‘A new era’: What Catalonia’s regional elections mean for Spain and the European Union

On May 12, Catalonia voted for its first non-separatist regional government since 2010. “Catalans have decided to begin a new era,” proclaimed Salvador Illa of the Catalan Socialist Party (PSC), which won forty-two of the 135 seats in the Catalan parliament, enough to oust the combined forces of the separatist parties but not enough to govern alone.

The consequences of the vote—and the future horse-trading for a regional governing coalition and president in the Catalan parliament before August—will extend far beyond the regional level. Given the weight that Catalonia carries in Spanish and European Union (EU) politics, the results and fallout of the May 12 elections will have massive implications for Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez’s national coalition government, which includes Catalan separatist parties; the upcoming European Parliament elections in June; and the EU’s foreign policy agenda going forward.

A setback for Catalan separatism?

The election results pose a political conundrum for Sánchez. The victory of the PSC, a direct affiliate of Sánchez’s national-level Socialist Party (PSOE), should by all logic be cause for celebration in the Moncloa Palace. Some have called the PSC’s victory a vindication of the prime minister’s strategy to pacify separatist forces in Catalonia and “turn the page” for the region’s politics by taking a more conciliatory approach toward the Catalan independence movement.

Indeed, Illa and the PSC won on a popular platform that prioritized issues such as the cost of living, housing availability, and drought in the region, rather than the longstanding debate over secession from Spain. However, despite their electoral defeat, the separatist bloc in Catalonia will still likely be a source of sustained headaches for Sánchez in Madrid as well as the next Catalan government in Barcelona.

At the national level, Sánchez has staked his minority coalition on the support of numerous small regional parties from across Spain, including the Basque Country’s own pro-independence party, EH Bildu. From Catalonia, Sánchez’s national coalition includes both the Republican Left (ERC) and Together for Catalonia (Junts), which are the region’s largest separatist parties, each holding seven seats in Spain’s lower house of parliament.

Bringing these parties into the coalition government has proven a tumultuous gamble for Sánchez. To secure their support in parliament after the 2023 general elections and form a majority over the center-right People’s Party (PP), which won the most seats, Sánchez passed a controversial amnesty law in 2023 to pardon hundreds of individuals involved in the illegal Catalan independence referendum of 2017—possibly including Junts leader Carles Puigdemont, who has been living in Belgium to avoid prosecution. On May 30, after months of deliberations, Spain’s parliament approved the amnesty law in its final form by a margin of five votes, which Sánchez and the PSOE celebrated as a milestone for “political, social, and institutional normalization” in Catalonia.

And, in an otherwise unprompted move while seeking coalition partners in September 2023, Sánchez went to Brussels and proposed that Catalan, Gallego, and Euskara—minority languages with co-official status in their respective regions in Spain—be granted official legal status in EU institutions. The proposal was shot down by member states, at least temporarily, but Sánchez’s message to regional nationalist parties at home was clear.

Despite these concessions, however, Sánchez was rebuked when Junts refused to support the PSOE’s legislative package in January 2024, which included measures to combat inflation and access ten billion euros of EU funds for Spain. Junts ultimately lifted its opposition to the legislation—through abstention, not approval—only after Catalonia was granted “comprehensive” authority over the region’s immigration policy. Junts even voted against earlier iterations of Sánchez’s Catalan amnesty bill, arguing it did not go far enough to protect Catalans indicted for terrorism in the 2017 referendum.

The defeat of Junts and the ERC in Catalonia’s elections could trigger further coalition infighting at the national level in Spain, which could cause pro-independence parties to barter for greater regional autonomy by blocking future PSOE legislative proposals. And, importantly, now with the amnesty law’s passage through parliament on May 30, the ERC and Junts have already indicated the possibility of a new referendum on independence, which would be the ultimate backfire for Sánchez.

Rightward shift in Barcelona, Madrid, and Brussels

Another revelation of the May 12 elections in Catalonia is the momentum of Spain’s right-wing politics. The PP performed historically well in the Catalan region, winning fifteen seats—up from just three seats held in the previous legislature and its best results since 2012.

At the national level, as well, PP leader Alberto Núñez Feijóo has become a prominent anti-Sánchez voice for many centrist and conservative voters in Spain. He repeatedly criticizes the prime minister’s coalition politics with Junts and ERC as being cynical and politically motivated. He also participated personally in the widespread protests in Madrid against the amnesty bill in November 2023 and called on Brussels to take action against the legislation, claiming it breaches EU norms for the rule of law.

