In 2022 the Spanish coalition government headed by Pedro Sanchez, leader of the socialist party, has faced a host of interconnected challenges on internal and external tracks alike. Home agenda which includes socio-economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic and a new round of talks with Catalonia regarding its status seems to be put aside amid a demanding geopolitical situation in Europe. Meanwhile, the Spanish PM seeks to maintain support of the regional parties in parliament. However, the “Pegasus case” which sparked outrage in Catalonia has complicated fragile relations between Madrid and the autonomy.
Divisions between the central Spanish government and Catalonia have long history, however the issue has become urgent because of two recent factors. Firstly, the governing coalition of PSOE (Spanish Socialist Worker’s Party) and Unidas Podemos (United We Can) formed following the results of the November 2019 general elections is short of the parliamentary majority. Such a situation increased the role of smaller regional parties, especially from Catalonia and the Basque Country. Secondly, local elections in Catalonia held in February 2021 resulted in a coalition government formed by the nationalist parties — Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (Republican Left of Catalonia) and Junts per Catalunya (Together for Catalonia). Both are aimed at holding another independence referendum.
Catalonia seeks new referendum but talks remain stalled
As a prominent Russian expert in Spanish studies S.M. Khenkin argues, the Catalan desire to hold a new public voting on its status remains intact despite the fact that the 2021 regional elections were taken by PSOE. The socialists failed to rally other parties behind their agenda and eventually let the nationalist parties form the autonomous government.
One of the main goals on the programme of Pere Aragones, new leader of the autonomy, is to reach an agreement with Madrid about holding another referendum on the status of Catalonia. The one in 2017 showed mixed results as over 90% voted for independence but a turnout rate reached only 43%. At the same time, Spanish PM Pedro Sanchez, who is facing a need to safeguard his positions among the electorate and to maintain parliamentary support of the Catalan forces, tries to promote talks with the autonomy.
Successful interaction with the region will allow to portray himself as a leader capable of resolving a protracted political dispute. Nevertheless, the negotiations could not happen in 2020 because of COVID-19. The first meeting between the Spanish PM and the Catalan leader was held only in June 2021 and followed by a subsequent round of talks in September. However, after a short thaw came another long break. The reason was the absence of a plan for a new round. The sides have put the blame for stalling the process on each other, although, there are certain geopolitical difficulties with an imminent effect on the Spanish agenda.
2 major geopolitical challenges of Spain in 2022
Since the PSOE — Unidas Podemos coalition government was formed in 2019 Pedro Sanchez has dealt with a mixture of internal and external issues. In 2022 Spain has faced another two major geopolitical challenges that left the Prime Minister with limited economic resources and little room to political maneuvre.
Firstly, Spain had to respond to the Ukrainian crisis which set the need to act in solidarity with the European Union. It involved imposing sanctions on the Russian Federation and supporting Ukraine. Madrid was under severe pressure due to its inactive participation in providing Kiev with weapons. Following weeks of diplomatic calls and a visit of the Spanish PM to Ukraine in April 2022, Spain sent military assistance worth 31 ml euros in May. It was welcomed by Brussels. Later that month Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg visited Madrid to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Spanish accession to the alliance. Talking to local media outlet ABC he avoided responding to a provocative question concerning the supplies of Spanish arms to Ukraine and praised the Kingdom for its assistance in a humanitarian dimension.
The second challenge was the energy crisis and increased energy insecurity against the backdrop of deteriorating relations between Algeria and Morocco. As of April 2022, Algeria accounted for 43% of gas imported by Spain, US obtained the second place with 14,2%, then went Nigeria with 11,5% and Russia with 8,9%. Additionally, Algeria is among the top 5 most important energy suppliers for the EU. However, the fact that Madrid resold hydrocarbons to Morocco sparked concern in Algeria.
In autumn 2021 a protracted conflict between the two Arab states entered in a new phase. Rabat was accused of sponsoring terrorism and causing bushfires in the neighbouring country. Not only did Algeria sever diplomatic ties with Rabat, it also refused to prolong a contract of gas transit via Morocco shifting to the Medgaz pipeline which goes through the Mediterranean Sea bypassing Rabat. Furthermore, in spring 2022 Algeria suspended the friendship treaty with Spain and threatened to cut its imports to the Kingdom, if it continued to resell gas to other states.
External problems made P. Sanchez pay higher attention to the show of solidarity with the EU as Madrid is heavily dependent on the European post-COVID recovery funds in implementing its socio-economic projects. Therefore, the governing coalition postponed new talks with Catalonia referring to the lack of time and resources to prepare its position and agree on the agenda. Geopolitical situation was accompanied by a number of protracted internal policy issues.
