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Spain’s New Government and the Catalan Crisis

How Sánchez Plans to Undermine the Region's Independence Claims

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez makes a speech during an event in regards to “25th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Spain and Andorra” in Madrid, Spain on June 04, 2018. (Getty Images)

By Omar G. Encarnación

It should come as no surprise that Spain’s new prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, has made solving the separatist crisis in Catalonia his top policy priority. As the most pressing issue in Spanish politics, the Catalan crisis looms large over Sánchez’s reelection prospects. No date has been set for Spain’s next general elections, but they are widely expected to come sooner rather than later given the unusual circumstances that brought Sánchez and his Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party to power. It was through a vote of no confidence, an arcane feature of the Spanish constitution, that Sánchez was able to topple the conservative government of Mariano Rajoy of the Popular Party. This was the first time in the history of the democratic regime that Spain inaugurated in 1977 that parliament used this procedure to force a change in government.

Even if the Catalan crisis were not so pressing an issue, it is not as if Sánchez could do much on other fronts, such as the economy. Next year’s budget was already in place before Rajoy’s ousting. And Sánchez had promised to stay the course on Rajoy’s economic program even before taking office. Although very unpopular with some of the political groups that aided Sánchez in ousting Rajoy, especially the leftist populist Podemos, Rajoy’s economic program is widely credited with restoring economic growth in Spain after the global financial crisis. Moreover, staying the course on the economy pleases international investors, EU bureaucrats, the Spanish business community, and other political groups that supported Sánchez’s move to oust Rajoy, such as the Basque Nationalist Party.

Sánchez’s strategy for solving the Catalan crisis, or at the very least for getting a grip on the situation, goes well beyond engaging the Catalan separatist government through dialogue, something the Rajoy administration had pointedly rejected. It appears that the new government’s intention is to erode Catalonia’s claims to independence by changing the discourse about nationhood in Spain—in other words, by reconceiving the very essence of Spain and of what it means to be a Spaniard, not just for Catalans but for the nation as a whole. The reality is that Catalonia’s fate rests less on what the separatists in Barcelona want than on how the greater Spanish electorate reacts to what Madrid does.

SÁNCHEZ’S CATALAN PLAYBOOK

At the top of Sánchez’s Catalan playbook is advancing the view of Spain as a multicultural state. This entails, among other things, abandoning the intense embrace of Spanish nationalism by the Rajoy administration and, more important, working to advance the autonomy of the Spanish regions. To drive these points home, Sánchez has taken to referring to Catalonia as a “nation within a nation” and to Spain as “a nation of nations.” He has also shown a willingness to amend the Spanish constitution to allow for greater regional autonomy. All of this is music to the ears of regional nationalists, who, since Spain became a democracy in 1977, have been fighting Madrid—in some cases literally, as in the Basque Country—for greater control of their own affairs.

Change has come in fits and starts. In 1977, Madrid granted home rule to the “historic regions” (those whose claim to nationhood is based on having their own language and culture—Catalonia, the Basque Country, and Galicia); the rest of the regions secured home rule by 1981, which completed the current system of 17 regional governments. Since then, however, Madrid has resisted a comprehensive reform of the system, preferring instead to negotiate individual autonomy agreements with the regions. This dynamic helped bring about the current crisis in Catalonia after the region voted for more autonomy powers that were later opposed by the Rajoy administration.

Projecting as progressive a national image for Spain as possible is the second prong of Sánchez’s Catalan strategy. This is intended to strike at the heart of one of the key tenets of contemporary Catalan separatism: that the region’s progressive aspirations are hindered by Spain’s outmoded institutions. During his swearing-in ceremony, Sánchez raised eyebrows in what is still an overwhelming Catholic nation by forgoing the use of the Bible, a crucifix, or any other religious symbol when pledging his allegiance to the Spanish constitution and the crown. According to El País, this was a first for an incoming head of the Spanish government. He also expanded the cabinet to accommodate a minister of equality entrusted with fighting inequality wherever it is present in Spanish society.

