Space for partnership
[b]Spain’s Presidency of the EU, as viewed from Minsk[/b]On January 1st, the EU Presidency passed to Spain. A month earlier, the Lisbon Treaty came into force, introducing the post of the President of the European Council and the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. These will chair sessions of EU Heads of State and EU Foreign Ministers, removing the function from the presiding country. The latter will remain responsible for elaborating the EU’s common development strategy, so Madrid is to be the EU’s ‘capital’ for the next six months.Relations with Spain are increasing in importance for Belarus, which has been recently active in the western direction. Although Madrid is one of the most remote European capitals (from Minsk), permanent diplomatic co-operation has been established between our cities. Last March, Spain’s Foreign Minister, Miguel Бngel Moratinos, visited Belarus while, in December 2009, the Belarusian Foreign Minister paid a return visit.
On January 1st, the EU Presidency passed to Spain. A month earlier, the Lisbon Treaty came into force, introducing the post of the President of the European Council and the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. These will chair sessions of EU Heads of State and EU Foreign Ministers, removing the function from the presiding country. The latter will remain responsible for elaborating the EU’s common development strategy, so Madrid is to be the EU’s ‘capital’ for the next six months.
Relations with Spain are increasing in importance for Belarus, which has been recently active in the western direction. Although Madrid is one of the most remote European capitals (from Minsk), permanent diplomatic co-operation has been established between our cities. Last March, Spain’s Foreign Minister, Miguel Бngel Moratinos, visited Belarus while, in December 2009, the Belarusian Foreign Minister paid a return visit.
Distribution of portfolios and diplomats
The Treaty of Lisbon should ensure transparency for the EU’s management in future. At present, Belarus, like other interested observers, is trying to understand the intricacies of the EU’s bureaucratic machine.
Meetings of branch ministers (those responsible for interior affairs or agriculture) will be, as before, chaired by a corresponding minister from the Spanish Cabinet. The website of the Spanish Presidency tells us that the Government needs to elaborate an agenda, conducting around 3,000 sittings of various levels within the EU. The introduction of new positions won’t deprive the chair of its work but there will be some competition between Brussels and Madrid. After the Treaty of Lisbon came into operation, the EU received the right to give the European Commission’s 136 delegations abroad full ambassadorial status. However, this right was only realised for 54 of them, including the EC’s delegation for Ukraine and Belarus (headquartered in Kiev). The Euro Observer explains that ‘the powers of delegations in former Spanish colonies in Latin America haven’t been expanded and nor have those located in countries with which the EU is conducting summits during Spain’s Presidency: Russia and the USA’. Spain’s embassies in these states will speak on behalf of the EU, co-ordinating the activities of other European diplomatic representative offices. In other states, this function (after reform) has been imposed on EU delegations — now called super-delegations.
In 2010, the major task is to find ways out of the economic crisis — the greatest on the continent since WWII. Spain’s current Prime Minister, Josй Luis Rodrнguez Zapatero, has already announced his priorities, although they’re evident. Speaking in the European Parliament, he proposed a strict economic strategy for all EU countries, with sanctions for those states who fail to adhere to it. He stresses that, if the EU continues to develop as 27 separate national systems, it will weaken its competitiveness on foreign markets.
Joseph Daul, Chairman of the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP Group), is sceptical about this initiative. He believes Spanish proposals will bring increased budget deficits while Spain itself is a proven violator. The budget deficit limit for the Eurozone is 3 percent of GDP (embracing the 16 countries using the euro); in Spain, this stands at 11 percent.
International Standard&Poor’s Rating Agency recently lowered Spain’s credit outlook from ‘stable’ to ‘negative’, concerned about the country’s possible GDP growth. In 2009, Spain fell into its first recession in over 15 years. It needs to solve its crisis-related social problems, raising employment to combat a lack of spending power. Unemployment has reached 10 percent in the Eurozone — 15.7m; this is the highest figure in the last 12 years and is almost 3m more than in the previous year. Unemployment is Spain’s biggest challenge; last November, unemployment was up almost 20 percent in Spain, with 20 percent of its able-bodied job-seekers receiving social allowances. It could have been a record, were it were not for Latvia, where the situation is even worse.
Against this background, we cannot but ask what Madrid can offer Europe. Will it have enough resources to run an intensive European policy? ‘If we’re at the tail end of 27 countries regarding economic success, how can the rest of Europe trust our Prime Minister?’ asks Spanish El Mundo.
The EU is sending positive signals to the world, with Eurozone GDP rising by 0.4 percent in Q3 2009 (on the previous quarter) showing that it’s slowly recovering from the recession.
Recent years have seen countries presiding over the EU drawing up beautiful plans in response to challenges. France was obliged to settle the conflict between Russia and Georgia following events in South Ossetia while the Czech Republic needed to act as a ‘peacekeeper’ in the ‘gas war’ between Moscow and Kiev.
EU further expansion is one of Spain’s top priorities. The country plans to intensify negotiations with Croatia, as well as to continue talks with Turkey and other applicants for membership. Nevertheless, no drastic steps are likely, since the economic crisis postpones such intentions.
Spain plans to open a new page in its relations with the USA but Madrid has always enjoyed good relations with Washington. Former PM Aznar was ready to send soldiers to overthrow Saddam Hussein’s regime, alongside those of the US and UK. The ideology of his People’s Party is similar to that of the US Republicans. However, Aznar was obliged to be more cautious, following a shift in public opinion; he lost the next elections to socialist Zapatero (naturally allied to the US’s Democratic Party and Barack Obama).
