With Britain on the verge of leaving the European Union and Italy drifting rightwards under Matteo Salvini’s direction, acting Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez has pledged to use this opportunity to assert his country’s influence over the EU post-Brexit. The UK has always been Brussels’ biggest obstacle to further integration.
Sanchez’s Socialist Party had a strong showing at the European elections, winning 20 of the 54 seats Spain holds in the European Parliament. As a result, the Prime Minister stated Madrid will be pushing for a position on the European Commission. He also has a vision to complete the reforms needed to strengthen the EU’s Banking Union.
Italy’s clout over Brussels is waning. At the moment, it is the only nation to retain two of the five EU presidencies: Mario Draghi led the European Central Bank (ECB) and Antonio Tajani presided over the European Parliament. But the Italian Government’s demands that an Italian should occupy the presidency of the ECB will fall on deaf ears. This is because of Salvini’s open warfare with Brussels. Former Spanish Finance Minister, Luis de Guindos, is already the ECB’s Vice President. This further weakens Italy’s demands.
Although the League triumphed at the polls, they will find it difficult to transform their seats into influence being an anti-establishment party. They will become an opposition party in the European Parliament while the top jobs go to pro-EU figures. According to Bloomberg, the next President of the European Commission could be German conservative Manfred Weber. If Weber does win, Sanchez will push for his Foreign Minister, Josep Borrell, to become the Commission’s Vice President for economic issues to rebalance the institution towards the left.
As Spanish publication El Pais reported, neither of the European Parliament’s main groupings- the European People’s Party (EPP) or the Party of European Socialists (POSE)- achieved a majority at the European elections. Considering France and Germany have always been the EU’s dominant members, Sanchez can act as a negotiating figure between Macron, who is part of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE), and Merkel from the EPP. ‘I am the chief negotiator for the Social Democratic family’, the Spanish Prime Minister declared upon arriving at the last EU summit. If he can persuade the Parliament’s three largest groupings to form a coalition, this would demonstrate that Spain’s Socialists can maintain the balance between Merkel and Macron.
Furthermore, Sanchez intends to use his influence to push for a ‘social’ Europe. What the acting President of the Government means by this is that he wants a more ‘socialist, feminist and ecological Europe.’ This is where Sanchez could face obstacles. As Jon Worth wrote in 2006, a ‘social’ Europe was difficult to achieve because it had no centralised role on demographic issues and levels of public spending. But the Prime Minister said this can be achieved through an ambitious European Budget.
Nonetheless, the Prime Minister needs to form a new government after he failed to win a majority in recent national elections. It is possible he may fail here. As Lorenzo Vita of InsideOver wrote, another threat to Sanchez’s increasing influence is the Visegrad Group. Led by Hungary’s charismatic leader, Viktor Orban, they may challenge the dominance of the EU’s western powers, with Italy’s help. They could even find a common candidate for the Commission’s presidency: the right-wing Maros Sevcovic, thereby damaging Spain’s EU ambitions.
Whilst Spain has an opportunity to influence the EU post-Brexit due to the Socialists’ strong performance at the European elections, Sanchez would also have to overcome difficulties from the Visegrad Group who could challenge his position. Either way, the battle for European dominance without a Eurosceptic Britain in the way has started. With two crucial allies in Merkel and Macron, Spain is winning, for now.