THE JUDICIARY

Spain defends its judicial reform plans despite warning from Brussels

Government says reducing the required majority to name members of the CGPJ legal watchdog will help unblock stalled appointments, but EU cautions against a risk of ‘politicization’

Spanish PM Pedro Sánchez (l) speaks with European Council President Charles Michel.
Spanish PM Pedro Sánchez (l) speaks with European Council President Charles Michel.YVES HERMAN / REUTERS

The European Commission has warned Spain against its plan to reform the way appointments are made to its judicial regulatory body, the General Council of the Judiciary (CGPJ). Brussels says the move could endanger judicial independence and exacerbate the impression that the Spanish judiciary may be “vulnerable to politicization.”

Speaking in Brussels on Friday, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez of the Socialist Party (PSOE) insisted that he will maintain the reform plans the way they stand unless the main opposition group in Spain, the conservative Popular Party (PP), agrees to sit down and negotiate the renewal of the legal watchdog. “If the PP uses the law to block the Constitution, the legislative branch has the obligation to modify the law in order to enforce the Constitution,” said Sánchez, alluding to the fact that the PP has been blocking new appointments for the past two years.

Sources at the European Commission queried by this newspaper declined to comment on Sánchez’s remarks, but warned that “our position is and continues to be very clear, as it was expressed on Thursday. We will continue to closely monitor the evolution of this matter.”

Sources at La Moncloa, the seat of government, said that Brussels has not understood the reform adequately, and that the Spanish executive will clarify how it wants to change the way members are elected to the body that oversees the independence of judges.

The reform would maintain the need for a three-fifths majority, but add the possibility of a second round of voting 48 hours later that would only require an absolute majority

The European Union has long been urging Spain to renew the membership of the CGJP, where appointments have been on hold since 2018 due to to insufficient parliamentary support. Under current legislation, appointments require a qualified majority of three-fifths of lawmakers in both chambers of parliament.

The reform would maintain the need for a three-fifths majority, but add the possibility of a second round of voting 48 hours later that would only require an absolute majority. In the 350-seat Congress, this would mean 176 affirmative votes in the second round instead of 210 required in the first.

Spain is under a minority government led by a center-left coalition of the Socialist Party (PSOE) and Unidas Podemos. The PP has been blocking CGPJ renewals for the last two years, and as a result the regulatory body has been exercising its functions ad interim since December 2018. The government argues that the reform would solve the problem of the stalled appointments, which the EU Commission itself has criticized.

Deeply concerned

But EU Commission sources said they are “deeply concerned” about the reform plans. “We were concerned about the lack of renewal of the CGPJ, but that doesn’t mean that you can do it any old way, bypassing all processes,” said one EU source.

This concern comes at a time when a new rule of law process is being negotiated in Brussels. Under the system, EU funds could be withheld from member states that violate fundamental European values. Until now, Hungary and Poland had been viewed as most at risk of being considered in violation of rule-of-law principles.

Now, the European executive is asking Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez to request an evaluation of his reform plan from the Venice Commission, an advisory body of the Council of Europe that assists countries on constitutional matters. This agency has in the past issued negative reports against judicial reforms in countries such as Poland.

“The reform of judicial systems in member states should always be done in consultation with all relevant parties, including the Venice Commission,” said Christian Wigand, the spokesman of the EU Commission’s justice department. “Member states must follow the EU’s standards to guarantee that judicial independence is not endangered.”

But the Spanish government is confident that its explanations will satisfy EU authorities, and blames the controversy on the PP, which has brought up the subject in Brussels as a priority affair. PP leader Pablo Casado was in the Belgian capital on Thursday to meet with members of the European People’s Party, and stated that the PP will take the issue of CGPJ reform to “the European institutions, the European courts, the Council of Europe.”

What the Sánchez administration is most angry about is the comparison with Poland and Hungary

Ciudadanos (Citizens), which is part of the liberal group Renew Europe in the European Parliament, said through its European leader Luis Garicano that they, too, oppose the reform plan. Garicano added that the move could endanger the funds earmarked for Spain by the EU coronavirus recovery fund.

What the Sánchez administration is most angry about is the comparison with Poland and Hungary, two countries that have been repeatedly sanctioned for violating judicial independence. The Spanish executive will now have to convince Brussels that its reform plans do no such thing.

English version by Susana Urra.

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