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EU Policy. Why is Catalan question affecting European elections campaign in Spain?

Demonstrators protest against the amnesty law outside the European Parliament in 2023 in Strasbourg
Demonstrators protest against the amnesty law outside the European Parliament in 2023 in Strasbourg Copyright Jean-Francois Badias/Copyright 2023 The AP. All rights reserved.
Copyright Jean-Francois Badias/Copyright 2023 The AP. All rights reserved.
By Sergio Cantone
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The recent elections in Catalonia have set the political scene in Spain ahead of the next European vote. Talks on the future regional government will influence the campaign for the seats in Brussels. The Euronews Superpoll suggests the centre-right has an advantage, followed by the socialists.

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Despite its local dimension, traditionally, the Catalan election has a significant effect over the whole Spanish political arena, even when it comes to the European elections. 

According to the Spanish political arena and public opinion, it is highly likely that the ongoing arduous negotiations to form a local government among the political forces in Barcelona will sway the campaign for the EU vote on 9 June.  

The backbreaking negotiations have just started. The Catalan Socialists,PSC (a member of S&D in Strasbourg), have won, yet they did not reach sufficient seats to rule Catalonia. 

The separatist forces have lost their push. Yet, the party that suffered the strongest vote drain among the pro-independence forces is ERC (the Republican Left of Catalonia, affiliated to the Greens in the European Parliament), led by Pere Aragonès. 

The Republican Left of Catalonia has been supporting the central government led by Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez and temporarily put aside the original intention to secede by taking a negotiating approach with the government in Madrid.

In exchange, the centre-left and left executive granted amnesty to some of the secessionist leaders who organised the separatist referendum in 2017.

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, left, talks with Catalonia's President Pere Aragones during a meeting in Barcelona, Spain, Thursday, Dec. 21, 2023
Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, left, talks with Catalonia's President Pere Aragones during a meeting in Barcelona, Spain, Thursday, Dec. 21, 2023Emilio Morenatti/Copyright 2023 The AP. All rights reserved.

The Catalan question has been severely polarising the entire Spanish political arena and society since the referendum that was held despite the prohibition of the then-central government.   

Most of the Spaniards and Catalan loyalists who opposed the amnesty voted for the centre-right and the right.    

The Peoples' Party (PP) and Vox, both national loyalist parties, also had relative success in Catalonia. The PP is a member of the centre-right EPP (the European People's Party), and Vox is in the national-conservative ECR (European Conservatives and Reformists).  

The ups and downs of Pedro Sanchez's popularity were also related to the Catalan question.

The moderate conservatives and right-wing political forces' resolute stance against the socialist government's proposed amnesty for the organizers of the separatist referendum increased their popularity. 

The amnesty has not been implemented yet, but it would imply the opportunity for Catalan separatist leader Carles Puigdemont to return to Spain.  

Spain succeeded in watering down the Catalan crisis, also thanks to the clear rejection of the separatist option by the European Union institutions and the member states.   

Other polarising factors in Spain that have been influencing the EU vote are the farmers' discontent, gender and LGBTQ+ issues, and growing anti-migration sentiments -- all significant to the debates in Brussels. 

Who are Spanish parties' top choices?

The European elections are set to become crucial for the Spanish political forces and their future. 

According to the Euronews Polls Centre, the PP (Peoples' Party) is leading the voting intentions of the EU elections, even if it seems to be slowing down gently, by losing 0.3% compared with last March 2024. 

Catalan MEP Dolors Montserrat is the front-runner of the PP in the European elections. She served as minister of health in Mariano Rajoy's conservative government (PP-EPP) when Catalonia held the separatist referendum in 2017.   

The national-conservative Vox party chose a Catalan politician to top its ballot: Jorge Buxadé, a former member of the far-right group Falange Española — Jons_,_ a legacy of Francisco Franco's era.

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The moderate conservative's choice to present a Catalan front-runner is part of an operational move to gather as many votes as possible in Catalonia, which has a quite relevant demographic and electoral weight. 

It is also a strategy to politically challenge the autonomous region that is a traditional stronghold of regional nationalist parties, socialists and leftists.     

The PSOE (the Spanish Socialist Workers Party) of Pedro Sanchez has chosen a prominent politician as its front-runner for the European vote: Teresa Ribera, the current minister of the green transition. She is set to become the Spanish representative in the future European Commission. 

Spain's Minister for Ecological Transition Teresa Ribera attends a news conference at the COP28 U.N. Climate Summit, 2023,
Spain's Minister for Ecological Transition Teresa Ribera attends a news conference at the COP28 U.N. Climate Summit, 2023,Kamran Jebreili/Copyright 2023 The AP. All rights reserved.

The Catalan local nationalists' votes will distribute their seats among different groups in the European Parliament. Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya's few MEPs will be members of the Greens group, along with other Spanish local nationalist forces. 

Junts, the still alive and kicking separatist party of Carles Puigdemont, is part of the Non-Attached group. 

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If Puigdemont returned to Spain from his self-proclaimed exile, he could influence the voting intentions of the region.

"Yet, the amnesty decree is still to be signed by Pedro Sanchez. And it has many political implications that go well beyond the current Catalan talks and next June EU elections," says the conservative analyst Juan A Soto from Fortius Consulting. 

As for the Left, Sumar has lost some ground since March, the SuperPoll suggests. They are at 9% of the voting intentions. Its leader, Yolanda Díaz, has given Sumar's five or six potential MEPs the freedom to choose the group they would join between the Greens and the European Left. 

However, the political situation in Spain is still extremely fluid, and electoral opinions could undergo rapid changes in the upcoming weeks.

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