Foreign Policy Blogs

One To Watch: Spain’s new PM Pedro Sanchez

Given the seemingly relentless flow of news over the last several months, a perception no doubt augmented by the whiplash nature of today’s 280-character policy making process, the recent events in Spain have generally been relegated to the sidelines of political and foreign affairs discussions. Impending trade wars, immigration crises on multiple continents, and a turbulent political climate for some of Spain’s own European neighbors all figure into the geopolitical outlook; it’s no surprise, then, that an internal shift in the Iberian nation’s politics has garnered relatively few headlines. Nevertheless, Spain’s new Prime Minister, the socialist Pedro Sanchez, finds himself in a unique position to assume a strong domestic and European leadership role. Despite a relatively weak government and lack of an electoral mandate coupled with an environment of growing international uncertainty, Sanchez has a chance to consolidate not only his government, but also Spain as a multicultural, humanitarian-minded, and modern European democracy.

Sanchez rose to the premiership on June 1, 2018 after a successful vote of no-confidence in parliament the previous day. The vote brought together a smattering of left-wing and regional parties and allowed the socialist Sanchez, whose PSOE (Spanish Socialist Worker’s Party) holds only 84 of the 350 total seats, to unseat longtime conservative leader Mariano Rajoy, whose PP (People’s Party) maintains a proportional majority with 134 seats. Undoubtedly,the downfall of the PP-led government came down to several domestic issues: most immediately, an enduring corruption scandal, cited as the principal cause for the censure vote of May 31, that Rajoy was ultimately unable to distance himself from; and, most importantly, the protracted, and often chaotic struggle over Catalan independence.

Understanding the importance of the Catalan situation is critical to seeing Sanchez’s, and Spain’s, path forward in Europe. For his part, the ousted prime minister Mariano Rajoy demonstrated a general antipathy towards Spanish regional autonomy, most notably spearheading a successful constitutional challenge to the Catalan New Statue of Autonomy in 2006. This particular case lasted four years in the courts, and the 2010 decision, although a relatively limited revision of the statue, notably stripped language referring to a “Catalan nation” from the document, sparking outrage and setting the stage for a series of referendums and heightened discord during Rajoy’s premiership, which began one year later in 2011.

Rajoy’s handling of the independentist movement has been less than harmonious: a hardline stance by the PP that has included the application of Article 155 of the Spanish constitution, effectively suspending Catalan autonomy and bringing the region under direct control of the national government in Madrid; and, most contentiously, the imprisonment of eight separatist leaders, charged with “rebellion,” and the hurried exile of the Catalan ex-president, Carles Puidgemont. The fate of these prisoners will likely influence the willingness of Catalan moderates to negotiate in good faith in the freshly awaited dialogue with the new government in Madrid. Notably, it was some of these moderates who helped catapult Sanchez to power in the censure vote, seeing in the rise of the socialist an opportunity to reset a political discourse that has become increasingly quarrelsome, not only nationally but also at home in Catalonia. As Spain continues its recovery from the devastating global financial crisis that was exacerbated by a sovereign debt crisis in 2012, regularizing the situation in Catalonia, which accounts for around a fifth of national GDP, will prove essential to continuing the economic rebound in the face of renewed pressures.

Economically speaking, the ousted Mariano Rajoy deserves much credit for the generally steady recovery since the downturn. Spain is in its fifth straight year of economic growth, the third straight with GDP growth over 3%; largely credited by observers to Rajoy and his conservatives’ unflinching commitment to a harsh austerity program that has helped stabilize the nation’s industries and recuperate a severely handicapped labor market (unemployment is hovering around 16%, up from the pre-crisis low of around 8.4% and down from the post-crisis high of 24%). While Catalonia looms large, Sanchez will also have to navigate the consequences of long-awaited tightening in monetary policy from the ECB, and the threat of an increasingly quarrelsome international trade environment on the economic front.

If Sanchez is able to guide Spain through these challenges, the most telling and pressing of which will be the Catalan situation, then he will be uniquely positioned to solidify Spain’s liberal multicultural democracy. Politically, despite the recent upheaval, Spain remains relatively stable in comparison to some of its European neighbors; notably Italy with the unusual alliance between the Five Star Movement and the right-wing League, and even Germany given the reemergence of a right-wing political force in the Alternative for Germany and the internal strife in Merkel’s coalition over immigration policy. Despite the emergence of two new national parties, center right Citizens and the far-left Podemos, Spain has been largely spared from the global populist resurgence. As a recent Economist piece states: “Crucially, Spain has no significant movement on the nationalist right, unlike Italy, France and many others, including Poland and Hungary. Indeed, tolerance of refugees and migrants has been an impressive feature of Spanish democracy.” As European leaders continue to clash over immigration policy, Spain, then, an autochthonal and multicultural nation, may be in a position to bridge the ideological gap over immigration in Europe, a duality coincidentally embodied by Germany and Italy as demonstrated at the “informal” immigration summit of European leaders this week.

Sanchez, then, in dealing with the Catalan issue and providing clear European leadership on immigration, will have an opportunity to consolidate his left-wing leadership after nearly a decade of conservative governance and to raise Spain’s profile as a European leader. To do this,Sanchez first must act decisively in the Catalan negotiations and take steps to ensure continued economic growth and political confidence domestically (a restructuring of regional financing and a political transparency law both find themselves on the socialists’ agenda). His success will no doubt depend on his ability to maneuver his fractured parliamentary coalition, a job not dissimilar to the task of creating a European consensus in today’s geopolitical conditions (specifically, an essential prerequisite to progress on immigration in the face of a potential humanitarian crisis). If Sanchez plays it right, a strong Spain and a stronger Europe will result and Spain’s conservatives will have much work to do if they hope to regain control; his, and his party’s ability, however, remain very much an unknown. As the summer continues to heat up, Spain’s future, and its place in Europe, will be at play.

Joe Greaney is a recent graduate of the College of the Holy Cross with a degree in Political Science and Spanish. Views expressed are his own.