A deeply polarised Spain finally has a new government. Can Madrid punch above its weight and shore up a wobbly European Union?
By Robert Hart
After four general elections in four years, two in the past six months, Spain finally has a new government with an internationally minded prime minister, bringing a glimmer of hope to a politically polarised country and a European Union facing problems within its ranks and beyond.
The Middle East is dangerously unsettled. A U.S. president is facing an impeachment trial. Devastating forest fires in Australia and South America are driving fears of a world climate crisis. And “Brexit” is about to see the EU lose one of its most significant members.
So any positive development in Spain, Europe’s fourth-largest economy, is notable.
But how long will it last?
Pedro Sanchez, leader of the Spanish Socialist Party (PSOE), was sworn in for a new term earlier this month with a majority of only two votes – 167 to 165 – with 18 abstentions in the 350-seat Madrid parliament. His victory was the narrowest since Spain returned to democracy after the death of dictator Francisco Franco in 1975.
Sanchez, 47, had a brief spell as prime minister in 2018 after a financial scandal brought down a government led by the conservative Popular Party (PP). He was forced to call elections last April when Catalan parliamentarians blocked his draft budget in an effort to dramatize their long-running demand for independence.
The April vote saw the PSOE make gains, but not enough to govern alone. Frustrated, Sanchez called another election in November. The Socialist vote was almost unchanged, while the PP recovered ground and the hard-right, nationalist Vox party made significant gains.
After weeks of wrangling, Sanchez struck a deal with the left-wing Unidos Podemos party and now leads what opponents have labelled a “Frankenstein” government with Podemos, backed by a scattering of regional parties, in what is Spain’s first coalition of the post-Franco era.
The vital ingredient of his success was the abstention of the Republican Left of Catalonia, which agreed to abstain after Sanchez promised to reopen dialogue on Catalan independence.
Catalan talks and a budget
Sanchez has repeatedly insisted there will be no break-up of Spain. But he has already scheduled a meeting in the first week of February with the fiercely separatist leader of the Catalan regional government.
With Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias, the prime minister has outlined policies to raise the minimum wage, increase taxes on big business and high earners and modify labour reforms brought in by the PP.
But first he must get a budget through the new parliament in the coming months. And this means relying again on the abstention of the Republican Left of Catalonia, whose leader is currently in prison with several other Catalan politicians convicted of sedition in organising an “unconstitutional” independence referendum in 2017.
Sanchez’s position is fragile, but political commentators believe he stands a good chance of success at least in the short term if Catalan tensions can be eased – and also because the alternatives seem so grim.
Small steps forward
Defeat over the budget would mean yet another election, something a tired and frustrated electorate would find hard to take.
Sanchez’s coalition with Podemos, a party spawned by the international austerity crisis of 2008, is edgy. Podemos won only 35 seats in November’s election. Iglesias becomes one of four deputy prime ministers with just four more Podemos ministers in the 22-member cabinet.
But there is clearly no majority for a PP-led conservative government that would he dependent on support from Vox, an extreme nationalist party that rejects Spain’s system of devolved regional powers.
Vox first entered the Madrid parliament in last April’s election and rose to be the third largest party in November, its surge in popularity attributed mainly to a widespread rise in nationalist feeling against the Catalan drive for independence.
Fingers crossed in the EU
Leading figures in the EU will be quietly but fervently hoping that Sanchez can hold his government together, aware that he is a keen supporter of the bloc and wants his country to play an active role in Europe.
And Europe badly needs him to do just that. A recent editorial in the London Times described Europe as a troubled continent “fighting for strategic relevance squeezed between an increasingly assertive China and an increasingly uninterested and even hostile United States.”
The end of January will see the United Kingdom leave the EU and start a year of what could be fraught negotiations on a new trading arrangement.
France has been suffering transport strikes, public service disruption and school closures over President Emmanuel Macron’s pension reform plan.
In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel saw her Christian Democrat-Social Democrat coalition on the edge of collapse when the Socialists threatened to pull out, demanding a more left-wing programme. They drew back at the last minute, fearing they would lose heavily in a new election.
An energy boost for Europe
Italy is politically fragile and has seen hundreds of thousands of young people leave the country in recent years seeking better employment prospects abroad.
Greece continues to struggle with migrant overcrowding and has now squared up to Turkey, accusing it with breaking international law by signing a Mediterranean oil and gas exploration deal with Libya that it claims will encroach on areas near the Greek islands of Rhodes and Crete.
A fully involved Spain could give the EU a psychologically important energy boost.
“The new government is very keen to be more active than previous ones on the European stage,” said Miguel Otero of the Elcano Royal Institute for International and Strategic Studies. Spain will push hard for closer union on many fronts, including eurozone reform, migration, decarbonisation, social rights and the single market, he was quoted as saying.
Possibilities and doubts
Sanchez has plenty of support in his new cabinet, notably with Deputy Prime Minister Nadia Calviño, an experienced player in European institutions. In Brussels, his former foreign minister Josep Borell is now the EU’s high representative for foreign affairs.
He has struck up a strong relationship with France’s Macron. At the EU summit in Romania last May, they rallied other socialist and liberal-led states to push for a zero-carbon Europe by 2050.
Led by Sanchez, Spain could lift the profile of the EU’s Mediterranean countries and provide useful links to Latin America and Arab states.
All this is possible, but nothing is certain. If Sanchez is hobbled by domestic problems, he will have less time and energy to devote to the international arena. If he can keep the peace at home, his country could be a serious player.
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.