Mirroring trends across Europe, far-right parties Catalan Alliance and Vox also performed well on May 12, which will surely cause problems for Illa and the PSC in the region’s parliament. Ahead of the European Parliament elections in June, Vox in particular is enjoying a surge in support beyond its base in Andalucía, polling nationally at 11 percent—a significant boost compared to the 6.2 percent of votes won in 2019’s EU contest.

Vox has recently joined the center stage of the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) group in the European Parliament, pushing for a rightward paradigm shift in Brussels alongside Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy and Poland’s Law and Justice Party. Ahead of the EU elections starting on June 6, current polls predict that Spain’s left-wing parties belonging to the Renew Europe and Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats groups will lose substantial ground, while Spanish members of the European Parliament (MEP) from the ECR and especially the European People’s Party, which includes Spain’s PP, could nearly double their seat count.

What next for Catalonia and Europe?

Puigdemont claimed that an electoral defeat for the party on May 12 would signal his withdrawal from politics altogether and that he had “a right to get some rest after these very difficult years.” However, Catalonia could yet see another round of elections in October if the PSC is unable to form a majority coalition of sixty-eight seats in the Catalan parliament and vote for a new president by August 25, which is the deadline set by the outgoing president, Pere Aragonès of the ERC. To meet this deadline, the PSC will require the backing of either the opposition-minded ERC or an unlikely mix of the far-left Sumar alliance alongside the PP and Vox on the opposite side of the aisle.

While another round of elections would be cumbersome for Catalans, whose low voter turnout of 57.9 percent on May 12 indicates little electoral appetite, this could see a return of Puigdemont to the podium—perhaps even on Catalan soil, following the approval of the amnesty law on May 30.

There could yet be more distant reverberations in Europe following Catalonia’s election results. The removal of Catalan pro-independence parties from power in the region could influence EU foreign policy and, specifically, enlargement.

With renewed wind behind its sails since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, European enlargement could see new progress from the EU if Spain lifts its official nonrecognition of Kosovo, which is largely born out Madrid’s concern over the Catalan separatist movement. Madrid’s official recognition of the Palestinian state on May 28 should logically also open new doors for the recognition of Kosovo, whose political institutions, regional relations, and territorial integrity have, despite recent shortcomings, long been ready for such a move by Madrid.

For the EU to make progress on its enlargement goals, Spain and the four other holdout member states will need to recognize Kosovo’s independence. It was a step in the right direction for Spain to recognize Kosovo passports in January this year, allowing Kosovars to travel throughout the EU’s Schengen area visa-free. Spain should build on this progress by extending recognition to Kosovo’s state sovereignty, as it did for Palestine, to move the ball forward on this critical priority for European and transatlantic foreign policy.

The full implications of the PSC’s victory and the seeming defeat of Catalan separatist political forces on May 12 are still uncertain. Nationally, a recalcitrant Junts and ERC could render Sánchez “a prisoner of his own associates,” as Vox MEP Jorge Buxadé Villalba has described him and as the separatist parties have already proven capable of doing. A worst-case scenario for Sánchez would be a collapse of his coalition and a call for new general elections in Spain, as Feijóo advocated after the May 30 amnesty law approval.

In Catalonia, despite the amnesty law’s passage, the process of coalition-building and king-making in Barcelona could yet prove fruitless and result in fresh regional elections come October. By then, with a new EU administration after June’s European Parliament elections, Catalonia’s “new era” could look just as tumultuous as before.

Stuart Jones is a program assistant at the Atlantic Council’s Europe Center.

Further reading

Image: The Secretary General of the PSOE and President of the Government, Pedro Sánchez (left), and the leader of the PSC and the party's candidate for the Presidency of the Generalitat, Salvador Illa (right), during an event of the PSC, at the Palau de Congressos de Catalunya, on May 18, 2024, in Barcelona, Catalonia (Spain). The event takes place a few days after Salvador Illa's victory in the Catalan elections of 12M and a few weeks before the European elections, for which the third vice-president and minister for Ecological Transition, Teresa Ribera, is the PSOE candidate. May 18, 2024. Alberto Paredes / Europa Press.