its European obligations.
The new distribution of portfolios is another example of the prominent role that European affairs play for the new government. There is a newly created ministry for Energy, Tourism and the Digital Agenda, to accommodate the incoming legislation in energy and digital affairs that will flow down to the Member States in the next years. Spanish Commissioner Arias Cañete is said to have played a key role in the creation of the new Ministry, although the new Minister, Alvaro Nadal, is feared by the major electric Spanish companies for his tough stance against them during his post as chief of the President’s Economic Office in the previous legislature. Nadal was considered to be fundamentally focused on limiting those companies’ access and influence to the Prime Minister, and the session of his taking up of duties last week lacked the presence of the CEOs of the main companies.
Both the appointments and the distributions of portfolios point in the same direction. Rajoy stressed in his investiture speech before the Spanish Parliament that economic recovery is his government’s top priority, and Brussels plays a key role in it.
In parallel to economic recovery, the country has to recover lost ground in the EU scene after a year of political paralysis. With the missed opportunity of having De Guindos appointed chairman of the Eurogoup and a general loss of influence in the last months, Spain must be in top shape for the major events that will take place in the first six months of 2017. The kick-off of the British disconnection in March 2017 will generate a rebalancing of the national forces where Spain could play an important role (and it’s in its best interest to be fully present during the negotiations). And the French presidential elections in May will demand a united front from national governments in the event that the Front National emerges as the winner of the elections.
Ultimately, Rajoy’s will to regain a stronger footing in Brussels is linked to national interests. His minority government will face very tough scrutiny and likely rejection of his economic policies from the opposition, as the current parliamentary arithmetic requires his party to obtain the support of other political parties for the approval of important reforms. Over the last months, several cases of measures approved by the Parliament in spite of the government’s rejection perfectly illustrate how the elections have been game-changing at least in this regard. Having Brussels’s support to introduce the necessary reforms will certainly make it easier for the government to push through its agenda. What remains to be seen is whether, if all else fails, Rajoy will use the EU as scapegoat and blame it for the unpopular measures, as national governments tend to do all too frequently. But that is a different discussion.