Spain strengthens its role in the European energy battle |  Economy

Spain strengthens its role in the European energy battle | Economy

The blow at Teresa Ribera’s table on November 23, after hearing the inapplicable initial proposal of the European Commission for the cap on gas —a threshold so high that, in practice, it was little more than a toast to the sun— was It was produced in Madrid but it was heard as far as Brussels. A day later, in one of the many negotiations with the rest of the Energy ministers of the Twenty-seven, the Spanish minister reiterated face to face what she had said to the four winds in Madrid: that it was a “joke”. Many, and not only this time, took note.

After a year of unprecedented pressure on the European energy system, exacerbated after the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, the Spanish Government boasts these days of having been one of the first to have warned of the threat of prices on the stability of the project common. A recognition that it is also receiving from the rest of the European partners: in the face of the total refusal that each and every one of its proposals encountered in the early stages of the crisis, today the tone with which the proposals of the entente de southern countries headed by Madrid is very different. As the recent approval of the gas cap has made clear, the officials of the Rue de la Loi and the northern countries of the Union listen.

The few photos that came out of the last summit of EU energy ministers had a powerful symbolic charge: with the Spanish third vice president in a central position, at the head of a table, speaking while several European ministers and advisers listen. Various diplomatic sources who have closely witnessed the negotiations on energy issues that have taken place in the community arena in recent months —in half a year of the Czech presidency a dozen summits have been held on the subject—, agree in blaming a good part of the Spanish success to Riverside method: firmness, left hand and knowledge of his subjects. A combination that has led her to be one of the most respected figures in the European capital.

“He knows Brussels very well, and Brussels knows it very well,” says a diplomatic source not exactly suspicious of being in tune with Spain: his country is not among the most enthusiastic about the line followed by Madrid and the rest of the southern capitals in energy matters. . He, on the other hand, declares himself almost an admirer of the Spanish minister: “she has been very influential in the last year. She is a very good communicator and understands the political game. In addition, she is very skilled, very skillful, and has significantly raised the profile of Spain in the debate, ”he says on condition of anonymity. That of this source is not just any voice: it has been present at the highest level in all the recent energetic tug-of-war between capitals.

Of the fights behind closed doors over the gas cap, he remembers how Ribera practically silenced one of the members of the German team, reminding him that it was the ministers who had to make decisions. “He’s not afraid of scolding, he’s not afraid of the Germans or the French,” he smiled to himself as he recalled the scene. “She is a very tough negotiator. But she, at the same time, knows exactly when it is necessary to reach a compromise, ”corroborates a second source who is very knowledgeable about the intense conversations in recent months. Both diplomatic sources belong to different countries and interests in the tough negotiations closed this Monday in Brussels in a last meeting from which Ribera finally came out relaxed and smiling.

On her shoulders, the Spanish vice president wore the sweatshirt that the Czech presidency had distributed to the ministers at the end of their last meeting, and which bore the slogan with which their representative and chief negotiator on behalf of Prague, the Minister of Industry, had threatened them. Jozef Sikela, when an agreement seemed like an impossible mission: “We will convene as many energy councils as necessary”. Without wanting to claim victory — it belongs to “everyone,” he clarified — Ribera’s satisfaction at saying goodbye denoted a feeling of mission accomplished.

Between skill and context

The usual underrepresentation of the fourth largest economy in the euro in community forums is history. “In energy debates, we Spaniards have always been quarrelsome. But they have never paid as much attention to us as they do now,” Gonzalo Escribano, director of the Energy and Climate program at the Elcano Royal Institute, stated by phone. “The important thing is that we are able to transfer that influence on what to do to get out of the short-term problem to a long-term vision: what has happened in recent months puts us in a situation of being able to influence the future design of the European energy system. We are earning it hard.”

The reality has been giving the reason to practically all the diagnoses of the bloc led by Madrid since the beginning of the energy crisis. That the marginalist system to determine the price of light does not make sense when, as now, the compass of the energy market loses magnetism. That the Iberian exception entails many more benefits than risks. That joint gas purchases are a feasible solution. And that limiting the price of imported gas was not a chimera. The escalation in the price of electricity, a phenomenon that reached Spain before the rest of the continent, also allowed Madrid to go ahead, both in the analysis of the situation and in the proposals.

The step forward of Spain in the energy diatribe is also supported by its privileged vantage point to face the energy transition. Faced with the enormous external dependence in the fossil era, it now has a unique opportunity to take advantage of its gigantic sun and wind potential: all futures markets point to a growing gap with the rest of the continent that is evident in the bet of the large European companies in the sector on the Iberian Peninsula, both in electricity and green hydrogen. In short, the energy world looks at Spain with very different eyes from those of a few years ago. And that is also a boost for the Spanish theses in community debates.

Other issues of a more macro nature also have an influence. If ten years ago the southern countries started out as red lanterns in community economic debates, the gross mistakes made in the management of the euro crisis by the nations further north —when Germany and its satellites (Holland, Austria, Finland) imposed their recipe: an austerity cure with disastrous consequences for the Mediterranean arc— charged the group with reasons.

Affinity with the president

The arrival of Ursula von der Leyen at the top of the Community Executive rowed equally in favor: although German, her affinity with Pedro Sánchez and other southern leaders was evident from minute zero. The pandemic, which ended up giving birth to Eurobonds, made it clear that the page had been turned economically. Now, that shift has moved to the energy field.

“The sequence, the allies, the context and the events have helped us a lot,” Escribano outlines. “Things have been done well, but the change in environment has also been key: we have gone from being a periphery and an island to being an important part of the solution. And the story has been built well: Spain is not only leading the regulatory debate, but also the climate debate, in the last COPs. That adds up, and a lot, ”he says.

“The north arrived much less prepared for this crisis, with a greater exposure to Russian gas. If in the debt crisis we were the weak ones, at this level we are more covered and we can have the upper hand”, sums up Natalia Collado, from EsadeEcPol. “Having a person like Ribera, who has demonstrated his experience in the energy sector, has also been key. It is both things that have allowed this change in the balance of forces between north and south, and that Spain has been able to assume a leading role ”, settles this expert. The Rubicon, in her opinion, crossed last spring with the Iberian exception: “If we had not come to implement it, the photo of Ribera last week, surrounded by the rest of the ministers, would not have taken place.”

However, even those most favorable in Brussels to the riverbank method They warn that there is a limit to the “red lines” that Spain has been imposing these months on the European negotiations. After all, they recall, “it is not a good idea to alienate Germans, French or Dutch too much, countries necessary to build majorities.” And there is still a lot to be negotiated in Europe.

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