Spain’s PM Pedro Sánchez meets with Biden to discuss Ukraine, trade and immigration

Long sought after, the Washington meeting coincides with the start of local and regional election campaigns back home

U.S. President Joe Biden and Spain's Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez in Madrid on June 28, 2022.
U.S. President Joe Biden and Spain's Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez in Madrid on June 28, 2022.Susan Walsh (AP)

Pedro Sánchez’s continuous efforts to propel his international agenda are paying off: on Friday, the prime minister of Spain will be in the White House to meet with President Joe Biden and discuss issues of strategic relevance ranging from the war in Ukraine to trade and immigration. The meeting also happens to coincide with the start of campaigning for local and regional elections in Spain, a fact that, though coincidental, will help the leader of the Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) raise his own profile ahead of the May 28 vote.

The Spanish government had been seeking a face-to-face with Biden for two and a half years. Sánchez and Biden have an intense agenda ahead of them, following an earlier meeting two days ago between Foreign Affairs Minister José Manuel Albares and Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

For Spain’s center-left government, it is important that Sánchez will be meeting with a Democrat with a political and economic agenda that runs along the same lines as his own, with a very similar position on the war in Ukraine and which prioritizes the fight against climate change, a field where Spanish companies have large investments in the pipeline.

Spain's PM Pedro Sánchez with former U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Thursday in  Washington.
Spain's PM Pedro Sánchez with former U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Thursday in Washington.Borja Puig de la Bellacasa (Pool/Moncloa)

The Spanish leader had been trying to get closer to Biden for years, but all he managed at first was a few seconds of conversation in 2021 at a NATO summit in Brussels, an event that drew derision from Spain’s opposition parties. But the relationship moved forward with Biden’s visit to Madrid in the framework of the NATO summit of June 2022, and later when both men had a long conversation in front of the cameras at an informal meeting at the G20 in Indonesia in November 2022.

Sánchez arrived in Washington on Thursday and presented former U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi with the Grand Cross of the Order of Isabel the Catholic, an honor bestowed by the Spanish cabinet. Sources in La Moncloa, the seat of government, said the PM wanted to highlight “the courage and perseverance of the Speaker emeritus in her defense of democracy and women’s rights” as well as Pelosi’s work to strengthen relations between the U.S. and Spain and build bridges between different cultures.

La Moncloa is hoping that the meeting with Biden will consolidate a moment that has been described as “extraordinary” for relations between the U.S. and Spain. Sánchez always keeps an eye on Washington when making major international policy decisions. One of the most relevant is the change of position on Western Sahara, which he accepted in order to restore Madrid’s complex relationship with Morocco, an essential neighbor in the fight against irregular immigration.

But Sánchez, above all, whole-heartedly backs NATO’s position, that is, the U.S. position, on the Ukraine war. This will be a decisive issue on the agenda on Friday, Sánchez recently visited Chinese leader Xi Jinping in Beijing, and he will convey his impression of that meeting to Biden. There is some distance between both men there, because the U.S. now has a much tenser relationship with China. Spanish foreign minister Albares said in Washington that Spain is looking for “a European path” in its relationship with Beijing.

Spain will also have the rotating presidency of the European Union from July to December, providing a showcase for Sánchez’s international agenda. This strategy is centered on issues that are also key for the U.S., such as immigration, investments in ecological transformation and the need for the EU to re-industrialize itself so as not to depend on the production of strategic goods from overseas, which was evident during the pandemic.

Before traveling to Beijing, Sánchez had been to Kyiv to express his support for President Volodymyr Zelenskiy. Back in Madrid, the Spanish PM recently met with Brazil’s Lula da Silva, who intends to seek an alternative path to peace through mediation, along a line different from that of the U.S. and the EU.

Because of all this, La Moncloa believes that Spain has become a relevant international actor and that may be why Biden is interested in receiving Sánchez in Washington.

Trade and immigration

There will also be talk of commercial disagreements, such as the problems that Spanish olive exports are experiencing in the U.S. due to tariff restrictions. In military matters there is clearer collaboration, and Spain has already authorized the arrival of two of the six U.S. destroyers that will be stationed at the Rota military base in southern Spain.

On immigration, both leaders will also discuss the circular migration agreements that Spain is carrying out with several Central American countries — immigrants who come for a season with organized work and then return to their countries — in which the U.S. has expressed interest. At the moment there are about 2,000 immigrants from four countries involved in the program —Honduras, Guatemala, the Dominican Republic and El Salvador — but Spain wants to scale up this initiative and make it much bigger.

Another big issue on the agenda is the cleanup of Palomares, the area contaminated with plutonium 57 years ago in a nuclear accident when a U.S. B-52 bomber collided in midair with a refueling plane and dropped four hydrogen bombs on the coast of Almería. In 2015, Washington promised to take the contaminated earth to the Nevada desert, but that operation has not yet materialized and Sánchez will try to secure some deadline guarantees.

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