It is the gender composition of the new cabinet, however, that has sent the strongest message of progressivism. For the first time in its history, Spain will have a female-majority government: 11 of the 17 new appointed ministers are female, including such heavyweight posts as the deputy prime minister and the heads of the Ministries of Justice, Economy, Defense, and Regional Administration. This far surpasses the “parity cabinet” of the first administration of Socialist Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero in 2004, which had a 50/50 gender composition. It is also a stark reminder of how far Spain has come on the issue of women in positions of political power. According to Spain’s Women’s Institute, as recently as 1986, under the Socialist administration of Felipe González, Spain had an all-male cabinet.

Spain’s Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez (L) speaks with Spanish minister of foreign affairs Josep Borrell (R) during his first cabinet meeting at the Moncloa Palace on June 8, 2018 in Madrid, Spain. (Getty Images)

In fact, with an almost 65 percent female composition, Spain will have “the most female-dominated cabinet in the world.” In justifying a “a government by women,” Sánchez cited the events of “8-M,” or March 8 of this year, when Spain convened a nationwide “feminist strike” to observe Women’s International Day and to raise awareness about issues affecting women in Spain, including domestic abuse, sexual discrimination, and the wage gap. According to Spain’s leading trade unions, some five million Spaniards participated in the two-hour walkout.

Last but not least, Sánchez is tying his administration as much as he can to the European Union. Josep Borrell, a Catalan-born former president of the European Parliament, is the new foreign affairs minister. His most important job will be explaining Spain’s position on Catalonia to the rest of the world. European Commission Budget Director Nadia Calviño is the new economy minister. The importance of all this is twofold. Closer ties to Europe reinforce the view of Spain as a modern European nation. Less apparent is that, historically, the Catalans have associated Spain’s incorporation into Europe as a defense against Madrid. Indeed, one of the biggest mistakes the separatists made in their aborted attempt to break away from Spain last October was the short-lived suggestion that the new Catalan republic might entertain a referendum on EU membership.

WILL IT WORK?

There is no guarantee that Sánchez’s Catalan playbook will succeed, given the Catalan government’s continuing insistence on independence. But Sánchez’s strategy is really not intended to appeal directly to the Catalan separatist movement; instead, it is aimed at isolating the movement by cultivating support from the Spanish electorate as a whole. It is this constituency, not Catalan separatists, that will ultimately decide the fate of both Catalonia and the Sánchez administration.

In particular, Sánchez hopes that his Catalan policy will revive the fortunes of the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party in Catalonia, once a major force in the region, especially in Barcelona. This, in turn, would make it more difficult for the separatists to stay in power. More important, Sánchez hopes to blunt the momentum of the new darling of Spanish politics: Ciudadanos (Citizens), a center-right party originally from Catalonia that opposes Catalan independence. According to polls taken just prior to the change in government, Ciudadanos is poised to win the next general elections, with the party enjoying support across Spain for its stance on Spanish unity.

Sánchez’s strategy is not without significant perils. Although multiculturalism is not a novel idea in Spain (it has been a staple of previous Socialist governments), its policies could easily mobilize conservatives against the Sánchez government. Indeed, Sánchez already began his new position with considerable mistrust by the right on the issue of Catalonia. Even though he supported Rajoy’s controversial decision to revoke Catalonia’s autonomy charter last October, after the separatist government declared the region an independent republic, many on the right suspect that Sánchez reached a secret deal with the Catalan separatists in parliament in exchange for their support for the vote that ousted Rajoy. Sánchez has denied such a deal and points to his support for Rajoy’s decision to assume direct control of Catalonia as evidence that he can hold the line on the restive region’s independence aspirations.

On the other hand, in the era of the #MeToo movement, which has struck a chord in Spain, a country infamous for its machismo, Sánchez’s singling out of women’s issues to highlight his progressivism leaves his government wide open to criticism and even ridicule. Conservative Spanish media outlets are having a field day dragging out disparaging behaviors and sexist comments from past and present Socialist leaders, including those currently in the cabinet. Feminists have warned about the administration using women as mere props or window-dressing. Aránzazu Borrachero, a feminist writer in Madrid, cautions that “a government by women does not make it feminist. We have to see what these women actually stand for.” But Sánchez is clearly banking that, as far as his Catalan policy is concerned, the benefits outweigh the risks.

This article was originally published on ForeignAffairs.com.

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