Spain takes over the rotating Presidency of the Council of the European Union as of 1 July. Normally a time of new agenda setting, this rotation takes place in a period of uncertainty before the snap Spanish general election on 23 July, where far right groups are expected to do well. Although less influential than 15 years ago, the rotating presidency’s role is still important and the potential rightward shift could pose a challenge in the urgent work of implementing the global dimension of the European Green Deal.
In its role as President of the Council of the European Union, Spain will be responsible for overseeing the last remaining pieces of Green Deal legislative processes before next years’ European elections. This is important, because after accusations of backsliding in the Russian inflicted energy crisis, the pressure is on for the EU to deliver at the upcoming COP28 in the UAE. In a bout of unfortunate timing, the current Spanish Prime Minister Sánchez’s party suffered heavy losses in recent local elections which led him to call for early general elections on July 23. This poses questions around the country’s future presidential priorities and its ability to show strong leadership at an important moment for international climate action.
With core elements of the domestic-focused Fit-for-55 climate package in place, the EU is now increasingly shifting its attention to strengthening the global dimension of the Green Deal. The European Green Deal calls for strengthened “Green Deal Diplomacy” and outlines the EU’s ambition to integrate climate into all foreign policy channels, but implementation has been uneven. The Commission has made progress in including climate considerations as an important element in development policy, but climate has not yet been mainstreamed into trade or industrial policy.
Spain will steer the EU's working agenda for the next six months, set priorities, mediate negotiations, and help shape climate-related Council Conclusions. Integrating climate considerations into foreign policy has long term implications and requires support from all Member States. With the outcome of the snap elections unclear, Sánchez already requested to postpone addressing the European Parliament to present the Presidency’s priorities. The impact of postponing what Manfred Weber, a conservative MEP, calls “a crucial institutional moment” for the Presidency is unclear, but directs more attention to the upcoming snap election. A post-election leadership reshuffle in Spain could result in a ‘lame duck’ government or even a complete shift in priorities in the event of a changed government. A new government under conservative leadership could oust climate advocates like Teresa Ribera, Spain’s current Minister for Ecological Transition, and in pander to extreme right parties with ties to climate change deniers.
Regardless of who heads the new government, it is crucial that Spain avoids pandering to climate sceptics and quickly establishes stable leadership to ensure that the EU supports global climate action – notably with three urgent reform priorities:
Need for common and long-term vision
As the EU aims to expand climate into all foreign policy and the number of stakeholders increase, it needs a collective vision that guides its efforts to integrate climate into all fields of foreign policy. However, the EU lacks a comprehensive long-term vision to guide bilateral and regional cooperation, coordinate EU and Member State foreign policy, and speak with one voice. While the Council periodically sets out a short-term strategy for climate diplomacy in its annual conclusions, it should be a priority next step for the Presidency to support further developing such a vision.
Advancing from a technical to (geo) political climate diplomacy
This vision should outline a geopolitical strategy that guides EU institutions and Member States’ diplomacy towards common long-term climate priorities. Adopting a more holistic and strategic approach to climate diplomacy, can therefore be considered a precondition for successfully implementing the global dimension of the European Green Deal. The EU should thus advance its climate diplomacy efforts from a primarily technical approach, focused to a large extent on UNFCCC negotiations, to a more holistic and geopolitical approach.
Strengthen and expand “Team Europe”
Expand the Team Europe approach is crucial to enhance ambitious climate action across all foreign policy areas. Initially implemented for coordinating COVID-19 response between Member States and the EU, this approach has now been extended to EU international cooperation. However, there re-mains ample scope for better coordination and consensus-building in other foreign policy areas like industry and trade policy. Strengthening and expanding the Team Europe approach involves sharing best practices, aligning priorities, pooling resources, and engaging with international partners and civil society in a coordinated manner to advance the global climate agenda.
The urgency to address climate change cannot afford any delays, making it essential for Spain to ensure a seamless exercise of power that allows for continuity in climate policy and diplomacy. The international community is eagerly looking to the EU for strong leadership, and any shortcomings in climate diplomacy may undermine the bloc's credibility as a driver of change.