The general legislative elections of November 2019 in Spain did not allow any of the parties to obtain the absolute majority necessary to form a government. After two months of negotiations, a left-wing coalition between the PSOE (Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party) and Unidas Podemos (United We Can) was formed in January 2020. Having received the necessary parliamentary support, Pedro Sanchez, the leader of the Socialists, took the post of Prime Minister of Spain.
Catalan and Basque parties are now vital to the Spanish government
As this is the first coalition government in the history of modern Spain that is not based on a stable parliamentary majority, the role of regional parties has increased considerably. The PSOE-Podemos coalition only has 155 mandates, short of a majority (176) by 21 votes. In such a situation, the success of any initiative put forward by the leftist government depends on the support of other parliamentary parties, in particular the nationalist movements of Catalonia and the Basque Country. The Republican Left of Catalonia (Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya, ERC) and “Together for Catalonia” have 13 and 8 seats respectively, while the Basque Nationalist Party (BNP) and EH-Bildu are each represented by 6 and 5 deputies.
The support of the four regional parties has facilitated a number of crucial events in the Spanish political process. These include Pedro Sanchez, the leader of the PSOE, who took office as Prime Minister in January 2020, a repeated extension of the state of emergency in the country in the spring of 2020, the adoption of the budget of the state for 2021 as well as passing the EU Recovery Fund money distribution bill into law.
In this regard, Catalonia and the Basque Country are now being offered more opportunities to promote their interests in the expansion of autonomous powers in exchange for their support for government projects. In the era of the two-party system, when the party that won the general election could independently form a majority government, regional forces had weaker bargaining positions. However, the value of their votes in the Congress of Deputies has now increased considerably. Under these conditions, P. Sanchez has no choice but to intensify exchanges with the two autonomies on the subjects that interest them. He is driven by the desire to maintain the support of regional forces, ensuring the viability of his government.
Different objectives: Catalonia asks for a referendum while the Basque Country wants to extend its autonomy
The coronavirus pandemic, which broke out in 2020, made it impossible to launch a new stage of negotiations between the Spanish government and the political leaders of Catalonia and the Basque Country. Notably, each autonomy has its own strategy and aims to continue in their negotiations with Madrid.
The negotiations agenda of the new Catalan government, formed by the ERC and “Together for Catalonia” following the regional elections of February 14, 2021, includes: 1) amnesty for all prisoners detained after the illegal referendum of October 1, 2017; 2) agreement with the government on the holding of another referendum, official this time, on the statute of autonomy; 3) revision of the current structure of financial inflows in favor of increasing Madrid’s investments in the budget of the autonomy.
At the same time, the Basque government, led by the BNP, has another set of goals: 1) implementation of all remaining provisions consecrated in the region’s autonomy statute, namely the transfer of some thirty competences in terms of autonomy to the regional authorities; 2) resume talks on a new autonomy statute; 3) formation of a broad negotiation platform involving the greatest Spanish and Basque political forces.
In 2021, negotiations on these issues have intensified between Madrid and the regions. Each autonomy has managed to achieve certain results in pursuit of its interests.
Catalonia: two tactical victories without the prospect of a referendum
Catalonia and the Basque Country succeeded in obtaining a number of important concessions between June and October 2021. In doing so, P. Sanchez showed the importance of the two autonomies in maintaining stability within the PSOE-coalition government. Podemos.
Catalonia managed to achieve two important results. The first victory is legal. On June 23, 2021, the amnesty was allowed to all 12 prisoners sentenced to terms of 9 to 13 years for charges related to the illegal referendum on the statute of autonomy held on October 1, 2017. This step sparked a violent backlash in the Kingdom , with events organized in many Regions. The majority of Spaniards (61%) Express disagree with such a move. However, it appears Sanchez is willing to make controversial compromises to maintain his political allies, despite possible long-term losses in electorate support.
The second success of Catalonia is in the political field. Thanks to flexibility from the central government, the first talks in a year and a half between Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez and Pere Aragones, the head of the Catalan government, have become possible. While the parties only exchanged views on topical bilateral issues during their first face-to-face meeting on June 27, 2021, the parties could hold a substantive discussion on a map normalize the interaction in the second round on September 15.
In the meantime, it is the Catalan side which has set the agenda. This underlines the growing role of autonomy in bilateral relations, while indicating that Madrid is keen to gather the support of Catalan MPs. That is why the central government is ready to offer certain concessions.
