Political earthquake in Spain rocks Europe’s boat

Spain

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez at the swearing-in ceremony of his cabinet, Madrid, Spain, 7 June 2018 (EPA-EFE/Javier Lizon/pool)

By Robert Hart

Spain’s political landscape has been hit by an earthquake that has sent shock waves around the country and ripples of nervousness around a string of European capitals and financial markets.

The last days of May and the beginning of this month saw Mariano Rajoy, the experienced, dour conservative prime minister, subjected to an unprecedented parliamentary vote of no-confidence and ousted from power.

He was replaced by the young (46), relatively politically inexperienced leader of the Socialist party (PSOE), Pedro Sanchez.

With tension in the EU already high over a new populist, anti-immigrant and euro-skeptic government in Italy, this kind of sudden upheaval in the EU’s fifth biggest economy could only inflame anxiety. All the more so as a crisis over a bid for independence by the powerful region of Catalonia remains unresolved.

The trigger for the Sanchez “coup” was the dénouement of a corruption trial in Spain’s highest criminal court involving Rajoy’s former party treasurer Luis Bárcenas, who was convicted of benefiting from a cash-for-contracts scheme. The court ordered Rajoy’s Populist Party (PP) to pay a fine, making it the first Spanish political force to be convicted of operating a slush fund.

After the no-confidence vote, Rajoy resigned as leader of the PP and announced that he was retiring from politics.

With the PSOE holding only 84 seats in the 350-seat parliament, Sanchez forced through the no-confidence vote with the backing of a leftist party and a collection of Basque and Catalan nationalist lawmakers.

The next steps do not look easy.

The role of Catalan nationalists in this vote turned the spotlight back onto the regional government’s seven-month-old bid for independence from Spain.

By coincidence, hours after Sanchez took office on June 2, a new Catalan regional government was invested in Barcelona, moving the independence dispute into a new phase.

The separatist-led “Generalitat” declared independence last October, following a referendum declared illegal by Spain’s constitutional court. Then Rajoy immediately invoked a previously unused article of Spain’s constitution to impose direct rule in Catalonia from Madrid.

With several separatist Catalan ministers in exile or in prison awaiting trial for rebellion and sedition, a string of unacceptable nominees for the presidency were rejected until former president Carles Puigdemont, masterminding things from exile in Berlin, nominated lawyer and editor Quim Torra.

Madrid certainly does not like Torra, a hardline separatist who views Puigdemont as still the president and himself as just an intermediary. But he could not be disqualified on legal grounds and so was voted in by the regional assembly, where separatist parties have a wafer-thin majority.

So Catalonia has a new government, and direct rule from Madrid has ceased. But the next steps do not look easy.

Sanchez will be at the mercy of other parties.

Sanchez wants dialogue with the Catalans to seek progress within the law and the constitution. But Torra said he and his team “accept the charge to continue forward to form an independent state.”

Sanchez is thought to favor the possibility of restoring an element brought into the Spanish constitution in 2006 that recognized Catalonia and the Basque Country as “nations within Spain,” distinguishing them from the country’s 15 other semi-autonomous regions.

Rajoy struggled in a minority government for much of his seven years in power as Spain, along with most of the world, suffered from the international financial crisis and increased austerity, and the traditional ruling parties shed votes around the country to new groups.

An economist and former basketball player, Sanchez will be even more at the mercy of other parties. But he aims to stay on until elections due in two years.

Signs are that Sanchez wants to avoid any comparison with Italy, where the coalition of the anti-establishment Five Star Movement and right-wing League is preparing to set the eurozone’s third biggest economy on a path of tax cuts, a guaranteed basic income for the poor and deportation of 500,000 migrants.

After announcing his cabinet, Sanchez said his team “shared the same vision of a progressive society that was both modernizing and pro-European.” He spoke of Europe as “our new homeland” and said he saw his cabinet, with a preponderance of women, as a reflection of change in Spain.

But in his minority situation, Sanchez may need extra-terrestrial help to survive for long.

Spain’s leading newspaper, El Pais, was blunt in an editorial. “No government without the backing of the ballot box has the legitimacy needed to carry out the regeneration, economic modernization and political changes needed by Spain. The (Sanchez) government can only be short and transitional.”

THREE QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER:

  1. Why would European capitals and financial markets worry about the new government in Spain?
  2. On what grounds do separatists in Catalonia argue that the region deserves independence?
  3. What is a crucial difference between Pedro Sanchez’s new government and the new government in Italy?

Robert Hart was a correspondent and regional editor for Reuters for more than 35 years, reporting on the Vietnam war, West Germany during Chancellor Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik and as bureau chief in Spain for five years in the 1990s. In between he was Asian News Editor based in Singapore and Latin America Editor, based in Buenos Aires during the military “dirty war” of the late 1970s. You can read Hart’s recollections about his assignment to Vietnam in our recent series on the 1960s.

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