The gargantuan grin with which Pedro Sánchez greeted his party’s victory in Sunday’s European elections had barely faded when it was pressed into service once more on the steps of the most exclusive address in Paris.
“Now at the Élysée, with Emmanuel Macron, the president of the French republic, to analyse the results of the European parliamentary elections and exchange ideas over jobs in European institutions and the EU’s strategic agenda from 2019 to 2024,” he tweeted the following evening.
Next came lunch with Macron and the prime ministers of Belgium, Holland and Portugal, and then a meeting with Angela Merkel.
Neither the tweets, nor the accompanying pictures, required much deciphering.
Flush from his second electoral triumph in less than a month – and newly confirmed as the leader of the largest social democratic party in the European parliament – Spain’s acting prime minister was coming to claim his seat at the high table of continental politics.
Despite being among the most ardently pro-EU countries in the bloc, Spain has often struggled to position itself as a key player. At other times, notably under Sánchez’s conservative predecessor, Mariano Rajoy, the country has seemed indifferent – or distracted.
“It’s been a few years since Spain has played as active a role in European affairs as it has under the prime minister,” said Irene Lozano, the head of Global Spain, the government unit tasked with projecting and raising the country’s profile.
“I think that we’ve been wrapped up in our own thoughts and focused on domestic policy debates and the occasional existential question about Spain.”
But she said Sánchez’s Paris dash spoke volumes and pointed to a far more engaged approach.
“He went to have dinner with Macron the day after the European elections and I think this is very clearly a government with a proactive approach and lots of initiatives to offer,” said Lozano.
“We haven’t seen that for many years – and I think it’s something Europe appreciates.”
Sánchez and his Spanish Socialist Workers’ party (PSOE) are hoping that Europe will show that appreciation by awarding a senior role to the acting foreign minister, Josep Borrell, who topped the party’s list in the European elections.
Borrell, a former president of the European parliament, suggested in a recent interview that Spain could fill some of the post-Brexit gaps left in the EU by the UK.
“Could we round out the Franco-German partnership? Probably, because the Franco-German partnership is increasingly needed and increasingly insufficient,” he told the European Council on Foreign Relations.
Emilio Sáenz-Francés, a lecturer in history and international relations at Madrid’s Comillas Pontifical university, agrees that the timing is right.
“Sánchez wants to get Spain into the photos with the big players – Merkel and Macron,” he said.
“What’s more, that’s perfectly justified by Spain’s clout in Europe at the moment. If under Franco, Spain was the ‘spiritual reserve of the western world’, today it’s the spiritual reserve of Europeanism.”
Sáenz-Francés points out that an active presence in Europe could also help Spain “defuse the big issues” as it continues to grapple with the issue of Catalan independence and the trial of the 12 pro-independence regional leaders draws to a close in Madrid.
The former Catalan president Carles Puigdemont made his frustration with Europe very plain this week.
On Tuesday, the independence cause suffered a blow after the European court of human rights (ECHR) rejected a complaint against Spain over the suspension of the Catalan parliament’s plenary sitting on 9 October 2017.
A day later, Puigdemont said he had been denied entry to the European parliament despite winning a seat in the European elections.
“One might have imagined that after Franco’s death the aim was bring the new Spanish democracy up to European standards,” he tweeted. “Forty-three years later it’s Spanish standards that prevail in European institutions. And still people ask why democracy is receding in Europe?”
Sáenz-Francés believes that Sánchez – “the great chameleon of Spanish politics” – could also reap domestic political benefits from his meal with Macron.
The PSOE may have won the general election, but it fell short of a majority in congress, and will need to manoeuvre carefully to get its leader reinvested.
By aligning himself with the French president, Sánchez will have put pressure on the Spain’s centre-right Citizens party, which is part of the same European parliamentary group as Macron’s En Marche party.
Citizens and the conservative People’s party (PP) have both swung to the right in recent months in a bid to stop voters defecting to the far-right Vox party, which won 24 seats in the general elections.
Vox acted as kingmaker in the creation of a PP-Citizens coalition government in Andalucía after the regional elections last year and could now hold the key to power in Madrid’s city council and elsewhere.
“By getting close to Macron, he puts pressure on Citizens at a time when the party is the most sought-after coalition partner in Spain,” said Sáenz-Francés.
The move will also put pressure on the PP as Vox is allied with far-right European parties including Matteo Salvini’s League and Marine Le Pen’s National Rally, which narrowly defeated En Marche last weekend.
“Sánchez has a great vocation for international politics. He’s also got a bit of an ego – he likes being in the pictures and the things that go with that international style,” said Sáenz-Francés.
“But I think that behind all that, there’s a political intelligence – it all lends prestige to a prime minister, and Europe is a way of bringing pressure to bear on other parties in Spain.”