At the end of the talks, the Prime Minister declared that the parties managed to agree on 44 of the 45 points of the document presented by P. Aragones. However, the only remaining stumbling block is a new referendum in Catalonia. On this issue, P. Sanchez will make no concessions.
The Basque Country: more flexibility and new skills for autonomy
Madrid have also intensified negotiations with the Basque Country. However, it should be added here that the region has managed to achieve more tangible results in terms of expanding its autonomous powers in judicial and financial matters.
First, like the agreement signed in April 2021 suggeststhree prison centers with 1,378 detainees were handed over to the Basque government from 1 October, namely the Department of Equality, Justice and Social Policy.
Secondly, the July 28 talks between Pedro Sanchez, Spanish Prime Minister, and Inigo Urkullo, head of the Basque government, within the framework of the Mixed Economic Commission resulted in new tax powers being transferred to the Basque Country. Local authorities are now responsible for collecting taxes on e-commerce, financial transactions and digital services. This can lead to a influx an additional 220 ml of euros to the Basque budget.
In response to such measures by the Spanish government, I. Urkullo made an eleventh hour decision to attend the Conference of Regional Leaders on July 29, 2021. This event is politically significant as it brings together the heads of all 17 Spanish autonomies. At the same time, the Catalan Pere Aragones did not take part in the encounter. If Catalonia and the Basque Country had been absent, it would have been a blow for P. Sanchez. Therefore, it was of utmost importance for the Prime Minister to persuade at least the Basque leader to attend the meeting. Urkullo’s presence has partly contributed to Sanchez’s image as a politician who can get along with the regions.
Main differences between the Catalan government and the Basque government that influence relations with Madrid
In Catalonia, the coalition government is dominated by the ERC, more moderate and ready to move away from harsh rhetoric to discuss common issues with Madrid. At the same time, its partner, “Together for Catalonia”, which only narrowly lost the regional elections of February 2021 against the ERC, defends more direct actions.
Such a configuration within the coalition restricts Catalonia’s flexibility. The main objective of the radical wing is a new referendum. The moderate approach of the ERC is counterbalanced by “Together for Catalonia”. He does not support an excessive rapprochement with Madrid or any deviation from this idea.
At the same time, the situation is different in the Basque Country. The moderate BNP occupies leading positions in the government coalition while the EH-Bildu has a much weaker weight in the definition of the strategy. This allows autonomy to be flexible, to interact with Madrid in a more successful way.
Moreover, the talks between Catalonia and Madrid are still taking place in a narrow format of face-to-face meetings between the Spanish Prime Minister and the Autonomy leader. At the same time, the Basque Country has already resumed dialogue within the Joint Economic Commission. This is a more inclusive format that allows parties to cover a wider range of topics.
Currently, the Basque Country’s give-and-take strategy translates into smaller but more significant concessions, leading to an expansion of its autonomous powers in exchange for political support from the central government. Meanwhile, Catalonia’s attempts to achieve more meaningful results, which may affect P. Sanchez’s image, come up against Madrid’s reluctance to cross the red line. The Prime Minister is ready to make some tactical concessions to the Autonomous in order to obtain political support for his initiatives. Despite some criticism from the right, such measures confirm the effectiveness of the PSOE-Podemos coalition, demonstrating the viability of the incumbent government to the electorate.
Talks have a future as long as the left-wing coalition stays in power
The future of the negotiations between the center and the autonomouss strongly depends on the Spanish legislative elections of 2023. Right-wing parties such as the People’s Party, VOX and “Citizens” are not inclined to broad negotiations with Catalan and Basque nationalists. If these parties form the next government in just two years, the whole process of normalizing relations with the regions could be suspended.
The excessive flexibility of P. Sanchez in the negotiations with Catalonia and the Basque Country could lead to greater popularity for the right-wing party VOX. Voters unhappy with the policy of concessions to the nationalists could turn to the forces that safeguard Spain’s constitutional order. Another issue for the PSOE-Podemos government is Spain’s socio-economic recovery from COVID-19.
Little progress in either direction risks losing public support. The influence of Catalonia and the Basque Country will not weaken in the years to come. It is therefore essential for Madrid to make new concessions similar to those made in the Basque Country. But they should be progressive to cause less publicity.
From our partner RIAC