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Why the judicial blockade is Spain’s main talking point right now

The Local Spain
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Why the judicial blockade is Spain’s main talking point right now
Spain's Supreme Court in Madrid in 2019. Photo: J. J. GUILLEN/AFP.

After a controversial few months in Spain, the political polarisation seems to have moved onto a new battlefield: unblocking the judiciary.

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Following Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez's controversial re-election on the back of an amnesty deal with Catalan separatists in November, much of the political coverage in Spain has now moved onto another issue: deadlock on Spain's General Council of the Judiciary (CGPJ) and the inability to renew its mandate, something that expired five years ago.

The five year deadlock far exceeds the previous record, which was just a year and ten months, during the council between 2001-2008.

The expired mandate, what to do about and, of course, the politics of it all, has divided judges and prosecutors' associations across the country, as well as creating a new front on the ongoing political battle between Sánchez’s Socialists (PSOE) and the Partido Popular (PP).

READ ALSO: Who's who in Spain's new government?

Renewing the CGPJ's mandate has become a major talking point in Spain in recent weeks, with political divides looming over the process and even the EU keeping an eye on developments.

What's happening?

The CGPJ is the constitutional body that governs the Spanish judiciary. It was last constituted with its customary 20 members, as required by law, on 4th December 2013. The sitting members are decided by Spanish politicians: 10 by the Congress of Deputies, and 10 by the Senate.

Usually the body has a five-year term, meaning that its renewal should have been done in 2018, but no agreement between the PSOE and PP was ever made, so the court continued as it was.

Monday 4th December 2023 marked five years since the CGPJ mandate expired, and ten years since it was first constituted. Following the deaths, retirements and resignations of several members, the council is now only made up of 16 members rather than the customary 20.

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Why is it blocked?

In a word: politics, and how the judges are elected to the council. As you might've noticed, Spanish politics has been exceptionally fraught and divided in recent weeks and months, with thousands taking to the streets in protest against Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez and his amnesty deal.

READ ALSO: Thousands protest Spain's separatist amnesty law

CGPJ members must be elected by the Congress and Senate with 3/5 majorities in both houses. Without an agreement between the PSOE and PP, who have discussed this issue on as many as five occasions since 2018, re-electing and renewing the CGPJ mandate will not be possible. There is also no willingness on the part of existing judges to resign en masse, something many suggest would force a renewal.

Clearly, the political context has compounded the blockage on the council. Members of the CGPJ described the amnesty law as “a grave violation of the separation of powers” and the “erosion, if not the abolition, of the rule of law,” and the body is viewed by many as a conservative force in Spanish society.

The PSOE has publicly committed to reaching an agreement to renew the council. PP leader Alberto Núñez Feijóo has not refused to negotiate, but remains firm that any agreement will be conditional on "a prior change in the system of election of judges."

According to El País, "all those [sources] consulted... agree in attributing the greatest responsibility to Feijóo's party, although some blame the PSOE for a 'lack of strategy' in closing the pacts that were almost made."

Feijóo has stated that Sánchez's goal "is not to renew the CGPJ, but to control the members of the council.”

Clearly, with Spanish politics still so bitterly divided over the election and amnesty deal, an agreement that can garner the support of a 3/5 majority seems unlikely for now.

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How can it be solved?

There doesn't really seem to be an easy solution to this problem while Spanish politics remains so polarised.

Some have suggested a block resignation of all members of the council, arguing that that would allow a for complete reset of the body and its mandate, while others question whether such a drastic measure is really effective and insist that the council falls "prey" to the lack of political agreement in Congress and instead are calling for a change in how the judges are elected.

The Progressive Union of Prosecutors (UPF) and Judges for Democracy made a joint statement on Monday calling for a block resignation.

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What does the EU think?

The issue is not only of interest in Spain. EU officials have also reportedly been keeping abreast of the CGPJ deadlock. Spain’s Minister of the Presidency, Relations with Parliament and Democratic Memory, Félix Bolaños, recently met with European Justice Commissioner, Didier Reynders, in Brussels.

Though they were discussing the amnesty law, regarding the renewal of the CGPJ, Bolaños told the press that the body's renewal is a matter of "maximum concern" in Europe. Reynders noted that, as European officials had already described in a 2022 report on the rule of law in Spain, it must be a "priority" to renew the council and once it is carried out, "a reform in accordance with European standards" must be made.

The commissioner said that renewing the CGPJ mandate before the general election was not "possible", but that now "the debate" must begin to try to achieve that renewal. A point on which, he confirmed, "the Commission will continue to insist."

"After five years it's very urgent," Reynders added.

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