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8 May 2024

Spain’s toxic politics

The country’s poisonous relationship between law and politics is a headache for the EU.

By Wolfgang Münchau

One of the most curious stories in the past few weeks has been the news that Pedro Sánchez is not resigning. Spain’s socialist prime minister had threatened to quit after anti-corruption campaigners made allegations against his wife, Begoña Gómez. Although the Madrid prosecutor asked the court to dismiss its investigation into Gómez due to a lack of evidence, Sánchez kept everyone in suspense over a long weekend, before on Monday 29 April announcing that he would stay.

Superficially, this may seem like grand political theatre – but it reflects one of the most toxic political cultures in western Europe. In Spain, the law and politics are intermingled – and nowhere are the two more fully merged than in the arena of Catalan independence.

Since last year’s general election, Sánchez has governed with the help of separatist parties from Catalonia and the Basque region. One of them is Together for Catalonia, led by Carles Puigdemont, the former Catalan president. After the 2017 independence referendum – deemed illegal by the Spanish constitutional court – Puigdemont fled the country. He now lives in Belgium as a Spanish MEP. 

The Spanish general election of July 2023 produced a hung parliament in Madrid. The opposition Popular Party came first, but did not have enough allies to form a coalition. Sánchez’s Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party and the separatist parties agreed a confidence-and-supply deal, which included an amnesty deal for Catalan politicians arrested after the referendum.

There are not many western European countries where political parties agree to overturn prison sentences. The amnesty deal prompted a complaint from the European Commission, which expressed concern that it might violate European rule-of-law procedures.

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The toxic interaction between law and politics goes both ways. Spanish courts regularly ban politicians from holding office, as happened to Quim Torra, who succeeded Puigdemont as Catalan president in 2018 after a short interregnum of direct rule by Madrid.

The EU and the UN are also alarmed by Spain’s failure to renew the mandate of the general council of the judiciary, which expired in 2018. The general council is responsible for appointing Spain’s judges, but appointments to the council itself require the consent of both houses of a divided parliament. The UN’s special rapporteur on judicial independence found that the failure to approve council members was hindering the functioning of the Spanish judiciary as a whole.

The country’s political divisions go back a long way: to the beginnings of modern Spain with the marriage of Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon in 1469. Theirs was the reign in which Spain reconquered Granada, removing the Moors’ final outpost in western Europe; it was also the era of Christopher Columbus and the start of the Spanish colonial empire.

Spain’s glory days coincided with the decline of Catalonia. In the Middle Ages, Catalonia was one of the most successful principalities in Europe, rivalling Venice and Florence. But the Black Death intruded in the 14th century, striking much harder in Catalonia than the rest of the peninsula. Politics also turned against the Catalans. In his 1963 book Imperial Spain: 1469-1716, the British historian John Elliott argued that, though part of a unified kingdom, Catalans experienced discrimination from Castile, and as a result tended to look eastwards towards the Mediterranean rather than westwards to the Spanish hinterland. Elliott concluded that Isabella and Ferdinand “had united two crowns, but had not even tentatively embarked on the much more arduous task of uniting two peoples”. That politically united but culturally fragmented country is a legacy that persists today.

Regionalism will surely continue, but the dream of formal independence seems to be over. Catalonia’s 2017 referendum was a very middle-class rebellion. True revolutionaries don’t make for the border and seek asylum. The biggest obstacle to independence is not Spanish politics, or Spanish law, but the EU, which would be unlikely to accept an independent Catalonia unless Spain agreed. Even then, some EU states, such as Belgium, might fear the precedent it would set for separatist causes in their own countries. In my conversations with Catalans in 2017, I always noted a naive presumption that the EU would side with them.

At the same time, the separatist movements are stronger than ever. Catalonia will hold its regional elections on 12 May. In the polls, Puigdemont’s party has overtaken its rival, the Republican Left of Catalonia. It seems his decision to go into exile has not affected his standing among Catalan voters.

Another regionalist party to watch out for is EH Bildu, a left-wing, pro-independence party in the Basque region that has been linked to the now defunct Basque terrorist group Eta. In last month’s Basque regional elections, Bildu came joint first with the centre-right Basque Nationalist Party (PNV). The old PNV-led coalition will stay in power, but Sánchez has to rely on both parties to govern.

This leaves Spanish politics torn between radical extremes, Socialists who depend on separatists and a Popular Party that depends on the hard-right Vox party. The solution would be constitutional reform to give Catalonia and the Basque region more autonomy, short of formal statehood. But it is hard to see a path that would lead there.

[See also: A raid on Russian assets would risk everything]

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This article appears in the 08 May 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Doom Scroll