A Presidency to build tomorrow's Europe
José Manuel AlbaresSpanish Minister for Foreign Affairs
A Presidency to build tomorrow's Europe
José Manuel AlbaresSpanish Minister for Foreign Affairs
A Presidency to build tomorrow’s Europe
A presidency of four paths
On July 1st, Spain assumed the presidency of the Council of the European Union with a single ambition: to ensure that our initiatives and our European momentum continue to build the Europe of the future.
Above all, European integration aims to guarantee well-being and expand its citizen’s rights through the gradual creation of new policies and relationships between Europeans. When the European Coal and Steel Community was conceived, the ambitions of the European project’s founders went far beyond the establishment of a common regime for products essential to economic reconstruction. They knew they were laying the foundations of a project for the future, initially devised for six countries, but intended for an entire continent.
The European Union is therefore much more than a pragmatic construction based on developing policy sectors: it is the project of the shared destiny of all Europeans — the only one that will help us attain the prosperity and well-being to which we all aspire. This project has been built through some of the greatest exercises in political innovation in history, in which a unique institutional structure has been superimposed on the foundations of the secular European order, the Westphalian state.
While Covid-19 and the war in Ukraine have provided new examples of how the Union can grow in crisis situations, the European response to Russia’s aggression has been very different from previous crises. Instead of acting separately and in an uncoordinated manner, we responded with unity and solidarity, offering European and not just national solutions, as we did in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic. But this is the very essence of our project of integration: it is a constant process of creation.
Milan Kundera, who recently passed away, said that the true reason that we sought to make our future our own was to change our past. And from a past marked by two global conflicts in the space of thirty years, we, Europeans, have chosen — and succeeded — in creating the European Union, which is the proper opposite: a peace project based on democratic values, tolerance, equality, and non-discrimination.
Russia’s unacceptable war of aggression against Ukraine must serve to remind us of the importance of just how far we have come. Nearly a year and a half has passed since February 24th, 2022. That morning we were shocked to witness the beginning of an invasion that recalled the very worst moments of European history, even though the Union was created to overcome them. The Ukrainian people are well aware of the significance and value of what we have built over the past 70 years; and for our part, we support and recognize the sacrifice Ukraine is making in the name of this European ideal.
The European project must therefore be backed by unity and cohesion, which will be the two main axes guiding our presidency. This will mean unity between member states and internal cohesion, through the promotion of policies that clearly demonstrate to citizens that the Union is a project of and for all Europeans: progressive policies that will continue to move towards a Europe that is not only competitive, ecological, and digital, but also just and inclusive. This is how we will build the Europe of tomorrow, armed with global influence and a project that is identifiable both within and beyond our borders.
This is the Europe that Spain believes in. This is the Europe of the Spanish presidency of the Council, whose motto is “Europe, closer”, and which is embodied in an ambitious program aimed at forging a continental consensus on the major issues facing the Union. The current situation demands it as our presidency will also be the last full presidency of the current European legislature before the European parliamentary elections in June of 2024.
Over the next several months, we will have a major opportunity to make decisive progress on the major debates that will shape the future of the Union for the next several decades. Our times demand it. European unity will not only be necessary for continuing to decisively respond to Russia’s aggression; it will also be necessary in order to solidify the Union as a power that has its own voice in the world and for defending our model of values and principles.
For years, Spain has been promoting progressive policies in Europe and encouraging greater integration. In keeping with this spirit, the Spanish Presidency will focus its efforts on four main areas.
Progress through protection and investment
The European project of expanding right is also a project of economic progress. Spain will encourage policies that help attract industry, modernize our economy, and diversify our foreign trade relations. The Union must seek greater competitiveness for its companies, while ensuring that European industry secures its position at the cutting edge of tomorrow’s key sectors. We must promote competitiveness as well as sustainable and inclusive economic growth by strengthening and deepening the single market on the 30th anniversary of its creation. All this plays a part in reducing vulnerability and strategic dependence that other countries can use as a pressure point, shaping our economic well-being.
To this end, we must continue to promote a regulatory framework that combines incentives for technological development and innovation with the defense of the European model and our values. This European model of responsible digitization, based on equal access to the digital environment and guaranteed privacy for Europeans, is a characteristic that is respected and imitated in other parts of the world. It should therefore be viewed as an asset to be promoted, rather than a barrier to innovation. One objective in this respect will be to advance the development of initial regulations on artificial intelligence.
At the same time, we must reduce vulnerabilities in essential supply sectors such as food, energy, health, and technology. One of the most important matters in this area is the law on critical raw materials. The Spanish presidency hopes to advance three-way negotiations once the European Parliament has voted on its negotiation position. The Russian aggression has exposed the enormous risk of being overly dependent on a power that wishes to use energy as a weapon. The conflict has also revealed that the fight against these dependencies is an excellent occasion to invest in a sustainable energy model. Diversifying suppliers and reducing our dependencies therefore gives us an opportunity to meet our strategic objectives.
