Not everyone is in awe of Spain’s new progressive government

PM Pedro Sanchez has already disappointed Basque and Catalan nationalists who propped up his minority government.

Spain new cabinet Reuters
Despite the fanfare abroad, the Sanchez government is isolated and fragile, writes Garcia [Reuters]

Since taking office, Spain’s new government led by Socialist party (PSOE) leader Pedro Sanchez has been receiving praise for its pro-EU stance and progressive policies.

On June 17, it decided to welcome the Aquarius rescue ship, which had been drifting in international waters for two days with more than 600 people on board after being rejected by Italy and Malta.

Not everyone in Spain, however, is content with the new government’s performance. Basque and Catalan nationalists, who played a fundamental role in Sanchez’s unexpected rise to power, have mixed feelings about the country’s new leader and government.

Sanchez was sworn in as Spain’s new prime minister on June 2, a day after a vote of no-confidence booted his conservative People’s Party (PP) rival Mariano Rajoy from power. He is now presiding over a minority government, propped up by the leftist Podemos bloc and other parties, including Basque (PNV and EH Bildu) and Catalan (ERC and PdeCat) nationalists.

In other words, Sanchez is Spain’s prime minister today only because he was able to gain the support of the aforementioned parties. He did this by promising to help with the Basque peace process and suspend the application of article 155 of the Constitution on Catalonia.

Article 155 was used by the central government to suspend the region’s autonomy after it held an independence referendum in October 2017, which was deemed illegal by the Spanish courts.

On Sanchez’ first day in office, a new cabinet was sworn in Catalonia, automatically ending just over seven months of direct rule from Madrid by Spain’s central government. Moreover, on June 8, the cabinet announced that it is lifting direct financial controls imposed on Catalonia through Article 155.

However, the new prime minister did not give Catalan nationalists everything they wanted.

Ever since September 2015, Madrid had been keeping tabs on the Catalan government’s use of funds from the Regional Liquidity Fund (FLA), to make sure that the money did not go to sponsor the independence drive in the region. As part of this arrangement, Catalan authorities were required to send Madrid monthly reports. Sanchez’s government says it will continue to require the reports. In Catalonia, this is seen as a sign that Sanchez is not serious about normalisation.

The Catalan government is also still waiting for Sanchez to release “political prisoners” that were incarcerated following the region’s controversial independence vote. Moreover, Catalans want the new prime minister to take steps to end the persecution of nationalist politicians that are still in exile, such as former Catalan President Carles Puigdemont, who is now in Germany.

So far, Sanchez did not make any moves to solve these issues. Jose Luis Abalos, organisation secretary of the PSOE, said the decision over political prisoners and those in exile concerns only the judiciary.

Just like the Catalans, Basque nationalists, who helped the new government win the confidence vote, are also not entirely convinced about Sanchez’s commitment to normalisation and dialogue. Arnaldo Otegi, leader of the Basque political party EH Bildu, recently said he does not view the PSOE “as a real democratising option for the Spanish state”.

Otegi brought up Sanchez and his party’s support for both the full application of Article 155 on Catalonia and the penal code reform that allowed secessionists to be incarcerated, and said they will evaluate the PSOE on its future actions and will wait “to see what steps they take”. 

Some appointments Sanchez made to his cabinet already alarmed Catalan and Basque nationalists and, for some, took away any remaining hope for real negotiations.

The new prime minister appointed Josep Borrell, former European Parliament president, as foreign minister. Borell has been accused of supporting GAL, an anti-Basque paramilitary group linked to the PSOE, which was active in the 1980s. He also made some very damaging statements about Catalan separatists over the years.

Another blow to Basque and Catalan separatists was the appointment of conservative judge Fernando Grande-Marlaska, who is known for his harsh verdicts against secessionists and reluctance to investigate allegations of torture against political activists, as interior minister. Grande-Marlaska was involved in six of the nine cases in which the European Court of Human Rights subsequently condemned the Spanish state for not investigating torture claims against detainees. 

Isabel Celaa, the new education minister, once defended the elimination of big companies’ obligation to provide services in the Basque language.

The new defence and justice ministers are also considered problematic political figures by Basque and Catalan nationalists.  

Sanchez is currently between a rock and a hard place. He needs the support of Catalan and Basque nationalists in Parliament to stay in power, but he risks losing the support of Spanish voters if he takes steps towards normalisation.

By back-tracking on key issues regarding Catalan autonomy and making questionable cabinet appointments, he already alienated many Basques and Catalans. Moreover, the left-wing Podemos, another party that was key to Sanchez’s rise to power, has expressed its reservations about the cabinet.  

In sum, despite the fanfare abroad, the Sanchez government is isolated and fragile. It has ministers and advisers seemingly chosen to please the right-wing opposition (PP and Ciudadanos) more than its left-wing and nationalist allies. The chances of a sincere, constructive dialogue between separatist forces and Madrid still looks as unlikely as ever.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.