During Spain’s Presidency, the EU will also pay particular attention to developing relations with South America and the Caribbean, which Madrid sees as becoming more influential in the global economy.
EU’s neighbours are ranked 4th among its priorities. “Prosperity and stability in Europe and in its neighbouring regions is interconnected,” states Spain’s EU Presidency programme. Madrid is primarily interested in its Mediterranean neighbours, for obvious reasons.
‘Efforts will be also taken to further develop the Eastern Partnership, to ease the progressive approach of six member countries into the EU’ notes the Spanish programme concerning the Eastern Partnership initiative.
Recently, in an interview with Interfax Agency, the German Ambassador to Minsk, H.E. Mr. Gebhardt Weiss, tackled the triangle of Belarus, the Eastern Partnership and Spain’s Presidency of the EU. “Tolerance, and the direction of the political process, are often more important than its pace,” he asserts. “The assessment of political process in Belarus remains unchanged. It has again found its clear reflection in Spain’s EU Presidency programme, via the Eastern Partnership…”
As Spain’s new Foreign Minister, Miguel Бngel Moratinos made his first trip to Moscow. He held a joint press conference with Russia’s Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov. Although Europe and Russia have many ‘open’ issues (e.g., the absence of a new agreement on co-operation and the refusal of Moscow politicians to sign the Energy Charter) the Russian media primarily focused on the abolition of the visa regime on the eve of the Spanish diplomat’s arrival.
Recently, Italy was stirring up public debate in announcing the future abolition of visas for Russians. Several other European capitals doubted Rome’s confidence, believing that the visa regime should be first abolished within Eastern Partnership countries. Spain occupied an intermediate position, with Moratinos failing to promise quick visa abolition while assuring that the procedure would be simplified to the utmost, enabling Russians to receive long-term multi-entry visas. Obviously, Spain, whose tourist branch has greatly suffered from the crisis, is lobbying the interests of potential Russian visitors.
Spain keen to see in which direction Belarus is developing…
Belarus now borders the EU but can we call the Portuguese or Spanish our neighbours? The Iberian Peninsula is like a European Kamchatka for us. Of course, we are often told that we live in a global village but I don’t know whether to agree… As far as Belarusian-Spanish relations are concerned, these have been greatly affected by our geographical distance. Spain is the only large EU country not to have an embassy in Minsk. Meanwhile, Spain is among the eight EU states to ratify the Partnership and Co-operation Agreement between the EU and Belarus, signed on March 6th, 1995. Unfortunately, this document — important to develop bilateral relationships — has been put aside.
Last March’s visit to Belarus by the Spanish Foreign Minister, Moratinos, was the first by a Spanish politician of such level. It demonstrated that our countries don’t view distance as an invincible obstacle to developing relations. It’s now planned for a Spanish embassy to open in Minsk.
According to Moratinos, he arrived in Minsk to ‘establish contacts’. Alexander Lukashenko believes it was important that the Head of Spain’s Foreign Ministry came with the intention of seeing this ‘mysterious state, situated at Europe’s centre, with his own eyes — to see in which direction it is moving’. “Our motivation [in co-operating with the EU — editor] is very strong,” said the Belarusian President. “Today, the EU accounts for half of our turnover, with the remaining half being traded with the East. It’s vital for our state.”
Over the first 10 months of 2009, turnover between Belarus and Spain totalled $146m, with Spanish imports prevailing. This equalled our level of trade with such partners as Venezuela, Azerbaijan, Vietnam and Iran.
Mr. Moratinos is keen on economic diplomacy, noting that Spanish entrepreneurs are looking at opportunities for investment in Belarus. Our two governments need to sign agreements to protect investments and avoid double taxation. Visiting Madrid last December, Belarus’ Foreign Minister, Sergei Martynov, also negotiated with diplomats and business representatives.
Belarus-Agro-Tractor enterprise (with 55 percent Belarusian investments) has been operating on the Pyrenees since 2007, supplying Belarusian tractors to the Spanish market. In Belarus, 16 enterprises using Spanish capital (accounting for $1.2m) are currently operational.
Reference: In 2008, $106,000 of Spanish investments were attracted into the Belarusian economy. Between January and September 2009, this figure increased by $10,000 — still a drop in the ocean. Over the last three years, Spain has provided $200,000 of humanitarian assistance, with another $1m given in the form of monetary funds.
The Belarusian Foreign Ministry assesses Spain’s help as considerable. Spanish charities and families annually accept over 2,000 Belarusian children for recuperation (primarily those from Chernobyl-affected regions, low income families and orphanages). Spain is ranked third after Italy and Germany in taking such children.
On June 1st, 2009, an agreement was signed between the Government of the Republic of Belarus and the Government of the Kingdom of Spain regarding the recuperation of Belarusian children in Spain. Alongside a protocol to the treaty, this is almost the only piece of bilateral legislation, which undoubtedly needs improvement.
Dozens of thousands of Belarusian children now have close relationships to Spanish families and 1,300 Belarusian students are studying Spanish at university level each year, promoting the successful development of bilateral relationships. Four universities offer training and a further 7,000 schoolchildren are also studying Spanish.
By Igor Kolchenko