With this objective in mind, it will be particularly important to reinforce alliances with our most reliable partners, making progress on partnership agreements with priority regions. Spain considers Latin America and the Caribbean to be the most “Eurocompatible” region on the planet, because of the values we share and the interests that unite us. In addition to the strong economic, social and cultural ties between our two continents, we are united by a deep compatibility in the defense of democratic values. In the current geopolitical context, relations between Europe and Latin America have a strategic dimension to which we must respond.
The EU-CELAC Summit of Heads of State and Government on July 17 and 18 in Brussels marks a turning point in bi-regional relations at all levels. A Summit with Latin America had not been held since 2015; this is a sign that it is essential to strengthen political dialogue at all levels with greater substance and regularity. The results were promising and allow us to move decisively towards this objective: we approved an agenda of 45 billion euros of strategic investments for the region and solidified a follow-up mechanism that will enable us to structure our dialogue in the future.
A just and suitable transition
Forging tomorrow’s Europe inevitably guarantees future generations a planet they can enjoy. Our second priority will therefore be to make progress on the ecological transition and environmental adaptation. The Union must accelerate this process in order to continue to effectively contribute to the fight against climate change and the loss of biodiversity. It must be a transition that improves our citizens’ quality of life and creates job opportunities, while ensuring fair burden-sharing and consideration for our most vulnerable citizens.
During our presidency, we will advance important initiatives in this domain such as the law on net-zero industry emissions. We also hope to conclude negotiations with the European Parliament on the gas and hydrogen directive and regulation, a necessary step towards achieving climate neutrality and strengthening Europe’s energy security.
To achieve this, it will be essential to accelerate the rollout of renewable energies and interconnections in order to reduce Europe’s hard-won energy dependence and to complete the improvement of the electricity market to ensure affordable prices for Europeans, even in times of crisis. We will also encourage the decarbonization of the European economy, completing the adoption of the “Fit for 55” initiative and promoting a green economy that guarantees quality jobs and the competitiveness of European businesses.
This decade of successive crises has damaged our social fabric, and we must repair it. The Europe of tomorrow must search for cohesion at all levels so that citizens feel that they are a part of a project of collective well-being. In line with this commitment, our third priority will be to promote greater social and economic justice. Europeans are demanding ambitious social responses to reduce inequalities, to expand and strengthen social and employment rights, and to protect the most vulnerable among us. To achieve this, we will promote a social economy in which the creation of wealth benefits all Europeans, and we will guarantee worker right in new economic sectors.
Redistribution, the welfare state and social justice in Europe
At the heart of this objective is the need to ensure European fiscal justice, based on the spirit of redistribution that underpins every social project. The burden of recovery and social measures must not fall on the most vulnerable, as we have already seen what these policies entail: exclusion, disaffection and growing inequality. This is why we will work towards adopting minimum tax standards at the European level and combating tax evasion.
In the same spirit, we intend to complete the reform of the European Union’s economic governance. We want fairer, more realistic and more predictable fiscal rules that enable member states to finance public policies and services necessary for the prosperity of Europeans, while guaranteeing budgetary sustainability. What is at stake is European cohesion for the decades to come: we cannot return to the days of austerity at the expense of our citizens’ future.
A Europe which is closer to Europeans also means a Europe with a strong welfare state. This is why we will advance initiatives and objectives laid out in the action plan for the European pillar of social rights. We will also make progress on measures to promote equal treatment and inclusion, paying particular attention to equality between men and women, as well as issues relating to children and people with disabilities, an area in which we will encourage the approval of a European disability card.
Solidarity and cohesion must include our entire territory. Spain knows firsthand the challenges posed by geographical imbalance such as isolationism and the demographic issue. This is why we will work in favor of a territorial cohesion that takes into account the Union’s natural and geographic particularities while guaranteeing the quality of life and lifestyle of rural areas, as well as promoting an ecological and digital transition that will create opportunity in rural areas and outlying regions. The demographic challenge and the fight against depopulation are priorities running through the Spanish Presidency, and to this end we will be promoting measures such as strengthening links between rural municipalities and urban areas, analyzing the European Structural Funds to determine their impact on the fight against depopulation, and developing a European strategy to adapt national social protection systems to the new reality of an aging population.
All this without forgetting what the COVID-19 pandemic sadly reminded us of: we cannot aspire to create prosperity without first guaranteeing what is most essential: people’s health. This is why we want to create a true European Health Union by creating a European health data space and strengthening European action in terms of care and mental health.
