Grande Place, Brussels. Most departments of the European Commission, the EU’s
executive branch,
are quartered in the Belgian capital. 


by Rose Maramba

A visibly elated acting Prime Minister of Spain, Pedro Sanchez, met the press on 2 July 2019 in Brussels, and broke “una noticia extraordinaria (an extraordinary news).” He was referring to the nomination by the European Commission of Josep Borrell as High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. Borrell, who was Minister of Foreign Affairs in the Social Democratic (“Socialist”) government of Sanchez, and continues to serve as acting Foreign Affairs Minister in the interim Spanish government following the general election in Spain late last April, will head up a vital department of the European Union whose budget for the next five years runs to a whopping €14 billion.

An elated Pedro Sanchez briefs the press in Brussels, during a recess of the Extraordinary European Council, 2 July 2019.

As the EU’s chief of diplomacy, he will chair the Foreign Affairs Council of the European Union (FAC). The FAC insures the unity, consistency and effectiveness of the EU’s external action. It defines and implements the EU’s foreign and security policy in accordance with the guidelines set by the European Council. In specific terms, the FAC can launch EU crisis management actions, pursuant to to the EU’s objectives of peace and security.

As if that were not enough, the FAC also adopts measures to implement the EU’s common commercial policy in partnership with the European Parliament.

In his capacity as the Big Boss of EU Foreign Affairs, Borrell will serve concurrently as Vice President of the European Commission. Incidentally, the Commission is the EU’s executive branch. It proposes and implements EU legislation. Powerful as this institution may be, it is not to be mistaken with the European Council which sets the strategic direction and priorities of the EU and is made up of its President, the Heads of State/Goverment of the 28 Member States of the Union (27 if/when Brexit becomes effective) and the President of the Commission.

The European Council is EU’s decisionmaking body of the highest level. Because of the nature of its membership, its usually quaterly meetings are summit meetings. The Council represents the the highest level of political cooperation among EU countries.

It has been years since a Spanish leader has landed a top job in the EU. The last time was when Javier Solana became the Council of the European Union’s first high representative for the common foreign and security policy. He had a two term mandate, from 1999 to 2009. Solana was Foreign Affairs Minister in the Social Democratic government of Felipe Gonzalez, as well as a very successful Secretary-General of NATO.

Josep Borrell

Borrell is expected to fill the post as soon as the European Parliament confirms his nomination. For this very reason, Sanchez said at the press briefing in Brussels that “España ha vuelto a Europa (Spain has retunred to Europe).”

The political situation in Brussels reflects the new situation in Spain, and vice versa, which apparently has seen the demise of the two-party system. A system in which the right and leftwing parties (Partido Popular and the Partido Socialista Obrero Español respectively) used to take turns at the helm. As in the local politics, EU politics has splintered into several groups of parties with three major players: the Group of the European Popular Party (EPP), Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D), and the Group of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats of Europe (ALDE). This makes for much more difficult and decidedly complicated negotiations when reaching a parliamentary majority and forming a government.

Acting Spanish Prime Minister Sanchez was S&D’s chief negotiator in Brussels. The ardous negotiations began in the afternoon of 30 June and could only be concluded in the afternoon of 2 July, following the European Parliamentary election which took place between 23 and 26 May 2019 across the EU. Before Brexit (2014 – 2019), there were/still are a total of 751 parliamentary seats (750 MEPs + President). Post-Brexit will bring down the total to 705.

Seats are alloted to each Member State according to the size of its population (proportional representation). Thus, Germany, the most populous Member State, has 96 seats/MEPs in pre-Brexit 2019. Luxembourg has 6. Seats will be adjusted after Brexit when the UK’s 73 seats will be redistriubted among the 27 Member States. (Note, however, that there might be a new UK referendum to determkine if the Brits will  stay in or out of the EU.)

The confirmation of nominees requires the vote of absolute majority in the European Parliament. Above photo shows the Parliament in Strasbourg, France where most of the plenary sessions take place.

The confirmation of Josep Borrell as High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy requires a vote of absolute majority in the European Parliament. So is the confirmation of Ursula von der Leyen as President of the European Commission, the first woman ever to preside the Commission. Von der Leyen was Germany’s conservative Defense Minister. The nomination of IMF’s Christine Lagarde as President of the European Central Bank (ECB) will equally require an absolute majority of Parliamentary votes. If — when — confirmed, Legarde, like Van der Leyen, will be the first female ECB President. Lagarde is a member of the conservative neo-liberal Les Ripublicains political party and is also affiliated with the European Popular Party.

However, considering the amount of negotiation that went into the nominations, the confirmation by the European Parliament is all but assured, barring an unforeseen political force majeure.

For all that, the nomination of Borrell is not resonating as one might expect in a country whose population — 83% of it, according to the March 2019 Eurobarometer survey — loves to think of themselves as EU citizens. The nomination is overshadowed by the political uncertainty in Spain these days; so far, political leaders have failed to reach a compromise that would facilitate the investiture of Sanchez as the new Prime Minister. Sanchez garnered the largest number of votes in the last general election held on 28 April 2019. But his win did not constitute absolute parliamentary majority, thus raising the spectre of a new general election on a people who are suffering from election fatigue. (Within weeks of each other, the Spaniards had gone to the polls to elect local, regional, and national officials, as well as their representatives to the European Parliament.)

Sanchez’s political opponents call Borrell’s nomination a “consolation prize” that the potentates in Brusells have doled out.


Featured image/ Christopher John SST, CC BY2.0
Pedro Sanchez/Pool Moncloa-Borja de la Bellacasa
Josep Borrell/Universidad Pablo Olavide, CC BY-SA2.0
European Parliament/Grzgorz Jereczek, CC BY-SA2.0