Spain suspends judicial reform plan that upset Brussels

Spain's government on Thursday froze its proposed controversial reform of a top legal body that critics including Brussels had warned could undermine the judicial system's independence.

Spain suspends judicial reform  plan that upset Brussels
File image of Spain's Supreme Court. Photo: AFP

The reform would have changed the way appointments are made to the General Council of the Judiciary (CGPJ) which is responsible for naming judges and ensuring the independence of both courts and judges.

“We are going to stop the clock on the reform of the CGPJ in order to reach an agreement with you,” Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said in parliament, addressing the right-wing opposition Popular Party (PP).

He did not specify how long that freeze would last.   

Known as Spain's legal watchdog, the CGPJ has 20 members — 12 judges or magistrates and eight lawyers or other jurists — elected by both chambers of the Cortes (parliament).

The reform would have affected the appointment of the 12 judges.   

The council's mandate expired in December 2018 but Sanchez has been unable to push through the appointments for lack of parliamentary support, notably from the PP.

Since then, it has been operating on an interim basis, prompting criticism from the European Union.

'Strong institutions' needed


Under the current legislation, the judges have been appointed by a three-fifths majority vote — which requires backing from the PP — but the judicial reform would have changed that to an absolute majority.

It was proposed by Sanchez's leftwing coalition as a way of circumventing the need for the PP's support.

Having the appointments approved by an absolute majority could allow the coalition to bypass the PP and chose judges of a certain ideological persuasion, whereas under the current system, all parties are compelled to compromise.

Alarm bells began ringing at the end of September when the European Commission singled out Spain in its report on the rule of law for not renewing CGPJ membership as it should have done two years ago.

And it stressed the importance of ensuring that the council “is not perceived as being vulnerable to politicisation”, in a clear nod to the necessary separation of executive and judicial powers.

Speaking to parliament on Thursday, Sanchez said his government would once again seek a compromise with the PP.   

“First and foremost, we need strong, legitimate institutions, so I am appealing to the entire House and particularly the party which has been blocking the renewal of these constitutional institutions,” he said in remarks directed at PP leader Pablo Casado.    

The current impasse is just one aspect of a bitter standoff between the Socialists and their hard-left coalition ally Podemos, and the PP, which started with the government's handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

The proposed reform had also sparked concern in part of the judiciary. 

Brussels watching carefully


European Commission spokesman Christian Wigand told AFP Brussels was following the developments in Spain “closely”.   

“Member states must follow EU standards to ensure that judicial independence is not compromised,” he said.

The European Association of Judges (EAJ) had also expressed “great concern” Spain was taking a step backwards with respect to the basic requirements for ensuring judicial independence.

Pushing through with the reform, it warned, would “increase the risk of undue political influence in the appointment of the members of the Judicial Council, damaging the perception of the society of an effective judicial

For Sanchez's government, the worry was that Spain could find itself compared to Hungary and Poland, which have been criticised by Brussels for trying to exert control over the judiciary.

But experts said Madrid should not be put in the same category as Warsaw or Budapest.

“Spain isn't Poland or Hungary,” said Pablo Castillo, an expert in law and political science at Sheffield University in northern England.    

Sanchez's proposal “is not going to lead to a collapse of the rule of law in Spain, although it's hardly supporting the independence of the judiciary,” he told AFP, while admitting the proposal “does echo things that have happened in these two countries”.   

“The question of judicial independence is not black or white, it's a question of nuance.”

By AFP's Marie Giffard

ANALYSIS: How Spain's judicial reform plan is raising a red flag in Brussels

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PROFILE: Spain’s Pedro Sánchez -a risk-taker with a flair for political gambles

Spain's Pedro Sánchez, who announced snap elections Monday May 29th after his ruling Socialists were routed in local polls, is a consummate risk-taker who's shown a flair for daring gambles during his rollercoaster political career.

PROFILE: Spain's Pedro Sánchez -a risk-taker with a flair for political gambles

Weakened by five turbulent years in power that covered the Covid pandemic and the economic crisis linked to the Ukraine war, Spain’s 51-year-old prime minister caught everyone off guard by announcing an early general election in late July.

The vote had been widely expected at the year’s end, but after his Socialists and their allies suffered a major blow in Sunday’s local polls, Sánchez took a risky gamble – in what observers said has been a hallmark of his career.

“The alternative was six months of governmental bloodletting,” said Oriol Bartomeus, a political scientist at Barcelona’s Autonomous University. “He’s decided to gamble it all. It’s typical Pedro Sánchez, it’s just what he does,” he told AFP.

It was, agrees Paloma Román, a political scientist at Madrid’s Complutense University, a “strategic calculation” to hang on for the next two months and improve what he already has. “For the Socialists, it’s the lesser of two evils… If they’d held out (until the year’s end) it would have been so much worse,” she said.

A Madrid-born economist and former basketball player, Sánchez went from being an unknown MP who emerged from obscurity in 2014 to seizing the reins of Spain’s oldest political party.

And he has enjoyed a rollercoaster political career.

Written off, bounces back

A leap-year baby who was born in Madrid on February 29th, 1972, Sánchez grew up in a well-off family, the son of an entrepreneur father and a mother who worked as a civil servant.

He studied economics before getting a Master’s degree in political economy at the Free University of Brussels and a doctorate from a private Spanish university.

Elected to the party leadership in 2014, Sánchez was written off politically after leading the Socialists to their worst-ever electoral defeats in 2015 and 2016.

Pedro Sánchez announced a snap election for July 23rd. Photo: Pau BARRENA / AFP

Ejected from the leadership, Sánchez unexpectedly won his job back in a primary in May 2017 after a cross-country campaign in his 2005 Peugeot to rally support.

Within barely a year, he took over as premier in June 2018 after an ambitious gamble that saw him topple conservative Popular Party leader Mariano Rajoy in a no-confidence vote.

“He is a politician who often makes these kinds of decisions,” said Bartomeus. “So far it’s mostly worked for him… although things are more complicated now,” he said, noting Sánchez had been weakened by his time in office.

Stubborn and tenacious

Always immaculately suited and booted, this telegenic politician – who likes to go running and looms over his rivals at 1.9 metres (6 foot 2 inches) tall – has made a name for himself as stubborn and tenacious.

Over the past five years, he has had to play a delicate balancing act to stay in power.

In February 2019, the fragile alliance of left-wing factions and pro-independence Basque and Catalan parties that had catapulted him to the premiership cracked, prompting him to call early elections.

Although his Socialists won, they fell short of an absolute majority, and Sánchez was unable to secure support to stay in power so he called a repeat election later that year.

Forced into a marriage of convenience with the hard-left Podemos, despite much gnashing of teeth inside his own party, Sánchez has managed to stay in power despite his coalition holding only a minority in parliament.

He has managed to push through a wide range of reforms clearly rooted in the left and overseen a government with the highest-ever number of women.

The first Spanish premier to speak English fluently since the country returned to democracy in the 1970s, Sánchez is married with two teenage daughters.

In February 2019, he detailed his triumphs in an autobiography called “Resistance Manual”, the first to be published in Spain by a sitting premier.