The Union’s geopolitical transition
The fourth priority will be to maintain European unity in defense of a rules-based international order. The war in Ukraine is not just a European territorial conflict but a systemic crisis that concerns all the world’s nations. The United Nations Charter, whose principles have been blatantly disregarded, is a guarantee of the independence of all the world’s nations, not just European ones. Without the protection of the Charter, which is eroded every time it is ignored, we will be on the verge of returning to the international relations of the past, based on the law of the strongest and domination through arms.
We must therefore remain united against aggression. In a world that is increasingly interconnected but not more stable, Europe’s security depends not only on cooperation between member states, but also with our partners and allies. In order to overcome our century’s challenges — which are as much geopolitical as social and economic — we need institutional strength and economic security that can only happen by remaining open to the world. The Union must aim to strengthen a European strategic space that is based on the interests that bind us to our partners and allies.
In the Mediterranean as well as the Sahel, we must also look to create a community of shared interests in the face of that region’s major challenges. This involves a bi-regional relationship in which prosperity, stability and environmental sustainability are closely linked and interdependent. We will be working to revise the Southern Neighborhood Policy, with the aim of creating a genuine Mediterranean partnership, of which the Union for the Mediterranean would be one of the pillars.
But unity for external action will only be possible if we also work to advance the major reforms already under way in the Union. One of the major reforms is the pact on migration and asylum. The humane, orderly, responsible and efficient management of migratory flows must be given a more prominent place in the European debate and agenda. Beyond the fight against unlawful migration, the Union must be in a position to develop a migration policy that responds to medium- and long-term economic and demographic challenges. It is essential to collaborate with our partners through an adequately resourced, external migratory dimension.
For these reasons, the Spanish Presidency will endeavor to achieve results in the two proposed directives on legal immigration currently under negotiation. The aim is to simplify procedures, protect European borders and protect migrant workers seeking a better future in Europe. This will also help to attract and retain talent on our continent, helping to meet national labor needs.
Expansion is another major institutional reform in progress. This year, for the first time, Ukraine and Moldova will be included in the Commission’s annual report on the progress made by the candidate countries. On the basis of this report, our Presidency will urge the Council’s conclusions on enlargement to offer them realistic prospects. We recognize the efforts made by many of the candidate countries in the Western Balkans and will work to further their accession process, while at the same time advancing the opening of accession negotiations with Ukraine and Moldova.
The prospect of a 30-plus member Union requires us to give further thought to the Union’s decision-making procedures in order to make them more agile and efficient. As a follow-up to the Conference on the Future of Europe, our Presidency will deepen the debate on bridging clauses to extend the use of qualified majority voting, both for questions of common foreign and security policy and for other essential policies such as taxation.
The European Union, a project of values and expanding rights
Our Presidency comes at a time when the world and the Union are experiencing profound changes. These changes are underpinned by proposals that call into question the rights and values on which we have built our peace and prosperity for decades, and around which the Europe we know today has developed. The war against Ukraine is the most visible manifestation of this, but this undercurrent has been running through our societies for a long time: it expresses itself and feeds on the disenchantment and fears of many of our fellow citizens. Its message is clear: backwards movement and regression, with social polarization as its battle-horse. It does not offer any proposals, any prospects for progress or the future, or the means to achieve them, but it represents the negation of the values and rights that are the essence of Europe.
That’s why, on the thirtieth anniversary of the Maastricht Treaty’s implementation and the creation of European citizenship, we must reclaim the Union as the project for the extension of rights that it has always been. From its very beginnings, the history of European construction has also been the history of the progressive expansion of rights for Europeans, as Europeans.
Today, all citizens of EU member states can consider themselves European citizens. This citizenship brings with it a whole range of political and civil rights: the right to move and remain freely throughout the Union, the right to vote and be elected in local elections in the country of residence, regardless of country of origin, the right to seek consular protection from a member state abroad, even if not a national of that country, and the right to address the European institutions as a citizen.
Our responsibility today is to continue extending the scope of these rights, and to do so with renewed drive and energy the more they are challenged. We must continue to move forward, including at the European level, towards strengthening civil, social and economic rights as a fundamental premise of full citizenship: these are the best way to reaffirm our commitment to the values on which our Union is founded, namely pluralism, non-discrimination, tolerance and equality between men and women.
Over the past seven decades of its existence, the European Union has been able to not only adapt and reinvent itself, but to also become an increasingly close community, and a global standard for democracy, well-being, and prosperity. Spain is taking on the responsibility of the Council Presidency with the desire to further contribute to the process of creation that is the very essence of our Union: a community founded on fundamental principles and rights, and able to constantly renew itself in order to guarantee them.
José Manuel Albares, A Presidency to build tomorrow’s Europe, Jul 2023,
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