Spain’s legal watchdog boss quits over judicial deadlock

The head of Spain's legal watchdog resigned on Monday in protest over the long-running political deadlock that has paralysed appointments to this key judicial body.

Spain's legal watchdog boss quits over judicial deadlock
Spanish king Felipe VI (R) looks at Supreme Court's president Carlos Lesmes during the formal opening of the legal year at the Supreme Court in Madrid in 2018. (Photo by Angel Díaz / POOL / AFP)

The stalemate, which began nearly four years ago, has paralysed appointments to the 20-member General Council of the Judiciary (CGPJ) which is responsible for appointing judges and ensuring the judiciary’s independence.

The Council’s mandate expired in December 2018 and it has since been operating on an interim basis because the ruling Socialists and the right-wing opposition Popular Party (PP) can’t agree on its makeup.

The deadlock has caused increasing problems in the functioning of the Spanish court system.

Carlos Lesmes, who has served as CGPJ head since 2013, formally resigned on Monday in protest at the ongoing situation.

In a statement, the watchdog said Lesmes, who was also head of Spain’s Supreme Court, had informed King Felipe VI “of his desire to immediately resign from his legal duties.”

In a statement announcing his intention to resign, released on Sunday, Lesmes said he had “lost all hope of change” and that staying any longer in his position “would only mean my complicity with a situation that I abhor, and which is unacceptable”.   

His decision was taken “out of respect” for the dignity of Spain’s legal institutions and judges “who rightly expected that the (politicians) representing them don’t remain indifferent about a situation that seriously compromises the credibility and functioning of the entire judiciary”.

Lesmes’ resignation had been on the cards for several weeks, as he sought to force a resolution to the political tug-of-war which has seen the two parties blaming each other for the stalemate.

Following his announcement, Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez held three hours of emergency talks on Monday with opposition leader Alberto Núñez Feijóo.

Known as Spain’s legal watchdog, the CGPJ has 20 members — 12 judges or magistrates and eight lawyers or other jurists — who must be elected by a three-fifths majority in Spain’s parliament.

But since its mandate expired in late 2018, Sanchez has been unable to push through appointments for lack of parliamentary support, notably from the PP.

Brussels has repeatedly chastised Spain over the impasse, with EU Justice Commissioner Didier Reynders urging both sides to ensure the CGPJ’s mandate was renewed “without delay” on a visit to Madrid late last month.

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How Spain’s PM Pedro Sánchez is set to become ‘King of the Socialists’

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez will on Friday become president of an international socialist grouping encompassing 132 countries, a potential springboard to a major post on the world stage.

How Spain's PM Pedro Sánchez is set to become 'King of the Socialists'

A year before a general election in Spain, which polls suggest he will struggle to win, Sánchez is the only candidate to head the Socialist International (SI) — an umbrella group of 132 centre-left parties from around the world.

The telegenic 50-year-old will take over the reins of the SI, which is gathering in Madrid this weekend, from former Greek prime minister George Papandreou.

“While symbolic… this post could be a way (for Sánchez) to regain credit among voters by presenting himself as influential on the world stage,” said Pablo Simón, political science professor at the Carlos III University.

“But it also could be that he plans on capitalising on this network of international contacts” which the post offers to “play a prominent role later” in a top global body, he added.

Former Portuguese prime minister Antonio Guterres led the International Socialist before he went on to head the United Nations refugee agency in 2005 and then become UN secretary general in 2017.

“All prime ministers who love foreign affairs have a tendency to look for an international post to secure a post-governmental career,” said Teneo Intelligence analyst Antonio Barroso.

‘More weight’

Sánchez has made international affairs a priority since he came to power in June 2018, in contrast to his conservative predecessor Mariano Rajoy, and has sought to boost Spain’s influence in the European Union.

Within days of taking office, Sánchez made international headlines by agreeing to take in migrants from the Aquarius rescue ship who were rejected by other European nations.

The first modern Spanish premier to speak English fluently, Sánchez served as chief of staff to the UN high representative to Bosnia during the Kosovo conflict.

He has fostered good relations with France and Germany, which has made Spain “one of the engines of European politics”, said Simon, citing as an example Madrid’s lead in talks over the energy crisis sparked by the war in Ukraine.

Spain’s Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez and his wife Maria Begoña Gómez Fernández arrive for the welcoming dinner during the G20 Summit in Badung on the Indonesian resort island of Bali on November 15th, 2022. (Photo by WILLY KURNIAWAN / POOL / AFP)

Sánchez successfully lobbied to have his foreign minister, Josep Borrell, appointed as European Union foreign policy chief in 2019.

“Spain has much more weight in the European Union debate than 10 years ago,” said Barroso, adding the premier had “boosted Spain’s credibility” with its “European partners”.

Beyond the EU, Sánchez hosted a crucial NATO summit in Madrid in June, just four months after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and has “reconnected” with Latin America, which has shifted to the left in recent years, said Simon,

Sánchez visited four Latin American countries in August 2018, his first official trip outside Europe, in what was seen as an effort to underscore the region as a priority of his foreign policy.

With Biden and Macron

During the recent G20 summit in Indonesia, Sánchez posted a photo of himself meeting German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, French President Emmanuel Macron, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and US President Joe Biden.

Seen as an attempt to burnish his credentials on international affairs, the photo was much mocked on social media.

But Ignacio Molina, a senior analyst at the Elcano Royal Institute think tank, said he believes Sánchez’s priority is to remain Spanish prime minister after the general election, which is expected at the end of 2023.

The speculation about a possible senior role for Sánchez at a global body comes from Spain’s opposition parties, which have “spread the idea that he uses international meetings to prepare his future in case of an electoral defeat next year”, Molina said.

“I don’t think he’s deliberately developing an international network for personal reasons. It’s more because he’s at ease in European politics, where he faces less opposition.”