“Pegasus” made Madrid turn its eyes to Catalonia again
When P. Sanchez took office in winter 2020 the breakout of Coronavirus put on hold all plans concerning high-level talks between Madrid and Catalonia. The first meeting took place only in summer 2021. As it turned out later the sides had only 6 months to resolve their problems, since in February 2022 the Russian special military operation in Ukraine grabbed public attention putting aside the majority of domestic issues not only in Spain but in many other European countries.
Additionally, positions of the Catalan nationalists in 2022 became weaker than before. According to the research published in El Mundo, as of March, only 38% of Catalans supported independence—the lowest number since 2014. Meanwhile, unionists accounted for 53%. Such data revealed that the citizens of the autonomy were reluctant to see their region independent and without state protection during difficult socio-economic times in Europe. Additionally, the results pointed at the fact that more people tended to trust Madrid as a guarantor of well-being amid challenges.
Such figures could have allowed P. Sanchez to focus fully on solidarity with Europe and the 2022 NATO summit in Madrid, however, in spring 2022 it was revealed that telephone conversations of high-ranking Catalan politicians had been wiretapped during 2017–2020. The situation was dubbed the “Pegasus case” from the name of the software used to track phone calls. Later Pedro Sanchez and Defence Minister Margarita Robles were reported to have been wiretapped as well.
The situation triggered huge discontent among the major Catalan parties. Both Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya and Junts per Catalunya announced their plans to stop supporting the PSOE — Unidas Podemos coalition in the parliament. In the meantime, the National Intelligence Committee of Spain acknowledged wiretapping of 20 Catalan politicians but emphasized that the actions had been taken according to the relevant rulings of the Spanish Constitutional Court. P. Sanchez faced the need to reduce mounting tensions that put his government on the brink of losing vital votes of the two Catalan parties. He made two steps.
Firstly, the PM used annual Cercle d’Economia (Economic Conference of Entrepreneurs) held in Barcelona in early May to have first face-to-face talks with his Catalan counterpart in 2022. On the sidelines of the event P. Sanchez and P. Aragones agreed to bridge the rifts via a dialogue and a “fair investigation”. The head of the Spanish government stated the importance of preserving the political partnership between the Catalan parties and the PSOE — Unidas Podemos coalition needed for the stable development of the Kingdom in a difficult period. Furthermore, P. Sanchez stressed the need to ensure “the coexistence of Catalonia and the rest of Spain” in order to resolve emerging divisions jointly.
Secondly, Pedro Sanchez made a concession to the Catalan side. On May 10, 2022 head of the National Intelligence Committee Paz Esteban was replaced by Esperanza Casteleiro. It sparked discontent among the right-wing opposition, as in the eyes of the conservatives the PM succumbed to the pressure of nationalists. At the same time, Catalonia was not satisfied and called for further investigation. The “Pegasus case” caused severe damage to the dialogue between Madrid and Catalonia. It also cast shadow on fragile trust established by previous efforts of Sanchez and Aragones.
Why is it difficult for Madrid and Catalonia to continue talks?
In addition to geopolitical challenges and increased mistrust after the “Pegasus case” Madrid and Catalonia alike face difficulties in elaborating concrete positions. Both governments are run by coalitions within which partners have different views on how to solve the Catalan crisis. Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya is more flexible and ready to negotiate a broad number of topics with Madrid, whereas Junts per Catalunya has a more rigid stance and aims mainly at holding another referendum in the region. At the same time, the views of PSOE and Unidas Podemos on the way how to deal with the autonomy also vary. If the socialists are for a consistent dialogue accompanied by well-balanced concessions, their partner does not rule out the idea of holding a nation-wide referendum on the status of Catalonia.
It results in a significant discrepancy between the positions of both sides and their expectations from the dialogue. For this reason, the two parties have failed on numerous occasions to hammer out a schedule of consultations and the agenda of talks. In summer 2021 Madrid already made several concessions to Catalonia that led to a thaw between the two sides and boosted the talks. However, the “Pegasus case” complicated bilateral relations and weakened the central government’s position. In order to move on the dialogue Madrid should place Catalonia beyond any kind of a geopolitical situation. Furthermore, right-wing Partido Popular (People’s Party), the second largest force in the Spanish parliament, should also be involved in the negotiations.
Additionally, frequent appealing to geopolitical threats in order to explain home policy failures indicates the absence of common goals to rally a wide range of political movements. Such an approach has only short-term effectiveness. If the COVID-19 pandemic has not formed broad parliamentary consensus on key domestic issues, it is unlikely that the ongoing Ukrainian crisis would become a uniting factor for all Spanish parties.
From our partner RIAC