Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero was once hailed as the new face of Europe's left. Then a crushing recession sparked by the collapse of the housing bubble sent his approval rating into a spiral. Yet Zapatero remains upbeat. Last week he spoke to NEWSWEEK's Mike Elkin about the upcoming G20 meeting, dealing with Venezuela's Hugo Chávez, and what to expect when Spain assumes the EU presidency in January.
What will be the easiest topic at the G20, and what will be the most difficult?
There will be an agreement on banking regulations, and we'll just have to draw up a calendar. The most difficult thing will be climate change.
What will your priorities be when Spain assumes the EU presidency?
First, economic reactivation, which involves a greater push for innovation and competition. Second, the application of the Lisbon Treaty, if passed, which will provide a whole new governing system for the EU. And third, the European Union should close commercial pacts with Latin America, Russia, and the Mediterranean region.
Your government wants a diplomatic solution to Cuba. What are the next steps?
We need a dialogue with terms: we have to be strict on issues like human rights and Cuba's position in Latin America.
Venezuela is also causing concern, especially its ties with Iran.
Iran is an issue for the international community, for the United Nations. Iran must comply with the international framework for nuclear development and provide guarantees about its nuclear objectives. On this the entire European Union agrees.
Chávez seems to be playing both sides. Is there a diplomatic effort to rein him in?
I think that must be dealt with among the Latin American countries.
You choose your words more carefully than Chávez does.
[Laughs] I tell him the same thing. But he spends a lot of time making speeches in front of the cameras.
On Afghanistan, the U.S. government is asking allies to shoulder more of the burden. will you increase spain's role?
In the next few days, Parliament will decide whether to send another 220 soldiers to bring the total up to 1,000. We must also put on the table the steps that will return the task of providing security to the Afghans. In the meantime, Spain will be in Afghanistan.
Some say that if NATO fails in Afghanistan, its very existence will be questioned.
NATO is not going to fail, because there is an international pledge that under no circumstances will Afghanistan be in the hands of the Taliban.
Spain's economic statistics are awful: 18 percent unemployment, a recession, and a big budget deficit. Is spain collapsing?
No. You just need to go out on the streets to see that it's not. The recession will be less than in other European countries. Our banking sector has avoided the crisis, and that will aid the recovery. Of course, the main problem is unemployment. Recovery will only take place when we create jobs. Our strategy is social protection and to reform the growth model to focus less on housing and more on innovative sectors like renewable energies and biotechnology.
But will there be a serious divide in Europe as countries such as Germany begin to recover while Spain takes longer?
No, because Germany's recovery helps us recover. Germany is the largest importer of Spanish goods, and German tourism is critical for our GDP. We will all come out of the crisis as we went in.